Survival is what Sam Allardyce does best and when asked to explain the key to a managerial career that reaches 1,000 games on Saturday, the 63-year-old Everton boss reached for the appropriate word by way of explanation.
“Survival is the first thing on your mind and survival is about understanding what’s needed at that football club with the players you have at your disposal,” he told a news conference on Friday ahead of his side’s Premier League match against West Bromwich Albion.
Whether that alone explains the unique status Allardyce has built in the English game is open to doubt. Fireman Sam, as he has become known after saving countless clubs from relegation, is a manager sought after by chairmen but often bated by supporters for his tactics.
At Goodison Park, he will become the 31st figure of the modern era to reach the 1,000-game milestone, according to the League Managers Association (LMA), and fourth currently managing in the Premier League after Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson.
But Allardyce stands alone in overseeing seven Premier League clubs — Bolton, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Sunderland and Crystal Palace are the others — as well as, briefly and controversially, the England national team.
“I’m not the same person I was when I started. I’ve done many things over the years to modify and adjust as a manager. To stay ahead of the game has been one of my main priorities. Results are what keep you in the job,” he said.
Bizarrely, Allardyce received his managerial break via a phone call from a Catholic priest in 1991. After a journeyman career as a centrehalf, the then 36-year-old was contacted by Father Joe Young, chairman of Irish club Limerick about becoming player-manager after being released from Bury’s coaching staff through lack of funds.
The new job included taking the begging bowl round tumble-down terraces to raise money to play the players, a world away from the 20 million pound ($28 million) deal he struck this week to bring Theo Walcott to Everton.
But through three decades, and 11 jobs, Allardyce has always moved with the times.
“We want to not follow anybody else, we want to be at the forefront. To experience so many different clubs with so many different coaches has been amazing. I haven’t worked since I left school. This is a continuation of a lovely way to spend my time,” he said on Friday.
If Allardyce’s celebrations have been muted this week, they reflect last week’s disastrous 4-0 defeat in the league at Tottenham Hotspur, a performance that reignited some criticism on Merseyside about his appointment.
Even though Everton have risen up the table, Allardyce remains a divisive figure, in his eyes unfairly branded as a long-ball specialist best suited at working with limited players. In his defence, he points out that he once signed the outrageously gifted Jay Jay Okocha at Bolton and has been ahead of the game in pioneering modern dietary and analytical techniques.
“A lot of stuff I’ve implemented has come from outside the game. We could all go round football clubs and see what they do but there’s something out there, in some other sport, that can take you forward,” he said.
This week Everton players were each shown individual videos of their performances against Spurs. “We can clip all the clips out and show the players in the analysis room where and why they went wrong to make sure that doesn’t occur yet again,” he added.
For all his obvious delight at being inducted in the LMA Hall of Fame 1000 Club, Allardyce knows this year should have been very different.
Had he not been caught in a newspaper sting in which he appeared to encourage the breaking of FA rules on transfers, he might have been preparing for a World Cup in Russia as England manager. Instead he was sacked, a moment he describes as his darkest in football, and forced back into league management.
Not everyone welcomed him back but few would argue that he is well suited to the hurly burly environment.