It’s ‘what if?’ week at SBNation, with blogs across the network looking back at crucial crossroads in their team’s history, for good or ill. Here at RBM, we go back two years ago this week, when Sam Allardyce departed Everton after arresting lingering relegation fears in 2017-18.
Exit stage left: a Big Sam. After five dreary yet perversely successful months, Sam Allardyce’s Everton departure eventually proved as inevitable as a Park End grumble at a sideways pass or a child in the Family Enclosure being the recipient of a Jordan Pickford goal kick.
No tears were shed, no eulogies written. Just another eye-watering sum of compensation shelled out from the club, and from the fans perhaps a grudging recognition of a job fairly well done and the bare minimum met with games to spare, but above else, a collective and hearty sigh of extreme relief, free at last from footballing imprisonment.
But first, a word from the sober head of context. Fresh from the most lavish retooling of an Everton squad in the club’s history, Ronald Koeman proceeded to degenerate a side that in his first year shown plenty of green shoots of encouragements, if a little rough round the edges. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, for instance, playing Dominic Calvert-Lewin at right-wing-back, or playing Cuco Martina at all, proved as dunderheaded on grass as on paper. The Dutchman left Everton 18th after nine games following a period of ghastly football which yielded few results. Allardyce’s style of play, though just as wretched, was at least good for the odd one-goal victory. Indeed, their eventual eighth-placed finish looked like nosebleed territory for some time.
Beyond that, though, the charge sheet against him was damning and seemingly endless. This, by Allardyce’s own admission, was a break from tradition for the Premier League’s own gun for hire; the chance to truly prove himself as more than a specialist in escapology. Yet Everton were essentially safe by January and reached the holy grail of 40 points with seven games to spare in 2017-18, but there was no trace of evolution or even ambition in the meat-and-potatoes (with a side of gravy, of course) playing style throughout.
True, Everton predictably solidified under him - though how they could have stooped lower from shipping nine goals in two games in the week prior to his November arrival is unimaginable - but nothing inspired. Stoic pre-Christmas draws at home to Chelsea and at Liverpool may have signalled improvement from being pummelled 5-2 by Arsenal and 4-0 by Manchester United, but felt like watching re-runs of that old Simpsons episode where Homer is mercilessly battered in a boxing match but fails to be knocked out.
Not until their third league game of 2018 did Everton register a shot on target; a speculative effort from Jonjoe Kenny which drew its fair share of sarcastic applause. Meanwhile, Allardyce’s riposte after a 4-0 mauling at Tottenham was, unbelievably, for his side to be even more boring, labelled a truly awful 1-1 draw at relegated Swansea a great point, and will perhaps be remembered more than anything for readying a defensive midfielder in Morgan Schneiderlin to see out a 0-0 draw at Watford. Only for Troy Deeney to then score the Hornets’ winner moments later.
Players seemed largely united with fans in their aversion to Allardyce, too. Nikola Vlasic, a young talent ostracised by the manager, blasted the awful football churned out during his tenure. Ademola Lookman left Everton as a similar case of untapped potential due in no small part to Allardyce’s mismanagement. He emphatically rejected the notion of bedding in Davy Klaassen in favour of indulging the overstretched Wayne Rooney or a pariah like Schneiderlin. Even Oumar Niasse, who defied the egg-faced Koeman to end a season he began in exile as Everton’s second-highest scorer with nine, was tried to be offloaded in January. In the end, something had to give.
Yet inevitably, not least when you have as many friends in mainstream media as Allardyce does, sympathy has arisen for the 65-year-old in what remains the latest chapter in his managerial career. A man tasked with ending the season higher than 18th finished eighth. Since then, Everton have finished eighth again, dispensed with another manager in Marco Silva after re-occupying the relegation zone and look on course for another middling season that Carlo Ancelotti has done his best to salvage. If nothing else, jettisoning Allardyce did not set in motion a great change in fortunes by any stretch of the imagination. To seemingly condemn him to a lifetime of talkSPORT morning shifts and ‘An Evening With...’ appearances may feel like scant reward given his remit.
One such issue with Allardyce, shallow as it may seem, boils down to mere aesthetics. Farhad Moshiri’s infatuation with and later appointment of Silva may have proved as misguided as many predicted, but it is an inescapable truism of modern football that certain footballers are likelier to want to play for a Portuguese Colin Farrell lookalike than a man from Dudley whose forename is perpetually prefixed by the word ‘Big’. Would Richarlison, so pivotal to Ancelotti’s plans now, have been enticed by the prospect of joining a side who created the least chances of any side in the Premier League following Allardyce’s appointment? André Gomes? Bernard? 2018’s answer to Kevins Nolan or Davies may have been perfectly fine, but forgive Evertonians, starved of silverware for a quarter of a century now, for setting their sights a little higher.
Similarly, in a world where glass ceilings and financial disparity serve to curb the enthusiasm at as many as 14 Premier League clubs, greater onus is, rightly or wrongly, placed on the need to entertain. Such victories under Silva as the 3-1 win over Brighton, the 4-0 pounding of Man Utd or the home triumphs against Arsenal and Chelsea felt like anathema to Allardyce, and showed that even in the empty vessel of upper-mid-table, more fun can be had than doggedly grinding out results. If nothing else, it relocated a fan base’s pulse again, at least for a little while. It is that age-old ‘Are you not entertained?’ conundrum that ultimately did for Tony Pulis at Stoke and Alan Curbishley at Charlton; two managers who had garnered infinitely more goodwill at their respective clubs than Allardyce could ever have hoped for from the Everton faithful.
For Everton may have finished at least eighth again under Allardyce had he been given the keys to another summer war chest, but as fundamentally flawed as the Blues were for much of Silva’s reign, this would have been far more monotonous, and far more ruinous to a club whose fan base were disenfranchised enough before Allardyce’s own arrival. In the 2-0 home win over Burnley under Silva in May 2019, for instance, it took Everton 23 minutes to muster ten shots. There was a period in Allardyce’s tenure that the same feat took ten games to materialise. Silva’s demise and departure does not discredit this statistic, either, nor does it render the decision to cut ties with Allardyce any less vindicated.
If we are forced to temper our dreams as football fans, then there must be something to cling to, something that triggers a surge of blood to the head or a coo of pure delight. The Bundesliga this weekend has shown that football without fans can still be something, though football without feeling truly is nothing. Ancelotti inherited a similar mess from Silva to that which Allardyce picked up from Koeman, but has at least ticked this box so far in nurturing the newly-prolific Calvert-Lewin (or ‘Calvert-Llewellyn’ as Allardyce called him), redefining Richarlison as a potent number nine, and even smaller victories like sometimes getting a tune out of the much-maligned Schneiderlin, for example.
And so, despite their subsequent toils, there should never be any revisionism of Everton’s treatment of Allardyce, a necessary evil who was relinquished the moment he no longer became necessary and remunerated handsomely for his troubles.
Indeed, if there was any crime in this whole facade, it was that after receiving the sort of job he had long been overtly craving, Big Sam could not find it within himself to dream a little bigger.