As featured on Guardian Sport
The Premier League doesn’t like upstarts. When a club from outside of English football’s elite declares itself fit to challenge the established order, they are hurriedly batted back down while their squad is picked apart. With their finest talent departed, they are left to fight on the back foot once more.
Sam Allardyce was once considered to be one such upstart. As manager of Bolton Wanderers, he led the club to heights not seen since the days when Nat Lofthouse spearheaded their attack. Allardyce and his Bolton side were the worst kind of upstarts. Their success was earned on their own terms; what they did was unique and could not be appropriated by the bigger clubs.
With a pragmatic and effective style of football that didn’t necessarily care much for aesthetics, the success of Bolton – particularly from 2003 to 2007 – led to a negative narrative that has followed Allardyce to this day. He is linked, rightly or wrongly, with resultism: a term that garners only fleeting appreciation in these days of short-passing idealism.
With the predominant view that efficiency is somehow a primal desire, Allardyce has often been mocked as a throwback – a relic whose ideals cannot survive amid the utopian dreams of many modern Premier League clubs, for whom the result is no longer enough. For those that hold such an opinion, it is unclear whether Big Sam was modelled on Mike Basset: England manager or vice versa. There is even a parody Twitter account based on Allardyce that extols exotic phrases and faux-inspirational quotes, the likes of which would never be uttered by the man himself.
Such a trivial public portrait belies the reality of Allardyce’s achievements. While grounded in realism, his time as manager of Bolton is one of the most intriguing stories in Premier League history. The style of football may not have been engrossing, but its effects were. The club was going places with a surprisingly cohesive mixture of international stars, journeymen and outcasts. Meanwhile, off the pitch, the club was undergoing change more progressive than the football itself may have let on. It was audacious and, in many ways, visionary.
Allardyce played for the Bolton team that won the Second Division title in 1978, gaining promotion to English football’s top tier after more than a decade in the lower leagues. He then moved on to various other English club sides, though it was a short spell abroad that left a lasting impact on an impressionable Allardyce. In his late 20s he ventured to the US to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Soccer was growing but infantile in this part of the world and imports played a huge role in its development, as they do to this day. However, on this occasion, it was the import who would learn most from this particular sojourn.
The Rowdies shared their ground with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL team, and it was through the Buccaneers that Allardyce glimpsed into the future of his own sport. With his curiosity regarding American Football’s use of technology piqued, and a growing recognition of the benefits of extreme detail, Allardyce returned to England to play out the rest of his career.
The 1999/2000 season had barely begun and Colin Todd had already had enough. Per Frandsen, one of Bolton’s best players, had been sold without his consent. To make matters worse, the Danish midfielder left for Lancastrian rivals and fellow Premier League hopefuls, Blackburn Rovers. Todd, who had guided Bolton to promotion once before, resigned. In his place came Allardyce, returning to the club he had served as a player.
Allardyce’s initial steps at the helm were positive. He had a solid Nordic core, including Jussi Jääskeläinen, Guðni Bergsson and Eiður Guðjohnsen, as well as frenetic Jamaican Ricardo Gardner. It was the bones of a good team, and it took Bolton to semi-finals on all counts that season, with the club exiting at this stage in the league playoffs, Worthington Cup and FA Cup.
Next season, bolstered by the signing of a young Michael Ricketts and the flourishing development of youth-team graduate Kevin Nolan, Allardyce would relive an accomplishment of his playing days, securing Bolton’s promotion to the English top-flight in his first full campaign in charge. Just missing out on automatic promotion, they comfortably disposed of David Moyes’ Preston in the play-off final.
Bolton’s return to the Premier League was an uphill task, but it would be significantly aided by off-field modernisation and ideas that most top English clubs were not yet utilising. Allardyce had instigated sweeping changes behind the scenes, laying crucial groundwork inspired by his time in Tampa.
Prozone was a young but growing sports analysis firm that had first made inroads into English football with Derby, where a young Steve McClaren used it before he was brought to Manchester United by Alex Ferguson midway through the 1998/99 season. As assistant manager at Old Trafford, McClaren insisted the club use Prozone. In return, Prozone insisted upon receiving a fee of £50,000 if Manchester United picked up a trophy that season. They won the treble.
Not long after, but at a lower level, Allardyce began to consult Prozone at Bolton. The use of such technology was rare in English football at the time and very few managers used it to supplement their strategy, as Allardyce did. He developed a system of play based around what he called “the fantastic four”. These were tenets of the game he had found through data analysis that would serve Bolton well in their fight for Premier League survival and beyond.
Bolton had to stop the opposition from scoring in at least 16 of their 38 league games to avoid relegation; if Bolton scored first they had a 70 per cent chance of winning; set-pieces accounted for almost 33 per cent of all goals scored; in-swinging crosses were more effective than out-swingers; and they had an 80 per cent chance of avoiding defeat if they outran their opposition at speeds above 5.5m per second.
The system was almost comedically precise, but it worked. Through the meticulous study of matches, Allardyce was able to organise his team to achieve maximum efficiency on the pitch. It may sound robotic, but he literally had exact positions for players to gain the best possible chance of scoring. This knowledge was applied primarily to throw-ins, free-kicks and corners, where Allardyce placed great emphasis on something called POMO, or “Position of Maximum Opportunity”. If a player failed to appear in the required position for one of Bolton’s famed long throw-ins, he would not forget it in a hurry. Allardyce would make sure he knew a scoring opportunity had been passed up.
Nowadays, most Premier League clubs use Prozone as a method of scouting, tactical planning and assessing past performances. Allardyce’s Bolton led the way in changing how English football and data correlated. The game has historically been viewed as one of the heart: a sport of emotion, love and trust. Allardyce’s ideals may not have echoed with those romantic notions, but they worked and in so doing proved those notions to be wrong. English football began to be self-conscious in new ways. It was now a game of the head, a science; a problem to be solved, and Allardyce wanted to solve it.
Under the tutelage of Allardyce and his innovative principles, Bolton stayed up. In 2002 and 2003 the club finished 16th and 17th. For most, this would warrant a hearty pat on the back for a job complete, but the next four years would be some of the most memorable in the club’s history as they tore at the English football hierarchy. Allardyce wasn’t satisfied with mere survival, he wanted to grow. It wasn’t his data use that garnered the most enthusiastic of raised eyebrows, however.
It was early 2002 and Youri Djorkaeff had fallen out with Andreas Brehme. In a clash of football icons of differing eras, Djorkaeff, the player, was forced to desist by Brehme, his manager at German club Kaiserslautern. The Frenchman had his contract terminated and, with six months until the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, he was without a club. The race to sign one of the most prominent French talents of a generation was on and the winners, to everyone’s disbelief, were Bolton.
Some fans thought a cruel joke was being played as the news broke. A French international at the Reebok? Stop it. A strange juxtaposition it may have been, but Djorkaeff, less than two years removed from aiding France to European Championship success, would wear a Bolton shirt. His arrival was a catalyst, galvanising a team rooted to the bottom of the league as they forced themselves clear of the relegation zone. With Premier League survival achieved, Djorkaeff would fulfil another personal ambition as he made his way to East Asia that summer to represent France for the last time.
An intelligent and creative attacking midfielder, Djorkaeff wasn’t the only Frenchman to arrive at Bolton that season. Bruno N’Gotty had joined at the beginning of the campaign on loan from Marseille. A strong and aerially dominant centre-half, N’Gotty had class seen only in defenders of high calibre. Initially uncertain of joining Bolton, he made his loan deal permanent come the end of that season and remained with the club as it ascended up the league table in subsequent years.
This outward-looking and ambitious transfer policy also produced the six-month loan of out-of-form German international striker Fredi Bobic, whose hat-trick in the 4-1 rout of Ipswich put Bolton six points clear of the relegation zone with four games left. Bobic wouldn’t stay as long as Djorkaeff and N’Gotty, but all three were synonymous with a momentous shift in Bolton’s standing within English football.
At the beginning of the next season, Allardyce convinced Iván Campo to swap the white of Real Madrid for the white of Bolton in yet another coup. Only two summers before Campo had started for Real Madrid in the Champions League final as they beat Valencia 3-0. With his long, curly hair he was an eccentric to most, but Campo possessed the skill, passion and canniness that exemplified that Bolton team. He was instantly noticeable on the field and the love the fans had for him was reciprocated.
Campo made his loan deal permanent in 2003, defying the belief he would return to Spain after Bolton had, for a second successive season, avoided the drop. Allardyce reignited Campo’s career by playing him as a defensive midfielder; he had previously been seen as a central defender. With the benefit of hindsight Bolton’s most prominent signing in the summer of 2002 was not Campo, however, but a skilful Nigerian playmaker.
Jay-Jay Okocha arrived in Bolton following the expiry of his contract with Paris Saint-Germain. At 28, he was a player of vast experience, having represented Nigeria at three World Cups, captaining them at one, as well as playing all over Europe with various clubs. He had starred for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga before moving on to Turkey with Fenerbahçe. There his reputation blossomed, leading to a big-money move to France. That £10m move made him the most expensive Nigerian footballer of all time. In Paris he would act as a mentor of sorts to a talented young Brazilian by the name of Ronaldinho.
Okocha was a marquee signing for Bolton and his artistry would produce some memorably exquisite moments of genius. For four seasons he riveted English crowds with an array of drag-backs, step-overs, twists and turns that would mark him out as one of the defining players of a Premier League era. His trickery was consistent, yet almost impossible to predict, leading to the embarrassment of many opposition defences.
No one’s face was redder than Ray Parlour’s when, in a meeting between Bolton and Arsenal at the Reebok in 2003, Okocha proceeded to befuddle him in stoppage time, with the match headed to a 2-2 draw. In the 94th minute, with Parlour closing him down on the left-hand side, Okocha angled himself as if to pass the ball, before dinking it over his marker’s head. Parlour was left even more confused in the 96th minute when, from a short corner, Okocha performed a reverse flick, once again taking it over Parlour’s head. Ostentatious as these dazzling pieces of trickery were, Okocha was more than a luxury.
He was given the captaincy in his second season at the club as Bolton made it to the League Cup final. In the semi-final first leg against Aston Villa, having already scored a curling free-kick to put Bolton 1-0 up, Okocha stood over another dead ball with the score at 4-2 to Bolton. Djorkaeff stood adjacent to him, but must have known Okocha was going for the spectacular, as he didn’t even attempt to take the set-piece. Okocha ran straight at the ball, unfurling a hurtling banana shot that swung from left to right, catching Thomas Sørensen completely off-guard as it rifled into the roof of the net. It was a breathtaking strike.
That same season Allardyce had managed to persuade the diminutive and energetic Greek winger, Stelios Giannakopoulos, to join Bolton on a free from Olympiacos, as well as picking up burly target man Kevin Davies, who was without a club having been released by Southampton. They came from very different backgrounds but both players cost nothing in transfer fees. Stelios was an international and a future Euro 2004 winner, while Davies was at a career crossroads. Both were microcosmic of Allardyce’s transfer policy.
Davies, in particular, became integral to Bolton’s strategy with his intelligent hold-up play and aerial strength. He had once been a promising young thing, having joined Blackburn from Southampton for a fee of £7.5m in 1998, but he scored just twice during his time at Ewood Park before being shifted back to Southampton. His second spell on the south coast was not a huge success, however, and after a loan spell with Millwall in 2003 his contract was not renewed. Aged 26 and without a club, Davies did not seem to have a future at the top level, but Allardyce saw something in him.
Davies offered an outlet for direct passes; he hassled opposition defenders, he threatened from set-pieces, he committed and received more fouls than most, and he played on through broken toes and dislocated fingers. What he did may not have caught the imagination in the same way as Okocha and Djorkaeff, but his role was just as important. In a team founded on collective organisation, Davies fitted in perfectly. He continued at the club well after Allardyce’s departure, scoring the equaliser as Bolton drew 2-2 with Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena and going on to win an England cap at the age of 33.
Allardyce continued to confound tradition with his approach to the transfer market. In signing Fernando Hierro he brought in one of the finest players the club has ever seen. By paying £750,000 for a 34-year old Gary Speed, he proved Newcastle foolish to let him go, summoning another three seasons out of the Welsh midfielder. When he brought in El-Hadji Diouf, initially on loan, he was signing a player with a toxic reputation in English football, but Allardyce got the best out of the controversial winger. Diouf spent more time with Bolton than with any other club. It’s not a coincidence.
In an era that fetishises the size of the transfer fee, Allardyce’s dealings were particularly astute. While other teams were focused on either signing or trying to unearth the next big thing, he was busy assembling a team of players who had been consistently undervalued or considered past their best by other clubs. His decision not to throw transfer fees around allowed him to expend more in wages, which in turn made possible the purchase of quality free transfers, the likes of which would be more inclined to move to MLS, China or the Middle East nowadays.
There is theory behind this policy. In 2009, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski published a book which has since been re-titled Soccernomics. The authors argue rather compellingly that salary is of far greater relevance than transfer fees paid when determining league position. In just under 20 years of study, they found that net outlay on transfers (i.e. each club’s transfer fees paid minus transfer fees received) explained only 16 percent of their total variation in league position whereas wage bills explained a massive 92 percent variation in their league positions. These findings were published in 2009, two years after Allardyce’s time with Bolton had come to a close.
Bolton were remarkably successful after their first two years of Premier League survival. As well as reaching the League Cup final in 2004, they finished eighth in the league. The following campaign saw a sixth-place finish, which meant European football for the first time in the club’s history. In their continental journey, Bolton beat Zenit Saint Petersburg and drew with eventual winners Sevilla before bowing out in the knockout stages to Marseille. Two more top-eight league finishes followed.
Allardyce recognised that he could achieve such consistently high league positions with a club of Bolton’s resources by avoiding the methods of other clubs just outside of the Premier League elite. Clubs such as Tottenham and Newcastle have invested heavily in the transfer market on numerous occasions only to see their best players cherry-picked the moment they have a sniff of success. The latest example of this is Southampton, who have to play catch-up on an annual basis as their finest players are sold.
It should be remembered that in general Allardyce’s signings were hit and miss. Okocha, Djorkaeff and Campo endure, but others, such as Mário Jardel, Ibrahim Ba, Vincent Candela, Hidetoshi Nakata and Quinton Fortune failed to replicate such quality within the confines of that Bolton side. Still, relatively little money was wasted on their signatures as most were free transfers.
What was perhaps most attractive about Allardyce’s Bolton was not the all-star cast of names, but that these players, many of whom had won some of football’s major trophies, committed wholeheartedly to the club and what it was trying to do. Perhaps the fans and the players had a mutual understanding of just how special their situation was, for there was clear affection between the players and the club.
For his last appearance, not just at Bolton but as a professional, Fernando Hierro booked a large area of the Reebok’s West Stand and invited family and friends, some of whom were ex-players themselves. With Bolton having just taken a 3-2 lead over Everton, Hierro was substituted and, as he made his way to the bench, he was given a rapturous standing ovation while receiving hugs and kisses from emotional teammates.
Reminiscing on his career, Stelios confirmed just how much he enjoyed his time with Bolton, saying: “You can tell just by coming into my house back in Greece, it’s full of memories [from Bolton], so I have the club in my heart.” When asked to give a message to Bolton fans he said simply: “I have no words.” Stelios loved his time with Bolton so much that upon leaving he decided against immediately returning to Greece, instead joining former Bolton coach Phil Brown at Hull.
When Iván Campo found out his contract had not been renewed in the summer of 2008, he released an open letter to Bolton fans expressing how dismayed he was at not having been given the opportunity to say goodbye properly. “I’ve always felt that you guys had a special bond with me,” he wrote. “When I first arrived here, many people thought [it was] for an extended holiday … you all saw that it was not like that for me. I cherish with all my heart the times you chanted my name.”
If all this seems overtly emotional, that’s because it was. Arriving in the north of England as strangers, these players found in Bolton some of the closest bonds they had ever experienced in their noteworthy careers. They were more involved with the club than the average modern-day footballer tends to be. Allardyce, beyond his ability to bring talent to the club for a reasonable price, was able to mould a group out of these individuals. In his letter, Campo even wrote that he hoped he could cross paths with Allardyce again, commenting: “He had faith in me and taught me to be a better, more mature player.” It was high praise coming from someone who had played under Vicente del Bosque.
Towards the end there was a waning interest in Allardcye’s style for some Bolton fans, coming after years of criticism from other Premier League managers, most of which was levelled after Bolton had beaten their more expensive teams. Allardyce’s upstarts became a model for those clubs intent on surviving the increasingly treacherous waters of the league while lacking the resources of their rivals. The style and attitude was in some ways mirrored by Tony Pulis and his Stoke City team, though they never reached the heights that Allardyce did with Bolton.
Regardless of the pejorative stereotypes that may persist with Allardyce, his principles speak differently. They speak of a manager who played a major contributing role in the revolutionising of English football’s mindset towards data; a manager who understood that the best way to compete in the Premier League was to eschew the notion that you had to spend gargantuan sums in transfer fees. He and his Bolton team apologised to no one and thrived in the limelight. Football styles will rarely endure but, most importantly, Allardyce’s principles resonate louder than ever.
By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman