“I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce,” joked Big Sam nearly a decade ago.
The then-West Ham manager was fielding a question in pre-match press conference ahead of a match with Manchester City. And while he quickly qualified that was “tongue in cheek”, there was certainly a ring of truth to what he said.
Allardyce highlighted he had a PR problem. An issue that has only exacerbated in the nine years since he made the jibe to the roomful of reporters that day – and one many other bosses have struggled with more and more in recent years.
Even if manager PR isn’t a tangible thing, there’s no doubting it does affect certain coaches’ job prospects, especially in an era when the sheer mention of a club being linked with a new boss can inspire a huge reaction online. Terrace opinions have always influenced the game, but social media only magnifies perceptions, whether they’re factual or not.
While Allardyce’s comment suggests his issue is an exclusively British problem, it’s not. And it doesn’t always have to be a negative thing either, with just as many managers benefiting from positive PR when it comes to being in the frame for a job. There is a fair case that British managers are starting from a position of disadvantage, though.
For Allardyce, he’s long since been typecast as an old-school manager with dour, defensive values. ‘Fireman Sam’ who’s good for bludgeoning his way out of a relegation scrap, but not as a long-term fix for a forward-thinking club.
Some of this impression is caused by his own demeanour and the jobs he’s taken – particularly in recent years – although inside the game, he was once considered at the forefront of the sports science revolution and, given time, has been successful in more jobs than not. But as he lamented when being called in to do the West Brom job last December, his work in moulding Bolton into a star-studded team that finished in the Premier League’s top eight for four consecutive seasons doesn’t get the recognition it might if another manager had achieved it.
“In the early years… it was about building your reputation as a good manager through all the divisions, and finally building a reputation by taking Bolton to where they were. But most of that has been forgotten again now, it’s about who I am at this moment in time,” he said at the time. “I’ve already had texts from my mates calling me Red Adair. I can’t get away from that tag.”
It seems he’s not even respected for that anymore. In fact, Allardyce’s PR is in such bad shape that the Baggies’ relegation was almost celebrated by many on social media as a sign his out-of-date tactics no longer working. The reality is, once he got some real time on the training pitch with his new charges, results began to pick up as winter turned to spring – although it was too little too late to save them from the drop by then.
Allardyce isn’t alone though, with recently appointed Newcastle boss Eddie Howe risking the same happening to him. Look at the reaction to reports of his appointment on social media and you’d be forgiven for thinking the 43-year-old was arriving after failing at Bournemouth due to their relegation in 2020. Short shrift is given by some to how he guided the Cherries from League Two to the Premier League and managed to keep them there for five seasons.
That doesn’t mean there can’t be reasonable questions about Howe’s suitability for the St James’ Park job given their current plight – his ratio of conceding an average of 1.74 goals per game in the Premier League for one thing – but there’s little substance to the criticisms that dog him online.
That potential deficiency leads us back to how manager PR can influence a club. Howe’s predecessor Steve Bruce was considered too defensive, despite playing in a similar style to previous fans favourite Rafa Benitez, who curried more favour due to a better perception.
Across their two full Premier League seasons in the role, Bruce and Benitez’s sides achieved the same number of points, with the Englishman’s side outscoring the Spaniard’s and progressing further in the cups. What was the difference? Manager PR. It doesn’t have to rely on facts.
In all, that feeling meant the idea of turning to someone else considered more pragmatic wasn’t a palatable option for Newcastle for this hire, even if it’s what the Magpies need most.
Once the swell of perception is against a manager, it can be hard to turn. Disapproval at their appointment means coaches are immediately starting on the back foot, narratives build and when incidents occur that play to those, they take on greater significance.
England manager Gareth Southgate is arguably a victim of that too. The most successful Three Lions boss since Sir Alf Ramsey may have led his side to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final, but is considered too conservative and too reactive with his substitutions in key moments.
Of course, there’s no smoke without fire. But considering England have only ever been behind for nine minutes in normal time in the tournament knockout matches Southgate has managed, the moniker he’s given seems to unfairly accentuate the negative. When the former defender eventually does leave his post, it seems inevitable his caution will be cited as a key reason.
A fair proportion of the sentiment that drives a manager power ranking is hype. Two seasons ago, Nuno Espirito Santo was flavour of the month after guiding Wolves to two seventh-place finishes. A bottom-half finish without talisman Raul Jimenez last year and a short stint at Tottenham this season and he’s been moved towards the Premier League undesirables. Paolo Fonseca, on the other hand, is a relative unknown to most English fans, but due to his links to vacancies in recent months, he’s built an online reputation among some as the coveted hire, despite those with a strong knowledge of the European game only truly being able to back that up.
There is still hope for those bosses trying to improve their PR, though, and it comes in the form of David Moyes.
The West Ham head honcho – who managed his 1,000th club game in West Ham’s draw with Genk earlier this month – had almost become a laughing stock after leaving his successful tenure at Everton to take over Manchester United in 2013. So much so that by the time he was given the Hammers job mid-way through the 2017-18 season, he wasn’t trusted enough to be given it permanently. Since returning in 2019, he’s proved he didn’t become a bad manager overnight. Far from it.
Instead, one of Moyes’s biggest deficiencies seemed to be the jobs he picked. He couldn’t say no to the opportunity to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, but it was always a poisoned chalice, adapting to La Liga at Real Sociedad was always going to a challenge, and then the least said about the decision to take over Sunderland, the better.
By the time he walked out of the Stadium of Light, following a relegation that was years in the making, Moyes’s reputation was in tatters and his manager PR rating was rock bottom.
But if we can take anything from the Scot’s renaissance in the past two seasons, it’s that, in a world of extremes where we make iron-clad judgements quickly, we shouldn’t be so speedy to write managers off. Even if their name is Allardyce.