How ‘Big Sam’ saved Sunderland


Nursing a hangover himself, the manager invited his squad to make it the first of many. That, though, is about as old school as Allardyce gets these days.

There is a perception of the 61-year-old as a football boss of a bygone era, all long balls and long runs, drinking sessions instead of training sessions. It is, in fact, the perception which is antiquated.

Even encouraging his players to over-indulge in the 24 hours after their 3-0 win over Everton on Wednesday — ensuring Premier League survival — was based on sound psychology, for he will tell you that camaraderie, laughter and shared memories are ingredients of any successful dressing room.

Indeed, everything Allardyce does is geared towards extracting the maximum from mind and body. The marginal gains, he calls it, the small things that make a big difference.

That was evident on Wednesday night. Arriving at the ground together after a pre-match meal, the players stopped when they noticed a pair of framed photographs on the wall outside the dressing room. They were new. It was Allardyce’s doing.

For there, in front of his squad, were shots of them celebrating during the 3-2 win over Chelsea four days earlier. After that come-from-behind triumph, Jermain Defoe spoke of the goosebumps he had felt and tears that had rolled as the stadium erupted in the wake of his winning goal.

Allardyce wanted to use the emotion and memory of that match as a motivation and club staff were soon instructed to print, mount and frame two giant images of a shirtless Defoe being mobbed by his team-mates and of Fabio Borini celebrating as he dashes past last year’s Footballer of the Year Eden Hazard.

What followed against Everton was another inspirational display of might, pride and passion. There is little doubt they are playing for their manager.

‘He fills you with confidence, the way he says it, it makes you believe it,’ explained captain Lee Cattermole (right). As the pressure intensified at the start of April — they were four points adrift of safety — Allardyce told his players to board the team coach one morning for a change of scenery. And so, passing balls around the dog walkers on a biting and blustery Roker Beach, his players began preparations for the relegation run-in.

But the seaside diversion was a canny ploy built on more than sand.

What followed was a return of 11 points from 18 to secure their top-flight status with a game to spare.

Such a scenario was unimaginable when Allardyce arrived in October —the team winless and demoralised by Dick Advocaat’s abdication.

It was a risk for a manager who had never been relegated from the Premier League, a fact about which he was never shy of reminding us.

But that inner belief — bordering on arrogance — is the root of his success.

He trusts his methods but is desperate to add to them, challenging staff to tell him something he doesn’t know.

On the wall of his office at the Academy of Light is a poster of golfer Gary Player with his famous quote: ‘The more I practise, the luckier I get.’

The sentiment behind Player’s words echo that of Allardyce’s hunger for knowledge and advantage. Each day, his players make a short dash in their underpants from the back door of the training ground to the cryotherapy chamber, a ‘human ice box’ where they endure temperatures of -140°C in a bid to aid muscle recovery.

Does it work?

Current number of Sunderland players injured: none. But there is critical data behind the treatment, for as one insider said: ‘It’s not just a case of freezing your nuts off.’

Allardyce and his backroom team know exactly when players are ready to train and by what percentage they have recovered.

They are fitted with GPS tracking devices in training and Allardyce later crunches the numbers in a room that resembles a science laboratory.

All of that, though, is no substitute for his hands-on work in training, and again it comes back to Player — for repetition is the key for Allardyce.

The former defender will spend hours dragging centre backs Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul around a deserted penalty box before barking further instructions from the touchline. After four clean sheets in the last seven, they are obviously listening.

But Allardyce does not neglect his own wellbeing and spends up to 30 minutes each day going through his transcendental meditation routine.

It clears his mind, he says, not that he ever arrives for a pre-match press conference with an empty head. For mind games — though he protests otherwise — are still very much part of Allardyce’s managerial make-up.

He did, after all, try to wind up Crystal Palace’s players this month by accusing them of ‘being on the pop’ after reaching the FA Cup final and declared how they would surrender at Newcastle. They responded with an energised performance, even if they did lose 1-0.

But next in his sights, it seems, is Sunderland owner Ellis Short. Asked yesterday if he would still be in charge next season, Allardyce used the opportunity to shift power to his side of the table ahead of next week’s talks over where the club go from here.

‘I won’t know until we have that conversation,’ he said. ‘My persuasive attitude might help. But I look forward to that conversation because it has been such a great achievement for me and I want to take this club forward.’

Sunderland’s players will certainly drink to that in the coming days. – Daily Mail

Original source: How ‘Big Sam’ saved Sunderland