The words are fitting for a manager who has been around for 20 years and seen it all, a man who has survived heart scares, sackings and allegations of bungs, a football figure portrayed as both forward thinking and regressive – hailed for introducing everything from Tai Chi to equine ice therapy at Bolton, while simultaneously pilloried for playing the most route one football around. And winning.
Now here he is at West Ham, the Academy of Football. The irony is not lost on him. At his first press conference for the club, he says, it took around 24 seconds before someone asked how the "long ball" game would go down with the Boleyn Ground faithful. Big Sam, the caricature, may grin but Allardyce, the man, is more sensitive. As he talks about his life he raises many sore points – how it feels to be made redundant, the vulnerability of a football manager, the depression of sitting around at home being unemployed, the transient world of football where the media love you one day and cane you the next, where you never know who you can trust.
Although he would not describe it that way, Allardyce's reign at West Ham has been portrayed as unpopular with some fans. Despite having won promotion back to the Premier League in his first season in charge, there have been persistent boos from sections of the crowd. Just last week in the League Cup his team were jeered after a 4-1 defeat to Wigan. What does he make of it?
"Well I don't think the fans did give me a hard time [over the year], apart from certain pockets of fans on certain occasions," he says, shifting in his seat. "Occasionally there were fans who were upset and disgruntled but a lot less than Avram [Grant]. Avram got far more stick than I did. And Alan Curbishley got a lot of stick when he was here, and he was one of their own. I get no more stick than Gianfranco Zola, and Avram Grant, Harry Redknapp. I know because I spoke to all them. I didn't speak to Avram actually, because I couldn't get hold of him, but, yeah, if you don't do it right here you get stick, I accept that. But you get stick everywhere. That's the nature of the industry now … Contrary to what any media say, fans at West Ham are interested in the passion of the player and the commitment of the player, rather than all that pretty football stuff."
Historically, of course, Upton Park has prized "pretty" football. Allardyce, though, says history is overrated. Walking through the tunnel he points to a spot of redecorating. "Do you like the new wallpaper?" he asks. "I chose it myself." Where once the walls were covered in old photographs of West Ham greats, intended to inspire the players as they wait to file out on to the pitch, now there are pictures of West Ham's Championship play-off final victory in May. Some clubs, he says, get too "bogged down" in history. He makes a disapproving face. How many of today's West Ham fans actually watched Trevor Brooking or Bobby Moore play, he wonders. "It's the modern day history that's important, I like to think." As he emerges from the tunnel, flanked by the stands dedicated to Brooking and Moore, his words jar with his surroundings.
Whatever the supporters think, as a personality the 57-year-old Allardyce is a popular figure. Those around the club say he is well liked, and it is impossible not to warm to him as he describes life with Mrs Allardyce in the jet-set surroundings of their rented Canary Wharf apartment. "We've never lived in a city before," he says, making it sound like some charming middle-aged adventure. Certainly half an hour in his company is entertaining as he reminisces about his playing days, eating fillet steak and toast for a pre-match meal – "running around with a lump of meat in your stomach during the match" – in the bad old days when it was believed that drinking water during a training session would bring on cramp. Back then all drinks, other than tea, were strictly banned. "It's a wonder some of us didn't die," says Allardyce.
As he talks about the science of rehydration or the role of sports psychology in the game, you cannot help but try to imagine the young Allardyce as he embarked on his first managerial appointment at Limerick more than two decades ago. He leans back in his chair and smiles, pityingly, at his old self. "You have all these ideas in your head, all these super plans of what you're going to do and how you're going to take the managing world by storm." He gazes out over the pitch. "You take as much advice as you can, particularly off the older, more experienced managers and they all tell you. You sit in that job and you have all these ideas and you speak to Jim Smith or Harry Bassett or Howard Wilkinson or Alex Ferguson and they say: 'Well, son, your job is to survive.' You say: 'What do you mean?' They say: 'Well, you've got to survive in that job. If you don't you might never get another one.'
"It shocks you, obviously. You want to do all this and that but the reality is start winning football matches and you start getting credibility as a manager. The LMA [League Managers Association] brought some stats out, they said if you lose your first job, 80% of the time you never get another one."
Being sacked by Newcastle and then Blackburn hit Allardyce hard, he says. The dismissals knocked his confidence as he sat around at home for a torrid 11 months waiting – hoping – for another job offer. "We all sit and wait and hope," he says. "Cynically we have to wait until someone else loses a job before you can get back in the game."
When the call came from West Ham, did he think: thank God? "Yeah, I did," he says. "If I didn't get another job in the game after what happened at Blackburn I wouldn't have been satisfied. You know people would have said, 'What's happened to Sam Allardyce? Oh well, since he got sacked at Blackburn he hasn't done anything.' I thought I can't let it finish there, I've got to wait for the right opportunity again. You always have to continue to prove yourself as a manager. Wherever you go, no matter how good it was wherever it was you were at before, it's always the next job. You get into this famous, fabulous football club and you have to reinvent it by using your skills and ability."
Two weeks into the role, however, and Allardyce wondered what he had gotten into. "I thought, have I done the right thing? It was not very nice, you know. Trudging through all this negativity. Not just from outside but from within the club. All this doom and gloom. Job losses … Every day there were problems."
Allardyce describes the process of mopping up a relegation mess: being faced with an exodus of players all desperate to leave – the club lost 40 players in 12 months – battling the endemic "feeling sorry for yourself" culture, losing club staff who had been there for donkey's years, and the do-or-die importance of bringing in "people you can trust". The latter is interesting particularly in light of what happened at Blackburn with Allardyce's former assistant, Steve Kean. "You have to have someone you can trust when you join a new football club," he says, "because football is the enigma of gossip. It goes around everywhere. You've got to find out about people and you don't know whether you can trust them or not."
Key to building that circle of trust has been bringing an influential player into the dressing room in the former Bolton and Newcastle midfielder, Kevin Nolan, as captain. "Kevin. He changed the dressing room. He can galvanise a group of players, which is a massive responsibility taken away from me because you don't know what's going on in the dressing room, you've got no idea. Not that he comes telling tales to me, but you know he's going to promote the fact that he's not come down here to mess about: 'I ain't left Newcastle United to come down here and mess about at West Ham. I've come down here to get back up'."
The attitude suits Allardyce. The Dudley-born former defender also wants to be businesslike, shake off the interminable "long ball" jibes, and just get on with the job of managing West Ham. This season that job involves staying up, and the immediate aim of securing points against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Monday night, but beyond that he is hoping for an extension to his two-year contract, a reason to make the London life his own. "I'd love to see the fans into the Olympic Stadium," he says of the proposed 2014 move, "and I'd like to walk them out there."
Sam Allardyce was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office. Every 90 minutes throughout the season Barclays is offering fans the chance to win tickets to Barclays Premier League matches at a Barclays ATM and requesting a receipt, or by visiting barclaysticketoffice.com
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image: © Matthew Black