A couple of weeks before the start of the season, the Guardian Football Weekly panel were asked for our most outlandish predictions for the season. Barry Glendenning suggested Liverpool wouldn’t make the top four. Jonathan Wilson thought there was a good chance of Roy Hodgson coming out of retirement and ensuring Crystal Palace’s survival. Philippe Auclair was confident Chelsea would spend half a billion pounds on attacking midfielders, sack Thomas Tuchel and then Graham Potter and bring in Super Frank Lampard to oversee a 100% losing record.
These predictions all seemed far-fetched, but not ridiculous. It was then I argued that in early May Sam Allardyce would claim to be on the same level as Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp while criticising the criminal justice system for not releasing Sammy Lee from jury service to help him try to keep Leeds in the Premier League. Listen back – pretty sure they all made the edit.
I can’t stop thinking about Lee doing jury service. Crouched just next to the foreperson on his haunches, initials stitched into the breast pocket of his little tracksuit, frantically applauding the prosecuting barrister, talking urgently to witnesses, hand over his mouth, before they take the stand. Racing up to the judge to berate him after no verdict is reached.
Allardyce judged the judge: “The judge has left Sammy unemployed because he is on jury service and wouldn’t let him off. I find that to be very, very poor judgment indeed. It’s a real shame because the wee man loves being with me and I love him with me.”
I’m sure he does. In my occasional experience of working with Big Sam, he is great company. A radio show isn’t exactly a football match. He never did a team talk. I can’t class him as the greatest man-manager I’ve worked with. But he certainly wasn’t a tactically rigid co-host, happily moving away from football to discuss toasties (“croque monsieurs, nope, I’m not a béchamel sauce man me”) and play Blockbusters.
A year before he was the England manager; now he was in an airless room with this idiot, asking for a “P please Bob”. If he felt disdain, he didn’t show it. Witty, interested, prepared to laugh at himself. One afternoon on TalkSport Paul Hawksbee and I were discussing which manager would be best on horseback and came to the conclusion it would be Big Sam. “Have you ever ridden a horse?” I WhatsApped him, having not sent a message for years. Ping. “Yes. I rode a horse bare back in the Jamaican sea but I shat myself. Scary!”
Granted, this doesn’t necessarily give us a lot of insight into whether he’ll manage to keep Leeds up. It might just explain my bias in wanting to see him succeed. If the reported numbers are accurate and he gets £2.5m for Premier League survival (just the £500,000 for failing) then, well, you wouldn’t turn it down. He could manage it without getting a point. Half a million pounds for getting Ayling to hit one for Bamford down the channels. Big Sam, pint of wine in hand if you really must, looking at Lampard and saying: “You call that a free hit …”
Allardyce’s pre-match quotes are quite something. “Far too many people think that I am old and antiquated which is far from the truth. I might be 68 but there’s nobody ahead of me in football terms. Not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta. It’s all there with me and I share it with them. They do what they do, I do what I do. In terms of knowledge and depth of knowledge, I’m up there with them. I’m not saying I’m better than them, but certainly as good as they are.”
On paper they look ridiculous, and maybe they are. Perhaps the idea is to take the pressure off the players. But it would be genuinely interesting to see what he could do with the resources of his aforementioned colleagues.
And so to the Etihad on Saturday. Against the ruthless City state-backed machine with a goalscoring bionic longboat chasing down Dixie Dean. There can’t be a neutral in the world who wouldn’t want to see City miss a hatful, Leeds park the bus, then get it launched and nick one late on. Manchester City 0-1 Leeds (Gnonto 82). Spark life into the title race while rendering football unanalysable. Predictability is the enemy of any sport. Even the hope of it gives us something to cling to.
And these ridiculous and expensive gambles are great entertainment. When you catch yourself watching Premier League Years 22-23 in 2050 when you’re meant to be cloning your cat or waxing your hoverboard it won’t be a wasted hour.
None of this should be happening. The cost of relegation from the Premier League is just too much. Teams shouldn’t fear going out of business. Granted, clubs aren’t forced to make bad decisions or mismanage their finances, but the current conditions, the financial chasm between the top flight and the Championship – even with the correctly maligned parachute payments – make them somehow understandable. Crystal Palace’s co-owner Steve Parish recently called it “the biggest financial jeopardy in world football”.
Signings don’t always work. It costs tens of millions of pounds to find players who might vaguely improve your squad. Need one win in the last month? Might as well roll the dice on someone who knows how to play 4-4-2.
Relegation should be no more or no less than gutting for the fans for a few weeks before you start hoping again as August approaches. It shouldn’t be the end of the world. It shouldn’t have life-changing financial consequences. I write this in the post-match disappointment of Cambridge’s 1-0 defeat by Burton on Wednesday night. On Sunday, we have to beat Forest Green and hope Burton do us a favour against MK Dons (they better time-waste as much) and Exeter get off the beach and hold Morecambe. But if we do return to League Two, we will be OK.
I will be on air on while the games are on – paying very little attention to the show, praying and hoping for all the permutations to work out. Perhaps I’ll be pretending to focus on Big Sam’s gleefully strong Midlands handshake with Pep after a glorious victory, taking his millions and riding bareback into the Jamaican sea. It feels unlikely, but you never know.