The return of Big Sam

West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce

West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce

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SAM Allardyce’s career has been nothing if not interesting since he departed Blackpool.

It seems an age ago now since Big Sam (copyright: every national newspaper in the land) was in the dugout at Bloomfield Road.

In a way it was. Allardyce was the Seasiders gaffer back in the mid-90s, and every Pool fan knows how it turned out.

Helped by some loosening of the purse-strings by then chairman Owen Oyston, Allardyce guided the club to the brink of promotion, back to the top two tiers of English football. Then the team messed it all up with a howler of a play-off performance against Bradford (losing 3-0 at home, after cruising to a 2-0 victory in the first leg) and Oyston took the controversial decision to dismiss the manager.

Oyston senior now admits he regrets his decision and no wonder. While Pool struggled for the next decade (Gary Megson, Nigel Worthington, Steve McMahon and Colin Hendry all came and went), Allardyce went on to great things with Bolton.

He was being touted for England before things suddenly soured. He was the subject of a BBC documentary alleging he took a bung (a claim Allardyce vigorously denies), then quit Bolton for what turned out to be a fairly disastrous spell at Newcastle.

A rocky period at Blackburn followed before 56-year-old Allardyce turned up at West Ham in the summer, replacing Avram Grant and tasked with getting the relegated Hammers back to the Premier League.

As you’d expect from an experienced footballing man, Allardyce has started well.

The quality of players he has signed since walking into Upton Park can’t be questioned.

Kevin Nolan, Abdoulaye Faye, Matt Taylor and Joey O’Brien were among his early acquisitions, then came defender George McCartney, midfielder Papa Bouba Diop and a couple of promising young strikers – MK Dons’ Sam Baldock and Paraguay U-20 international Brian Montenegro. Add to that deadline day swoops for midfielders David Bentley and Henri Lansbury – on season-long loans from Tottenham and Arsenal –- and Hamburg utility man Guy Demel, and it’s easy to see why the bookies have installed West Ham as favourites to win the Championship title.

After a shock opening day defeat to Cardiff, Allardyce’s men have produced a string of impressive results (winning 4-1 at Forest, 4-0 at Watford), though things have tailed off in the last two games – a home defeat to Ipswich and a slightly fortuitous draw at Crystal Palace.

Allardyce wasn’t happy with the latter. “It was shocking defending at Palace on two occasions, which stopped us winning the game,” said the boss.

“But we have 18 points from the first phase, the first 10 matches. It is two points behind what we wanted, but I expect we will make that up if we continue to grow as we have been.”

The quality of the Hammers squad is undeniable, and it’s why Pool face such a tough task.

They have threats all over the pitch. One of the old boys, Carlton Cole, is leading scorer with four league goals, one ahead of Nolan. Welshman Jack Collison has taken over from the departed Scott Parker as the main man in the midfield, while Faye and the young but fearsome James Tomkins are rocks at the heart of the back four.

34-year-old Manuel Almunia, signed on an emergency one-month loan from Arsenal, is covering for the injured Rob Green between the posts.

Allardyce will have to make at least one change from the side which drew at Palace last time out – former England international Bentley has returned to Spurs following an operation on his knee.

“He is out for six months, which is a great shame for David, as he had settled in well to the squad,” said Allardyce.

The manager has lost none of the wheeler-dealer instinct he was renowned for at Bolton, recently contacting Manchester City to try and take Carlos Tevez on loan. City, not surprisingly, rejected the offer.