Big Sam in the Treaty City

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The start of October 2015 saw Sam Allardyce appointed manager at Sunderland AFC with a familiar raison d’être: Premier League survival. His ninth outright job as a club manager has taken him from the banks of the Tyne to the Wear with spells in Lancashire and London; however his presence at the Stadium of Light is a story which has come full circle. The media has continually flaunted that Allardyce is the first man to have managed both Newcastle United and the Black Cats, yet his coaching career started at Wearside as head of Youth Development.

A two year spell in the midlands at West Bromwich Albion as assistant to Brian Talbot saw the club dip into the relegation spots for the then Third Division, a league which they had never inhabited. With little chance of employment in England, an opportunity was afforded to him across the Irish Sea on the west coast. Limerick City (now Limerick F.C.) for the 1991/92 season would not only prove to be a fruitful learning ground but also a springboard for future success. When approached by the club chairman he recollects ‘I thought somebody was taking the mickey’.

Allardyce was saddled with the twin aims of seeking promotion to the Premier Division of the League of Ireland but also maintaining the very existence of the club. This was made all the more difficult when a player revolt arose early on in his reign, which was as quickly quashed. Ahead of kick-off of his first game in charge saw one Limerick striker arrive twenty minutes before the game, over an hour later than designated with Allardyce issuing the adage that if you don’t show up on time you “don’t play”. Preparation for games would see Big Sam and the clubs chairman, a man of the cloth, Father Joe Young traversing the streets of Limerick for benefactors to cover the players wages, while evenings before match day were spent scouting the local night clubs with particular attention turned to Brazen Head, making sure players were on their best behaviour.

Such were the financial problems at the club, who played their home games at Rathbone (where games had to be played at two o’clock due to lack of floodlights, which doesn’t help the rain-soaked image Frank McCourt has portrayed of the city) led Allardyce to travel from his home in England to Limerick at the latter half of the week and stay with the clubs assistant Billy Kinnane in his house.

“Watching Joe, with his faith, was a massive eye-opener for me,” Allardyce recently remarked in an interview with The Telegraph. “He looked after one of the poorest parishes in Limerick, working with people who were struggling, down and out, but it never got him down. We had a brilliant time together. We travelled all over the country in a little minibus, playing games and winning.”

Sam Allardyce, Limerick, and Niall Quinn, Man City, 1991 Image: limerickcity.ie

All these challenges did not stop the player/manager achieving the First Division title and promotion to the Premier Division, but also a good playing season for himself. As a centre-back for the club he made twenty-three appearances scoring on three occasions. His only season in the League of Ireland would see him replaced by Father Young, who led Limerick to league cup success the following campaign.

 

His reputation most certainly enhanced, Allardyce became assistant manager to Les Chapman at Preston North End before spells at Blackpool and Notts County saw him return as first team manager to Bolton Wanderers where he achieved great success, leading the club to UEFA Cup football and to the cusp of qualification for the Champions League. Though often criticised for the negative style of play of his teams, Allardyce has been something of. coaching visionary such as being the first manager to use ProZone, before it was subsequently utilised to great effect by England Rugby World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward.

If Allardyce’s story has come full circle the same could be said of his former club Limerick if they can achieve the epiphany of Premier League survival in what has already been the miraculous of staving off automatic relegation to the First Division. Having gone their first twenty-one league games without a single victory and rooted to the bottom of the table things looked ominous; a return to the second tier looked a certainty from where Big Sam had guided them from nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Many things have changed in the intervening years, now playing under the moniker of Limerick F.C., donning blue and white, the boost of a return to their spiritual home of Market Fields looked set to be dampened by relegation this season. However, a run of six wins in their last eleven games included a 3-1 win over St. Patrick’s Athletic and a vital 4-1 away win at Drogheda United in August, whom they leap-frogged on the final day of the season to reach the relegation play-off spot. The joys of avoiding the drop for at least another week saw attention turn to a single goal victory over Finn Harps of the First Division on Monday in the first game of the play-off.

A similar result in the return leg at Ballybofey would most definitely see Limerick’s current manager Martin Russell receive the same status as Allardyce in the club’s folklore. Such has been the rise of the ‘Super Blues’ in the last three months that their 3-2 victory over Sligo Rovers in their final league game was seen by coach Anthony Foley as a contributing factor for the sparse 7200 attendance at Thomond Park for the Munster-Ulster Pro-12 fixture.

Often soccer has played second or even third fiddle to a city in love with rugby and Gaelic Games. This could inspire a new generation to follow in the steps of former internationals like Al Finucane or Steve Finnan. With potential Premier Division survival, the future looks bright for Limerick F.C. with a young squad now finally in the habit of winning, and winning big games under pressure. If the Shannonsiders can achieve the miraculous, perhaps Allardyce will have to make a return to the club for some advice on avoiding relegation?

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