The drive home, that 200 or so miles from Wembley to his relatively modest house in Bolton, is what Sam Allardyce describes as his darkest moment.
He says he was mentally and physically shattered, so utterly devastated by the sudden and painfully premature end to his tenure as England manager that it was all he could do to apply enough pressure to the accelerator to propel his Mercedes along the motorway. ‘Driving back that night, on my own, I had never driven so slowly in my life,’ he says. ‘A few people rang. I spoke to them.
‘But that was a long, long drive. There was nothing on the road but I just sat at 50mph. Five and a half hours it took. Slowly, slowly. I couldn’t turn the radio on; just drove in silence. It was just s*** … s*** … s***.’
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The now-Palace boss leaves his home in Bolton after losing his dream job after just 67 days
Little more than a fortnight later and Allardyce was hiding away in the sanctuary of his Spanish villa with his wife, Lynne. England were contesting what would have been only his second game in charge, a World Cup qualifier against Malta.
‘I couldn’t watch,’ he says. ‘I tried to. I maybe lasted 15, 20 minutes. But I couldn’t continue. I had to turn it off and watch something else. It was Wembley and I hadn’t even had the opportunity to get a game under my belt there. That would have been a big moment for me. It was a gut wrencher, that.’
He was so proud on the day he was unveiled as the new England manager. Fastening the FA pin badge to the lapel of his new navy suit. Adding his own touch with a personalised, monogrammed shirt.
‘And I wasn’t just proud to be the England manager,’ he says. ‘I was ready. I felt comfortable being there. Our vision of changing St George’s Park because we were going to work from there. All my staff were going to work from there to make things better. And we made a good start, winning that first game in Slovakia. And then all of a sudden it was over.’ After 67 days. ‘Apart from the last two they were very good days,’ he says.
Allardyce managed just one game as England boss, a win against Slovakia on September 4
SPORTSMAIL’S BACK PAGE – SEPTEMBER 28
Sportsmail’s back page on September 28 carried the news of Allardyce’s departure
Sitting in a swish Mayfair restaurant, Allardyce is engaging company without perhaps being the garrulous, larger-than-life Big Sam character we’ve come to know. He picks at his food, enjoys a decent drop of wine but drinks slower than anyone else at the table.
He chooses his words carefully because this is the first time Allardyce has spoken in any detail about the circumstances that led to his dramatic departure from the Football Association.
He is also keen to reflect on his rehabilitation and the success he has just enjoyed in maintaining the Premier League status of Crystal Palace. But he first needs to deal with that Daily Telegraph newspaper sting and those covert recordings. He knows he messed up. In the telephone conversations he did have on that journey home from Wembley he admitted to being ‘a ****ing idiot’.
The original revelations were embarrassing for him and the FA. In the bogus meetings with undercover reporters last August the newly appointed England manager might have stressed that any agreement would have to be approved by his FA employers before he could accept £400,000 but he was accused of being greedy and he was also accused of giving advice on how to circumvent third-party ownership regulations.
The 62-year-old speaks about the long drive home after losing his job, where he sat in silence
Not only that, in one of the meetings he mocked his predecessor Roy Hodgson for his pronunciation of r-words.
‘That was embarrassing for me,’ he says. ‘No doubt about that. I haven’t spoken to Roy. I made a decision not to call him because I thought it would be better to wait until I saw him, face to face. But I haven’t seen him yet. That will be the time to address it though. I’ll definitely do that.’
He maintains he only attended the meetings to help an old friend who was down on his luck. It turned out Scott McGarvey, a football agent and former player, had also been duped into thinking he was about to land a lucrative new job.
‘He was so desperate, the lad, for this position, and I thought there was no harm going along to see if I could help him,’ says Allardyce. ‘And he was saying it was possible that on the back of that there could be something in it for me, if I fancied it.
Now, Allardyce is back feeling content and has just avoided relegation with Crystal Palace
‘A lot of it’s a blur now because you end up in a position where you’ve had your life devastated. You go through this process where people are taking photos of you and people are writing things, even though I had nothing to do with the stories that followed in the Telegraph.
‘I have a thick skin but not for that, because it’s not just you. It’s your family. Your grandchildren are at school. There wasn’t a lot of substance to what they had but it’s your kids, your grandkids, me and the missus. We stuck together and got through it but I went through every emotion.’
He says he did sense something was not right about McGarvey’s new business associates.
‘I should have… we did half suspect something wasn’t right about it,’ he says. ‘Mark (Curtis, his agent) had said “Fake Sheik”.
Allardyce says he is ’embarrassed’ after mocking Roy Hodgson, and will speak to him in person
‘The biggest mistake I made was when I then met them in Manchester. I should have just kept quiet and said I’ll help Scott if I can. But I stayed too long, and like everything else if you tell a story in private. If we all had stories we tell in private recorded, you know what I mean? It’s not what you think is going to happen but it did.’
Allardyce says he was playing in a sports writers’ golf day at Stoke Park, on what turned out to be his penultimate day as England manager, when he first realised he had a major problem.
‘I got a call and the phone didn’t stop ringing,’ he says. ‘The emotional impact first hit me driving back from the course and then when it hit the paper. It’s what it was involved with that hurt me, because my part of the story wasn’t about corruption.
‘It had nothing to do with the stories that followed, with the claims about these agents and unnamed managers. Mine was about taped conversations and using parts of those conversations to say I was greedy, I was breaking the rules. It was only greedy if I had done it.’
The Palace boss admits he did not expect to lose his job when he travelled down to Wembley
After the golf and a sleepless night back in Bolton he then drove to Wembley the following morning to meet the FA. At no point going into that meeting did he fear for his job, and on reflection there are plenty of observers who think the FA acted too soon, that had they waited and seen that the rest of the ‘revelations’ did not concern their manager, they might have been able to ride out the storm.
‘It’s worth remembering that the police didn’t discover anything worthy of investigation,’ says Allardyce. ‘And before a parliamentary select committee Robert Sullivan from the FA said I hadn’t been in breach of any FA rules. Or told anybody how to breach FA guidelines on third-party ownership.
‘In fact, he said I was actually doing nothing more than stating the FA’s position. When I went to Wembley I didn’t think I was about to lose my job. I just thought it was going to be a discussion about how we navigate through it.
‘But the process was not what I expected. People have told me that if it was a similar-sized business there would have been a lengthier HR process. I’m not criticising the FA because they felt they needed to make a decision. I didn’t want to go but in the end there was a mutual agreement.’
He has gained a reputation for avoiding the drop, but he says he is ‘good at other things’ too
When he finally arrived in the early hours the following morning at a house one would not necessarily expect to be occupied by a football millionaire – ‘we like our neighbours,’ Allardyce explains, ‘and Lynne has no desire to be rattling around a big house when the kids have now flown the nest’ – two photographers were waiting for him. ‘As I opened the car door they jumped out of the bushes,’ he says. ‘They apologised and I said, “Don’t worry lads, I understand you’ve got a job to do”.’
Inside Lynne was still up. ‘I just sat there with her,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t believe what had happened. But she was very upbeat, saying, “It’s happened, you’ve got to get over it. Whatever s*** comes our way, we’ll get over it and get on with it”.
‘You reach a point where you can’t feel sorry for yourself any more. You have to start thinking about what you’re going to do next. The only thing I could do to help myself was jump back into the game. I needed to do it for my own rehabilitation.
‘It was the only way I could try to put what had happened with England behind me. Otherwise I’d have been pondering too much. It would still be playing on my mind, simmering, seething.’
Allardyce credits friend Sir Alex Ferguson for helping him move on from losing the England job
Support from friends helped. ‘When I got back from Spain, Fergie invited me to a game,’ he says. ‘He told me to get up and get back out there. He’s a man of great wisdom. The more people like that support you, the quicker you recover.’
Three months after losing the England job he was invited to replace Alan Pardew at Palace. They were 17th in the Premier League table and struggling. Now, going into the last weekend of the season, they are 13th, but more importantly safe.
It took Allardyce a month to secure a first Premier League win, raising the question of whether he was struggling to recover his mojo, whether he was cursing the fact he was not instead bossing it at Wembley. ‘No, that’s b*******,’ he says. ‘The difficult bit, initially, was finding new ways to make the team perform better. We’d had one clean sheet in 21 games.’
So he wasn’t unhappy to be at Palace? ‘No,’ he says. ‘I didn’t look at the job like that because it was helping me move forward. I looked at it in a very positive light. I was back doing something everyone says I’m very good at. Personally I think I’m good at other things too, but I’m good at it because of how many times I’ve done it.
Allardyce’s journey home to Bolton after keeping Palace up last week was a much happier one
‘Taking over at Christmas is difficult, because when you’re implementing change you have to get it right. A new manager can always get that short burst of good results but he won’t get that longevity unless he does it right. Changing the backroom staff was key, and introducing new training programmes and some new players.’
Does he feel undervalued though? ‘Not any more, no,’ he says. ‘Who has managed longer than me in the Premier League? Only Wenger. Who has managed six Premier League clubs? Only me. The ride at Palace has been great. It’s enabled me to totally get over the England scenario. I feel recovered and I’m looking to the future.’
Nevertheless he admits he has not emerged unscathed. ‘When the s*** flies, it leaves a scar whether you’re guilty or not,’ he says. But when he reflects on the journey home after last weekend’s all-important win against Hull, and compares it to that torturous drive in September, a smile spreads across his face.
‘I’m really happy I have proved what I can do again after such a difficult time,’ he says. ‘You try to learn from your mistakes. I should have kept my big mouth shut. But that’s a lot of who I am and I’m pretty happy with life again. I took the train home last Sunday and I thought, “This is fantastic”.
He is delighted to have proved his worth again, and is looking forward to the future at Palace
‘When I got home I just opened a bottle of wine with the missus. My daughter was there, the grandkids were jumping all over me. That’s a big change in my life. In my younger days, if I won a game I was out.’
Now he stays in, content in his surroundings and even comfortable with the fact that in his bedroom wardrobe hangs the England suit and tracksuit he wore all too briefly. ‘I have been the England manager,’ he says. ‘I did reach the pinnacle of my career by getting that job. And that’s the only top job I could have got because I was never going to get Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool.’
Not that he ever intends to wear the suit again. ‘No chance,’ he says. Not even if he was armed with the lucky coin that served him so well in Slovakia? ‘I tossed that away,’ he says. ‘It’s somewhere in the back garden.’
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