26 November ~ As unlikely managerial appointments go, the recruitment of Sam Allardyce by West Ham has to be up there with Leeds' decision in 1974 to employ Brian Clough. A club that has all too often tolerated attractive football as a substitute for success seemed an unlikely destination for a pragmatic, results-driven manager. That Hammers fans welcomed him with open arms – a poll at the time of his appointment indicated an approval rate of 84 per cent – was testament to supporters' thirst for change. Some 100 days into his tenure, a run-of-the-mill away-day trip to Coventry's Ricoh Arena was watched by 6,000 travelling supporters, suggesting that this approval rating still holds.
Having lost quality players such as Scott Parker, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Demba Ba in the summer, a typical Allardyce line-up now blends impressive new recruits (Sam Baldock, Abdoulaye Faye and Matt Taylor among others) with players rejuvenated under his tutelage. Many fans hoped for, and assumed, a complete overhaul of Avram Grant's squad, but the likes of James Tomkins, Winston Reid and Julien Faubert seem to have been reborn.
West Ham are currently second in the Championship, with the division's best away record. Their home form to date has not been that of a top-six side. Games where the Hammers have been held at Upton Park have betrayed unease among fans frustrated with an unfamiliar style of play. It has not been the incessant hoof-ball that some feared, but all too often victories have not been earned through creativity and flair, but by packing the midfield and stealing a scrappy goal. Effective or not, the mindset of many supporters remains stubbornly rooted in the era of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall.
The West Ham marketing team (never ones to miss a chance to tap in to the nostalgia of their target audience) have been advertising tickets for today's game against Derby County under the strapline: "Get Ready To Face Cloughie's County". Brian's son Nigel brings his Derby team to Upton Park having won just once in the last nine games. West Ham fans will expect nothing less than three points.
The experiences of teams that have visited E13 so far this season suggest that Clough would do well to ditch his dad's philosophy, and line his team up to frustrate West Ham. When relegation strugglers Bristol City parked the bus earlier this month, they came away with a rare away point. When fifth-placed Blackpool tried to make a game of it and play the ball out from defence, they were summarily beaten 4-0.
Famously, Clough senior once said: "If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there." Allardyce may share Brian Clough's self-belief, but the similarity ends there. As West Ham's promotion campaign continues apace, the feeling among the Upton Park faithful remains one of ambivalence. Neil Fairchild