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When Sam Allardyce took over at Bolton Wanderers, few could have predicted the journey the club was set to embark upon. They had been, at best, a yo-yo team since the 1950s and 60s, experiencing top-flight football for just four years (two separate two-season spells) since relegation in 1964. Allardyce himself was a Trotters player for two of those glorious yet rare campaigns, between 1978 and 1980. But then, just as it always seemed to do, the joy of rubbing shoulders with the big boys ended in depressing fashion – with a relegation, which itself was followed by a long period of absence.

So when this burly, moustachioed former centre-back, known colloquially as ‘Big Sam’ took charge of Bolton, not much was expected. While the manager had good previous experience with Blackpool and Notts County, his new club were in a slight quagmire. His predecessor, Colin Todd, had resigned following the sale of Per Frandsen to local rivals Blackburn Rovers for £1.75 million. The Danish midfielder was a key player, but now Bolton were without both him and, temporarily, leadership.

Allardyce, however, quickly restored not just a semblance of direction, but a winning mentality, guiding the team to sixth in what was then the English First Division (now the Championship). From there they lost out in the play-off semi-finals, which is also the stage at which they exited both the FA Cup and League Cup. Though the fact they had gone so far on three different fronts was considered an overachievement by even the most exuberant of Bolton fans.

Within the next year Allardyce would ‘complete the turnaround’, as he led the club once more to the play-offs, only this time they made it all the way to the final, where they defeated David Moyes’ Preston North End. The promised land of the Premier League had been reached. Bolton had found the end of a particularly financially lucrative rainbow. This was a noteworthy success, though Allardyce was only getting started.

Sam Allardyce, Bolton

After his time as a Bolton player had come to an end, ‘Big Sam’ made his way to the USA via spells with Sunderland and Millwall. He ended up in Tampa Bay, where he played for the local ‘soccer’ club – the Rowdies, who happened to share a stadium with the local American Football team – the Buccaneers. Allardyce was intrigued by the Buccaneers’ use of technology, something that stayed with him throughout the rest of his playing days and which he himself would utilise as a manager.

Analysing data was, as a concept, still in its formative stages in late 1990s English football, but he led the way in bringing it closer to the mainstream. Using statistics was seen more as a nerdy pastime as opposed to an integral method of preparation among many Premier League managers at the time, but Bolton would benefit from Allardyce’s personal interest in the subject. He used the data gathered to come up with his own ‘fantastic four’, a set of tenets which he would hold dear as he planned to do something Bolton were unused to doing: secure top-flight survival. The tenets were as follows:

  1. Bolton had to stop the opponent from scoring in a minimum of 16 of 38 league games to avoid relegation.
  2. If they scored first, they had a 70 per cent chance of winning.
  3. Set pieces account for 33 per cent of all goals scored, and in-swingers are more effective than out-swingers.
  4. They had an 80 per cent chance of avoiding defeat if they outran their opposition at speeds above 5.5 metres per second.

There was nothing misty eyed or romantic about Allardyce’s template for success; the emphasis was on avoidance, negation, endurance, and careful planning. Focus was placed on stopping the opponent from scoring while maximising set piece performance, fitness levels and work rate.

As a result of these objectives, built from data analysis, Bolton’s football tended to be rough and ready, and not aesthetically pleasing. Again, there was nothing romantic about it. Allardyce and his well-organised outfit weren’t in the Premier League to please anyone, whether they be pundits, fans or opponents; the only goal was to win. While others fantasised, Allardyce devised. It was resultism at its very core, but it worked. Bolton stayed up, finishing 16th in their first season back. Then, in 2002-03, they repeated the feat, albeit finishing one position lower in the table.

Sam Allardyce, 2001

While the tenets and style were crucial, Allardyce needed individual players capable of carrying out his methods. At the same time, he didn’t have a lot of money to spend relative to the teams around his Bolton side. To counteract the financial disadvantage, he employed visionary transfer market manoeuvring to ensure his squad had the requisite quality. Instead of spending big on transfer fees, he aimed high on wages and sought to bring in those who had been undervalued by other teams or widely considered as past their best or too risky. His transfer market activity essentially followed some of the advisory principles laid down in Soccernomics (2009) by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski before the book had even been published.

Allardyce’s approach to the market saw some spectacular deals take place. Youri Djorkaeff, who two years previously had starred for France in the European Championships, joined Bolton in 2002. Not long later, Nigerian creative magician Jay-Jay Okocha joined on a free transfer from Paris St Germain. Ivan Campo, a shabby-haired Spanish centre-back who had featured in a Champions League final for Real Madrid, arrived in 2003, and quickly adjusted to his new defensive midfield position.

They were the stars, but arguably the most important signing Allardyce made was that of Kevin Davies, a strong centre-forward who had been released by Southampton. With his excellent aerial ability and physicality Davies was perfect for the manager’s playing style and thrived with Bolton, scoring 85 goals in 407 games over a decade and earning an England cap in 2010.

By the time Davies pulled on his country’s football shirt, Allardyce had long since left Bolton. But before he moved on for Newcastle he did more than achieve survival; he took the unfashionable Lancashire club into the Premier League’s upper echelons with four consecutive top-eight finishes, including a sixth-place position in 2005 that saw the club qualify for the Uefa Cup.

What began with promotion did not end with relegation. Allardyce’s Bolton was, initially, a survival story, but by the time he departed his work with the club was seen as a blueprint for other promoted teams to follow. He had ruffled expensive Premier League feathers, both on the pitch with a pragmatic playing style and off it with innovation in both data analysis and playing the transfer market. It was unlikely and – considering the club’s history – unique, but most importantly, Allardyce had got the results he craved.