When Nicol shows pleasure or anger you know it’s genuine, so different from the hyped-up fakery that TV demands. Nicol can make his point without waffling on for minutes and minutes and without trying to sound too smart. As he is usually surrounded by people who very much want to sound smart, his voice is refreshing and honest. Well, yes, I do have some problems with that heavy Scottish accent, but that just adds to the fun. When Nicol is holding forth, there comes a welcome gust of reality and down-to-earthness, it feels like fresh air blowing through the studio.
So there are times when the words don’t sound like words to me, but the meaning is never in doubt ... somehow you always know what Nicol is saying.
However (yes, after all that lauding there has to be a however) ... a week or so back there arrived a Nicol appearance when I wished I was not understanding him. Could he really be sitting there telling me that England’s Big Sam Allardyce would be a suitable choice as coach of U.S. national team? Sam Allardyce for gawd’s sake?
Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Honestly, I cannot think of a worse candidate. Not one soccer-conscious American in a thousand has ever heard of Allardyce, for a start. That’s because Allardyce has only rarely been seen outside England (including 11 games for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1983 and, at the end of his playing career, a brief spell with the Irish club Limerick).
Allardyce was that quintessential English player, a huge, bulky center-back -- archaically called a center-half in England, which fits, really, as there is something archaic about Allardyce anyway. His 21-year playing career (1971-1992) took in eight English clubs, none of them top-level. Since 1992 he’s coached 10 clubs, most of them -- again -- lesser clubs.
Despite that modest background, Allardyce’s big moment suddenly dropped out of the sky last year when he was offered the plum job of coaching England. He lasted just 67 days. Then a scandal forced the English FA to demand his resignation. He had been caught in a trap, talking too freely about his job to undercover journalists, discussing money matters, and at one point telling them how to get around certain FA regulations. The FA being his employers, that did not go down well.
So Allardyce departed from his “dream job,” with the taint of corruption and a humiliating flavor of farce -- the only English national team coach in history to have a 100% winning record. Even in disgrace, Allardyce’s career continued its links to minor teams ... the opponent his England had beaten -- with a lone goal deep into stoppage time -- was the lightweight Slovakia.
In his 26-year coaching career, Allardyce has won just two trophies. Not exactly major triumphs: with Limerick, the League of Ireland First Division title in 1992, and with Notts County the English Football League Third Division in 1998.
He has been heavily criticized for being devoted to long-ball, Route 1, thud and-blunder soccer. He denies the accusations -- “totally and utterly wrong” -- insisting that when he coached Bolton Wanderers (1999-2007) they played attractive attacking soccer.
That fact -- referring to things that happened over 10 years ago, at Bolton -- was about all that Steve Nicol could dredge up in trying to make a case for Allardyce. I never saw Allardyce’s Bolton. But I saw quite a bit of his West Ham team (2011-2015), more than enough to convince me he was a long-baller. Surely no one but a coach wedded to Route 1 play would sign, as he did, the huge old-fashioned (even archaic) striker Andy Carroll?
Anyway, the long-ball aspect was only a part of the problem. The main impression left by Allardyce’s West Ham was that it was a dull, flat, boring team.
When he took over, West Ham had been recently relegated, but Allardyce -- vowing to play “attractive” soccer -- got them back into the Premier League in his first season. Even so, the West Ham fans repeatedly expressed frustration at the unattractive style he brought. In 2015, his contract was not renewed.
Sandwiching Allardyce’s embarrassment with England, were short stints with Sunderland and Crystal Palace. Two poor teams. Allardyce saved both of them -- just -- from relegation. He chose to leave Crystal Palace in 2017, saying he would return to coaching only as a national team coach, which took quite a nerve considering his England fiasco.
Is there anything there, in that long playing and coaching career that recommends Allardyce as a coach for the USA? Absolutely nothing. But plenty that says -- loudly --that he shouldn’t, not for a moment, be considered.
There is even a hefty dose of deja vu to consider: the sudden 2014 arrival here of another Brit coach, Scotsman Owen Coyle. Looking for a job. Just like Allardyce, Coyle had a long playing and coaching career with minor clubs, 10 of them Scottish, plus two years at Bolton Wanderers. His coaching included six modest clubs -- including Bolton. Houston, ill-advisedly, took him on, and Coyle began, at his first press conference, by denying any stories suggesting that he approved of long-ball soccer. His single season at Houston was uninspired, with no distinguishable style, and a failure to make the playoffs. Coyle returned to England to coach Blackburn, another less-than-major club.
Yet I am told there is a lot of talk -- in England -- about Allardyce getting the U.S. job. Well, these rumors have to start somewhere. They are usually launched by someone looking for a job -- maybe not by the coach himself, but by his agent, or by a friendly journalist. So we’re in the odd situation where the English apparently consider Allardyce a serious candidate, while here in the USA -- where it matters most -- there is no talk whatever of his chances.
None, that is, other than Steve Nicol’s sad attempt to find something positive to say about him. I’m hoping that Nicol will soon recover from his aberration and return to being the trusty soccer commentator that he has become, a true grass-roots voice of the sport.