Showcase - Forget Allardici, Sam's the Premier League Houdini
By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) - Sam Allardyce once mused that if he had been called 'Allardici' it might all have been so different, and given the chance to manage Real Madrid or Inter Milan he was sure he would have the medals to accompany the fashionable continental sheen.
Alas for 'Big Sam', when he finally did land his long-awaited glamorous chance as England's manager last year, he lost the job in undignified circumstances after only 67 days amid controversy and a newspaper sting.
So it was his lot then to throw himself back at the grindstone, back to the unglamorous role that had defined his managerial name in the first place.
Not flashy 'Allardici', a manager who always fancied he would have been a serial winner at the Bernabeu or San Siro, but once again good old 'Fireman Sam', the Midlander that unfancied, struggling Premier League clubs turn to when deep in the mire.
On Sunday, if he can steer Crystal Palace to a point from the basement showdown with Hull City, Allardyce will once again have protected his record of never having suffered relegation from the Premier League.
Considering the other clubs he has overseen -- Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United and Sunderland -- and often the difficult circumstances in which he took charge, this feat tells of his considerable strengths.
In 2002-03 at Bolton, he avoided relegation with a final-day win. In 2008, he took over at Blackburn in December when they were 19th. Sunderland were second bottom last season when he arrived to bail them out.
Now, it is Palace who are grateful to have Allardyce on board, even if it has been a curious adventure, ricocheting between the abysmal and the exhilarating, since he took the helm of Alan Pardew's sinking ship just before Christmas.
Allardyce said he had been a "fool" when his brief England reign had ended by mutual agreement three months earlier after he had been filmed allegedly offering advice on how to "get around" FA transfer rules.
Yet the 62-year-old is nobody's fool when it comes to rescuing lost causes and even though he lost six of his first eight league matches in charge, once his familiar hallmarks of shrewd signings, clever man management, intensive training and tactical nous kicked in, the makeover was extraordinary.
Palace won six of their next eight, including wholly improbable victories at table-topping Chelsea and Liverpool and a 3-0 home win over Arsenal hailed as arguably the club's finest Premier League showing.
All this featured excellent performances from three key Allardyce signings -- Luka Milivojevic, Mamadou Sakho and Jeffrey Schlupp. Up front, Allardyce freed the talent of Wilfried Zaha as Christian Benteke rediscovered his confidence.
Even their recent alarming three-match losing slump cannot quite persuade Eagles fans that Allardyce will not be the safest pair of hands around for Sunday's huge fixture.
Palace chairman Steve Parish has praised his remarkable influence, noting after the preposterous win at Chelsea: "Sam's management style is very inclusive, he builds a team around him that do all the right things. He's worked incredibly hard."
The England debacle may well mean it is too late for Allardyce to be given the chance to be the serial winner he always thought he could be given the right tools.
Yet the way he has rebounded from that humbling period says much about his resilience and perhaps the qualities also that he instils in the teams he keeps afloat.
"I know I'm the same man. I'm probably a better man for the experience. In adversity you have to become stronger and make sure you don't make those mistakes again so you learn from it," he said on taking the Palace reins.
"I just do my job to the best of my ability wherever I work. I'm determined to be a good manager at Crystal Palace again."
He has been as good as his word and just one more point will help refresh his reputation. Not as the high-flying Signor Allardici but the next best thing -- the Premier League Houdini.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Toby Davis/Peter Rutherford)