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On an early morning Zoom call, former Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn and West Ham manager Sam Allardyce has just been told that he will be spending Newcastle United's gargantuan transfer kitty on the latest edition of Football Manager. "I've never had a £200 million budget before," he laughs.
It is a strange situation to be in for the experienced Allardyce, who took charge of Newcastle for eight months during the 2007/08 season.
Throughout a high profile 30-year career in management, 'Big Sam' has yet to be blessed with a transfer war chest at any of his previous clubs but, as he gears up to deliver tactical advice for a special Just Eat campaign [more on that later], the 67-year-old is certainly excited about the considerable task at hand.
Like thousands of others taking on the challenge of transforming Mike Ashley's former empire from the misty depths of relegation fodder to a respectable mid-table finish - and maybe even beyond - Allardyce will try and get results both on and off the pitch.
So far, some have succeeded and some have failed, but how will the former England boss fare? Who will he bring to St James' Park to kick start this new era in the North East? "When it comes to a team like Newcastle, you need to start with the best two signings you possibly can," he tells SPORTbible. "That's making a statement to the fans."
Strap yourselves in. Let's ask one of the most recognisable coaches in England to take charge of a sleeping giant, featuring that classic 4-4-2 formation, a bargain goalkeeper and one of the best holding midfielders in world football right now.
Where do you even begin with a £200 million transfer budget, I hear you ask.
"I think we struggle to provide the outcome of what a player is worth today, particularly after the pandemic," Allardyce says. "But, for me, it's always been about the best possible player in the best position that you can attract to the football club. Your first signing is going to make a statement to the fans, board and football club."
For the veteran coach, a couple of players spring to mind but there's a problem from the off.
"My two players, without a doubt, would be Declan Rice and Harry Kane. That would be the core of the team down the middle. As a manager, you must always get the core of the team down the middle correct and you start with that particular position. Then the only other position that's just as important is the goalkeeper.
"That would be my way forward. Whether you can get them or not is another matter."
I can begrudgingly confirm that signing Spurs striker Harry Kane was a near-impossible task, even with the mammoth transfer budget sitting beside us. But West Ham's player of the season so far is an inspired shout for that key marquee buy.
After much deliberation, here are the six players Allardyce decided to bring in.
Declan Rice [ball-winning midfielder] - £95 million from West Ham.
"He would be key at Newcastle. He's a two in one player. He can play centre midfielder but can slot in at centre-half as well.
"He started as a centre-half at West Ham and actually made his debut in the first team as a centre-back. Then the genius move of moving him into midfield fit him like a glove, as they say.
"He's an outstanding midfield player. He not only creates and assists but also brings huge qualities in terms of the defensive side of things. If you're struggling in defence, and have injuries at centre-back, he easily slots into that position.
"So, for all the gaming gaffers out there, they might want to remember that piece of advice. He could be a great captain."
Dominic Calvert-Lewin [forward] - £38 million + £11.25 million instalments after 10 international appearances.
"During my spell at Everton, Dominic was a very young but very good talent. He played most of the time during my short period at Goodison. At the time he lacked experience in the Premier League to be the finisher he is today, but all that experience has stood him in good stead now.
"I think he is arguably the best header of a ball from crosses in the box and that's a dying art. We don't see those types of goals on a regular basis anymore and there's nothing that thrills the fans more than a quality cross and a centre-forward coming in and heading it into the back of the net. It's a great sight to be seen."
Divock Origi [forward] - £14.25 million from Liverpool.
"I've always thought Origi needs to leave Liverpool. And budget-wise, he'd probably be a lot cheaper than a Harry Kane, for example. Even though he's done a brilliant job for Liverpool, he needs to be a first-team player every week and perhaps Newcastle could give him that opportunity to flourish."
Seamus Coleman [right-back] - £18.5 million from Everton
"He was a great captain. In terms of winning, you need players with character and Seamus brings that.
"He means so much to a dressing room. He would hold it together and speak his mind, as well as bring enthusiasm and quality to the pitch. It's not just what he brings as a player, but what he'd bring to unite the team. He's not frightened of telling the lads that they might not be doing their job correctly either.
"You need certain mentalities from each role as well as abilities. He is the full package."
Sam Johnstone [goalkeeper] - £6.75 million from West Brom.
"I wouldn't hesitate with this pick. Earlier I spoke about the core of the team, and what your budget needs to focus on. There's nothing better than giving your team the massive boost with a top-quality goalkeeper for next to nothing. This guy is going to be extremely cheap.
"He's in the England set-up now too, and his contract is running out as well. Imagine pulling a goalkeeper like that. If the gaming gaffers are listening to this, look out for Sam if he's going cheap. He has shown his full potential in the past couple of years. He is a quality goalkeeper.
"I've worked with Jordan Pickford and he would be an option but he would cost more. Johnstone is right up there."
Kurt Zouma [centre-back] - £27.5 million + £5.75 million after 50 league appearances.
"I rated David Moyes' decision to go out and get Zouma this summer.
"If you're talking about budgets again, then he would be a great choice for Newcastle. The experience he picked up at Chelsea, and the amount of quality he possesses in defensive positions, is important. He's learned lots over the past few years.
"And just look at why Chelsea did so well last year, and how they won the Champions League. It was because of their defensive qualities. They were extremely difficult to score against. Clean sheets are very important."
Total spent = £200 million / Total including future instalments = £217 million
But wait a minute. Allardyce isn't done there with the defensive side of things.
"The dying art of centre-backs," he begins. "They all have to play out from the back now, which is a mistake in terms of more important qualities they need to have. Defending, reading the game and sensing danger. Those are your key components when buying a centre-back.
"If you're not looking at that, and you're looking at only how well he plays out from the back, then it doesn't matter if you're managing in the Premier League, National League or the virtual world. For me, defending has to come first. Playing out with the ball has to come second."
Now we've sorted the additions to Newcastle's new-look squad, let's dive into Allardyce's preferred system.
More often than not, he would deploy a standard 4-3-3 formation with one holding midfielder and two pacey wide men who look to cut inside but considering his options at St James' Park and the team he wants to build, he has opted for a simple 4-4-2 formation.
"If you're playing 4-4-2, your emphasis has to be on playing off the front two quickly," he says.
"You can't play a slow build-up through midfield. If you're playing two upfront, it's very important to feed those two players as quickly and as often as you possibly can. It keeps them on the move and keeps you creating. It also threatens defences before they get too many players back behind the ball."
Allardyce has a 'route one' tactical style in his Football Manager attributes as well as a direct style of play, so we integrated those details when creating Newcastle United's tactics and instructions.
Right. Let's get this party started.
Sam Allardyce's reign at Newcastle kicks off with six encouraging pre-season results against some decent opposition, with £38 million signing Dominic Calvert-Lewin finding the net nine times. Divock Origi and Kurt Zouma also score their first goals for the club as fans absorb that glorious 4-4-2 system. Breathe it in.
Newcastle supporter Poppy Duke believes.
A dream start. An opening day win against Antonio Conte's Spurs was certainly a memorable one for Allardyce and his new-look team. Deployed in that key target man role, summer signing Dominic Calvert-Lewin was on a menace on his Premier League debut, bagging one of those trademark headers for the Magpies.
West Ham's newly appointed captain Declan Rice, another summer signing, managed to grab a late consolation against Manchester United at Old Trafford but a Bruno Fernandes hat-trick sank the Geordies. But hey, a 3-1 win over local rivals Sunderland made up for it three days later.
To top off a brilliant first month in charge, Big Sam inspired the dressing room as Newcastle ran rampant against Everton in one of the performances of the season as Calvert-Lewin and another summer addition, Kurt Zouma, scored in a 4-0 victory. Not a bad start, eh?
I'm not getting carried away or anything but the Allardyce era is already going down in Newcastle folklore.
United pick up three wins out of four in September, including a 2-1 victory against former club West Ham. The man of the moment? Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Three goals in three games, including a brace at the London Stadium.
To many people's surprise, Newcastle are sitting pretty in sixth at the end of September. Glorious.
The honeymoon period might be over but there is hope.
A narrow defeat to Wolves at St James' Park kicks off a mediocre month, with an emphatic 4-1 win against Crystal Palace [yes Calvert-Lewin scored again] being the highlight after Liverpool knocked Allardyce's men out of the Carabao Cup on penalties.
Realistically speaking, Allardyce can be happy with taking a point from these three games because that's a seriously tricky November schedule.
The summer additions of Seamus Coleman and Kurt Zouma have been crucial in the early stages of this Premier League campaign and keeping Pep Guardiola's team full of riches at bay shows that.
The Allardyce era is back on track.
One defeat in seven during a typically relentless December means Newcastle are in eighth. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Callum Wilson have formed a telepathic connection up top, scoring eight goals in seven games between them. And captain marvel Declan Rice continues to run the show from midfield.
Note: Divock Origi has yet to score in the famous black and white stripes. But trust me, he makes up for it later.
Erm, let's just forget about January, shall we?
February and March:
A mixed bag of results. Callum Wilson's wonderful hat-trick in a 6-1 drubbing of Crystal Palace was the highlight amongst positive results against Wolves and Brighton, who both sit alongside Newcastle.
The team continue to linger in mid-table; a big improvement on last season's lacklustre performance in the Premier League under Steve Bruce.
Note: Divock Origi still hasn't scored. The deadly partnership of Wilson and Calvert-Lewin means he has been limited to substitute appearances under Allardyce in the virtual world.
April and May:
*Divock Origi and Sam Allardyce breathe a collective sigh of relief*
The month of April belongs to the Belgian striker, who cost £14.25 million. He not only scored his first of the campaign against overachieving Norwich but three days later, he bagged a 90th-minute winner against former club Liverpool in a dramatic 2-1 win.
It was certainly a positive end to a season inspired by summer signings. A convincing final day win against Southampton meant Allardyce's Newcastle finished in a very respectable 12th place, level on points with Spurs and 23 points above the relegation zone.
You can see the final Premier League table below.
In total, five summer signings out of a possible six featured in Newcastle's best eleven at the end of the 2021/22 campaign, with centre-back Kurt Zouma picking up a 7.28 rating; the highest of any player.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin grabbed the club's golden boot award with 18 goals in 41 starts, while goalkeeper Sam Johnstone enjoyed a solid season with an overall rating of 7.00.
But the question remains. What could have been with Harry Kane up top?
"There aren't many 20 or 25 goal men out there," Allardyce says. "And there aren't too many Harry Kane's around. There's quite a few that score 10 or 15 but Harry will get the 20 mark. He will win you football matches you sometimes don't deserve to win."
All things considered, the 67-year-old's expertise helped Newcastle to a respectable finish in the league.
His nous in the transfer market certainly gave them a much-needed boost, with target man Calvert-Lewin slotting into his cautious but effective system alongside strike partner Callum Wilson.
Allardyce's decision to appoint Declan Rice as captain was another solid move, as was the addition of Everton full-back Seamus Coleman, who brought a team leader mentality to the dressing room.
It was fascinating to hear the former Premier League manager bring his knowledge to the fantasy football world and now, gamers can win the chance to take part in one-to-one coaching with Allardyce in association with Just Eat.
"It's very exciting for me, to be able to do this," the former Bolton manager said. "I'm going to give a managerial masterclass for 15 minutes but not only that, I'm going to turn up with a takeaway outside their door.
"I've got plenty of time on my hands now and to bring some joy to all the gaming gaffers will be great. I'm confident my decades of experience will give players an added edge in the virtual leagues.
"I look forward to the winner joining in and getting the opportunity to meet them."
To be in with a chance of receiving face-to-face, expert managerial advice and a free takeaway delivered by Allardyce himself, fans can email [email protected] stating why they would benefit from his wisdom, and of course, what their favourite takeaway is.
Featured Image Credit: Sports Interactive
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