Big Sam Allardyce is one of the most respected men in British football. He should be, having clawed his way up the ladder both as a player and manager.
Now the boss at Blackburn Rovers, Allardyce took time out from the cut and thrust of Premiership nuances and recently spent some time on vacation in Cayman with his wife and like many before him, loved it.
Another Premiership manager was staying at the Ritz-Carlton Residences at the same time, Alex McLeish, the Birmingham City boss.
Relaxing at Ritz’s Seven restaurant, Allardyce said: ‘Unfortunately, I’m only here for one week. We had a 10-day stay in Fort Lauderdale and flew here for two reasons.
‘One was because we visited Cayman a couple of times on a cruise ship, came off and enjoyed walking around the island and we’d never actually spent our vacation on any Caribbean island.
‘The other is that I am very fortunate to be friends with Bryan Robson (ex-England and Manchester United skipper) and he said with his friend Ronnie Wood (Rolling Stones), they own a property at the Ritz-Carlton Residences and offered us a week here. So we booked a flight straight away. We couldn’t wait to get here.
‘I think it’s lived up to every expectation we had. Cayman seems a very safe, secure island. I think that’s one of the things we’ve enjoyed. The weather, obviously us Brits is what we come for. That along with the service and hospitality of not just the Ritz but everybody we’ve met is fantastic.’
Allardyce immediately struck up a friendship with Jeffrey Webb, the Cayman Islands Football Association president.
‘I’ve met Jeff through Alex and I’m a great friend of Carl Brown who is doing your academy here and he spent many months with us when I was manager at Bolton. We’ve really enjoyed coming to the island and hope we’ll be back very shortly.’
Allardyce, 54, is impressed with the progress Cayman is making in its football infrastructure, particularly the recently opened Centre of Excellence in Prospect.
‘Speaking to Carl and Jeff, I know there’s been a massive input financially into the facilities and I know that if anybody wants to do anything in football to develop one of your own to become a Dwight Yorke or Ricardo Gardner, that’s important.
‘I was very fortunate to inherit Gardner at Bolton when I arrived in 1999. He was only a young man of 20 then and he’s only 30 now and still playing for Bolton in the Premier League.
‘He’s been a great ambassador for the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica and hopefully with these new facilities with Carl at the helm and Jeff pushing it, you can catch the young lads early enough to commit and dedicate themselves.
‘That’s what it’s really about. Alex talked about the natural talent we all look for. But after the natural talent, with your structure now you’ve got to get the dedication from the player and you’ll find a little diamond or black pearl out of your little island.’
Is there a chance that Blackburn might pass this way on their travels?
‘We’ve got no problems travelling the world for a tournament in pre-season. We’re going to Madeira this year to play in a four-team little tournament.
‘We were nearly going to China, so we have no problems if somebody structures a little tournament. So you’ve already got Blackburn and Birmingham!
‘Cayman’s got to weight up the financial commitment to bring one or two Premier League teams here. But if you think it’s viable and good for the island we’d be more than willing to take up the adventure. I’m sure that not just me and Alex would love to come back here but the staff and players would love to come to a place like this.’
Allardyce rescued Blackburn from a relegation dog-fight when he arrived at the end of last year and hopes for a top half finish this term.
‘I’ve experienced the trials and tribulations of relegation fights in my early days at Bolton and then I got them promoted in 2000-01. The first couple of years were tough.
‘I took over from Blackburn on December 17 when we were second from bottom. They only had 13 points after 17 games and we turned that around.
‘It was a big cultural shock for the whole club because Blackburn got promoted at the same time as Bolton and they’ve been in the Premier League ever since and the last two or three years under Mark Hughes they actually competed in Europe once and finished top half on a regular basis. So it was traumatic for the club to be in the relegation zone. So that goes to show you how delicate and easy it is to fall into that area.
‘So my job as an experienced Premier League manager now is to drive the club forward. I have more ambition now than I’ve probably ever had before which is a good thing for Blackburn Rovers. I won’t settle for second best and that’s a good thing.’
His ambition knows no bounds and Big Sam was on the short list for the England job a couple of years ago. He probably still wants that coveted post and success at Blackburn could boost his credentials.
Right now though, the focus is solely on attracting support to Blackburn games.
‘We’ve done a fantastic offer for the fans. You can watch Blackburn for as little as £10 (CI$13) a game. We want to fill the stadium and get an great atmosphere at Ewood Park. We want to be an attractive Premier League side competing against the big boys and enjoying our football. Last year not too many of us enjoyed our football because of the pressure of being in the relegation zone.’
But Blackburn will have to do that without Roque Santa Cruz who recently joined Mark Hughes at Manchester City for around $30m. Allardyce was resigned to that.
‘It was always going to happen this summer. In the end Roque wasn’t prepared to stay that little bit longer. I can understand his ambition.
‘He played at a massive club, Bayern Munich. He always used us as a tool to prove himself in the Premier League and to try and go bigger. I think Blackburn always understood that. Ultimately, that was what John Williams, the chairman, pointed out to me when I arrived.
‘Roque moves on with our blessing. We’ve created a lot of finance through that. It was good business, but the only problem is how do you replace Santa Cruz?
‘Life moves on. Blackburn Rovers will always be a selling club. It’s a small town club with a population of only 125,000 so we’re always going to be in the market for finding really good players but we’re also resigned to the fact that if the big boys come along prepared to pay the sort of money that Roque can command, the players will always move on.
Last season we got £15 millon (CI$19m) for David Bentley who went to Spurs. This season it’s more than that for Roque. It shows what a good club it’s been in finding quality players.’
Webb is pleased that managers of the calibre of McLeish and Allardyce see Cayman as a viable place for their clubs to do business with.
He said: ‘I’m very pleased to have hosted two Premiership managers in recent weeks. We’ve had a great time with them, hosting and entertaining and hopefully, this will be an annual event for Sam and Alex and hopefully in a few years we’ll start seeing Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers coming over for pre-season tournaments and really start promoting Cayman as a prime sports tourism destination and perhaps make it the Caribbean’s top choice for sports tourism.’