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The Rafa-Sam Feud: Old Myths & Reignited Rivalries

The Allardyce-Benitez tiff is resurrected by a new book and an age-old legend about footballing philosophies

"The guy next to me ate 6 Big Macs for breakfast". "It's true, and he served them to me".
"The guy next to me ate 6 Big Macs for breakfast". "It's true, and he served them to me".
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The international break coincided with my momentary hiatus from our lovely Wanderers website.

This week, one issue has dominated the Bolton Wanderers fan base via a manager in Madrid, and another in the North East. If you didn't already know, Big Sam has a new book, creatively named "Big Sam". Bolton fans have been poring over the snippets of information released so far, desperate for an answer to the mysterious circumstances over Allardyce's decision to leave the Wanderers, and his deteriorating relationship with chairman Phil Gartside.

However, this week has seen a new revelation emerge - Allardyce's comments about the role of managers during the game, and the credit they receive for rolling the dice tactically within an active game.

Unable to resist a sly dig at an old rival, he offered Rafa Benitez's substitutions in the Champions League final in 2005. That night is an untouchable moment in football, one of if not the greatest comeback in footballing history, and on the biggest stage.

Every neutral was a Liverpool fan on that night, and many continued to be so long afterwards. In fact, I had a pale ale-fuelled discussion with a Liverpool fan last night who was once a Manchester United fan, whose loyalties were swayed by the famous Champions League victory in 2005, and the treatment of Manchester United by the Glazer family.

Needless to say, the individual in question was from London. A multitude of cardinal sins committed, I departed by shaking my head and returning for another beer.

Allardyce's comments in his new book that the win over AC Milan was "nowt to do with Benitez" was part of Allardyce's broader point that managers are given too much credit when tactical gambles go their way, and unnecessarily crucified when they do not. However, his old foe took time out of his conference at the most successful club in European football history to retort.

Benitez replied by asking a Spanish reporter: "do you know who Sam Allardyce is?

Do you know how many trophies he has won? Well, that's my answer". Despite sitting in the ivory tower of Real Madrid, Benitez couldn't resist taking a swipe back at Big Sam. The manager of Real Madrid getting into a war of words with the manager of Sunderland. Madness. But Benitez has form. We will get onto that later. And yes, I will be talking facts.

This feud has rumbled on for years now, and we'll take a look at why this lover's tiff has rumbled on through the years.

They're actually quite similar

The two men are actually more similar tan they'd like to admit. Allardyce is essentially jealous that a man like Benitez can continue to get the top jobs in football despite years of limited success, whereas his career has stagnated in the bottom half of the Premier League table. He also blames Rafa for broadcasting the long - ball Allardyce myth that has stood the test of time.

In 2014, Allardyce said that the feud with Rafa had subsided, yet couldn't resist adding: "all that long ball sh*t, the old style, all that rubbish that's never been me and never been a part of who I am". It seems with recent developments as if that feud never went away.

Both men have distinctive styles of football - Allardyce's a statistics based philosophy that attempts to maximise potential chances, whereas Benitez has brought a distinctive passing style of play to every club he has managed, in many cases leaving his teams with a soft underbelly.

This is something that Allardyce took advantage of in their previous meetings, something Benitez did not take too kindly to. More of that later.

Both have an eye for a player. Sometimes, these go horribly wrong. The names Okocha, Djorkaeff, Hierro, Campo and Anelka have almost been immortalised on the terraces in Bolton, so much so that younger fans imagine our golden years as a Space Jam sequel. However, for every Okocha, there was a Blessing Kaku. For every Djorkaeff, a Javi Moreno. For every Anelka, a Michael Bridges.

Benitez's spending at Liverpool was similarly hit and miss. This is the man that brought Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt to the pinnacle of European football, but he's also the man that brought Antonio Nunez, Josemi, Andrea Dossena and Robbie Keane to the Kop.

Both managers have also had relative success across their career, albeit in very different contexts. Benitez's collective trophy cabinet speaks for itself, whereas Allardyce has stabilised many a struggling Premier League club over the years.

He is a man that seems immune to relegation, with many already declaring that Sunderland will once again dodge the Championship grim reaper with him at the helm.

Both men also love a press conference. Allardyce has taken on the big boys both on and off the pitch, ironically labelling Manchester United a "long ball" team after a 1-1 draw between United and Bolton at the Reebok. After Jose Mourinho criticised West Ham's style in their draw at Stamford Bridge some years ago, Allardyce replied: "I don't give a shite (about Mourinho's comments) to be honest. He can't take it because we've out-tacticed him, out-witted him. He just can't cope". Speaking of can't cope, let's talk fact.

It's January 2009. Liverpool sit atop the Premier League table, with Manchester United in second place. Rafael Benitez takes the opportunity of the press conference to talk about facts. Out came a folded piece of A4 paper, listing the sins of Alex Ferguson. He spoke of Sir Alex's disobedience of the Respect campaign, his hold over Premier League referees, and the United bias of the fixture list, even quoting the hours between kick off times during the Christmas schedule.

Rafa had cracked. Steven Gerrard recently spoke of his embarrassment when watching the press conference back. Fergie said in retirement that "It killed him...I didn't need to say anything after that...I was always in control". Despite a 4-1 win at Old Trafford later in that season, United won the league by four points. Many believe that this rant set the tone for the title race, and handed United the title.

Win percentages

Now for more facts. Sam Allardyce had a win percentage of 36% at Bolton, something no Wanderers manager since has matched. His win ratio of 33% at Newcastle is only better by Chris Hughton (60%) and Alan Pardew (38%), although Hughton took the helm in Newcastle's stroll back into the Premier League.

At Blackburn Rovers, his win percentage of 37% has not been matched by any manager at Ewood since, and at West Ham, only Alan Curbishley (39%) and Alan Pardew again (41%) can better his win percentage of 38% in recent years. In short, Allardyce is a bloody good gaffer.

Benitez's record on the other hand appears more impressive, at least on the surface. His win percentages at every club he has managed since Valencia is superior to Allardyce's.

However, we need to come back to context. Rafa has managed some of Europe's best clubs. Allardyce's teams have by and large struggled to make the Premier League's top half, with the exception of Wanderers' top half finishes 2005-2007. Rafa's win percentage at Valencia was 53.5%, but his successors Luis Aragones, Ernesto Valverde and Nuno Espirito Santo have all bettered him (56%, 58% and 63% respectively.

At Liverpool, he has the best record in recent times with 55%, which cannot be bettered by Rodgers, Dalglish, and especially not Roy Hodgson (41%).

In Italy, Rafa's win perecentage of 48% at Internazionale was bettered by Leonardo and Roberto Mancini in recent years. His record of 58% wins at Chelsea is bettered by Mourinho (in both his tenures in West London), Avram Grant (67%), Guus Hiddink (73%) and Carlo Ancellotti (61%).

In short, Rafa isn't as good as those that have followed or preceded him, with the exception of Liverpool.


Rafael Benitez has won pretty much everything there is to be won in club football: La Liga, The Champions League, The FA Cup, Europa League, Italian Supercoppa, Coppa Italia, and Frankie and Benny's Employee of the Month, July 2009. One glaring omission from his CV is the Premier League title, something he failed to win at both Liverpool and Chelsea.

We need to look a little deeper at Rafa's achievements. At Valencia, he smashed the Real-Barca monopoly in Spain by winning La Liga twice. Fair enough. He won Liverpool their fifth Champions League title. Again, can't moan at that. But his Chelsea team, who won the Europa League title, went on to win the Champions League soon after under rookie manager Roberto Di Matteo. He failed to win the Champions League for a second time in 2007. His cup-double winning Napoli team qualified for the Champions League, only to be knocked out in the qualifying rounds. And at Frankie and Benny's, he didn't share his tips with the kitchen staff.

Benitez asked us before what Sam Allardyce has won. The League of Ireland title with Limerick in 1992 has been ironically mentioned as a comment towards Allardyce's lack of success.

But when you look at the clubs he has managed, is it any surprise? For me, Bolton Wanderers playing European football is a bigger achievement than Chelsea winning the Europa League, or Liverpool winning the FA Cup. Success is relative; it can't be measured by trophies alone.

Sam famously said that had his name been Allardici, he would have been given the chance to manage a top four team, a swipe at the lack of opportunity that British managers get at the top jobs.

There are only 9 British managers in the Premier League. Of the teams that qualified for Europe (Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Southampton, Tottenham and West Ham through the fair play back door), only two had British managers; ironically, Sam Allardyce's West Ham and Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers. The two have since been relieved of their duties.

Allardyce said back in 2011 that "I'm not suited to Bolton or Blackburn. I would be more suited for Internazionale or Real Madrid...I would win the double or league title every time". I'm sure you would Sam, I'm sure you would. Shame you'll never get the chance (NB please do not mistake that sarcasm for my actual opinion, even I can't agree with Sam on this one).


Sam is a jealous man, a manager who never got his chance at the top stage. He looks at a man like Rafael Benitez, a man who has had limited success and frequent failures in some of Europe's most envied jobs, and sees what could have been. There was a time where Allardyce could have taken a top job, and is now labelled as a saviour from relegation, a man to be brought into a football club in times of crisis.

He deserved his chance, but it never came.

Rafa is an insecure man, a manager who maybe knows that he isn't an elite manager.

A manager that did wonders at Valencia, achieved the impossible in Istanbul in 2005, but has never hit those peaks again. A series of limited successes and well-known failures since, and Rafa lands himself the most envied job in football. Yet he can't resist reigniting an old feud with a bitter man in the North East.

Speaks volumes.