BIG SAM DELIVERS ON HIS PROMISE
It may have taken three weeks longer than he expected but Sam Allardyce has delivered what he promised when he took over at West Ham - a return to the Barclays Premier League at the first attempt.
The Hammers missed out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season but they made up for it in style with a 2-1 victory over Blackpool in the play-off final at Wembley.
A year after they were relegated, goals from Carlton Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te, either side of Thomas Ince's equaliser, secured top-flight football and the estimated £90million booty that comes with it.
Vindication, then, for owners David Sullivan and David Gold, who opted for pragmatism over sentiment when they turned to Allardyce last summer to sift through the wreckage of Avram Grant's disastrous reign.
Vindication too, for Allardyce, back in among the elite at the expense of relegated Blackburn, whose controversial owners Venky's sacked him in 2010 for no apparent reason.
At the expense of Bolton, the club he turned into Premier League mainstays. And, of course, at the expense of Saturday's vanquished opponents Blackpool, who axed Allardyce after he narrowly failed to guide them to promotion in 1996.
West Ham may have taken the scenic route back to the promised land, but it has not always been so pretty this season.
Allardyce struggled to win hearts and minds at Upton Park, enduring a fractious relationship with the fans who were sceptical of his perceived direct style of play from the moment he was appointed.
At a club where winning ugly is frowned upon, drawing ugly was frankly unacceptable and home stalemates against lowly Crystal Palace, Doncaster and Watford were greeted with boos from the stands despite the Hammers' position near the top of table.
Allardyce quickly tired of being quizzed about the so-called 'West Ham way', and after one match told supporters who chanted 'we play on the floor' that they were "deluded".
Despite this depressing backdrop, the Hammers were still plodding along in second spot behind Southampton and looking set fair for a return to the top flight.
However, Reading's stunning end to the season changed all that as they came up on the rails to snatch the title, pushing Saints into second and West Ham into play-off purgatory.
Yet the Royals may have inadvertently done Allardyce a favour as what seemed the most joyless of promotion campaigns suddenly became interesting.
Far from wallowing in the disappointment of narrowly missing out automatically, 'Big Sam' came into his own.
Having limbered up with a 6-0 thrashing of Brighton - without a long ball in sight, incidentally - West Ham calmly dispatched Cardiff 5-0 over two legs of a one-sided semi-final.
Such is the perverse nature of the play-off system, third place brought with it the reward of a first Wembley appearance since 1981 and 40,000-odd fans, including the sceptics and the booers, lapped it up.
The jeers turned to cheers as Kevin Nolan, the £4million summer signing from Newcastle, became the first Hammers captain to lift a trophy at the national stadium in 32 years.
Job done for Allardyce, whose next task will be to emulate the Bolton years - top-half finishes, mixing it with the big boys and regularly ruffling the feathers of the likes of Arsene Wenger.
He will fancy his chances, too. Self-doubt has never been an Allardyce failing. And if he can win over these West Ham fans, then you would not bet against him rising to any challenge.
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