Big Sam back in the big time with West Ham
There might be something of a marriage of convenience about West Ham United and manager Sam Allardyce, but it all seemed pretty blissful at the final whistle of the Championship play-off final at Wembley on Saturday.
The sun broke through the clouds, thousands of bubbles floated lazily across the ground and everyone connected with the club were united in celebration of the club's immediate return to the Premier League.
The players hastily put on T-shirts proclaiming "nothing beats being back" - and nobody wearing claret and blue inside Wembley was arguing.
Perhaps more than anything else, West Ham's 2-1 victory over Blackpool brought with it a sense of relief.
Hammers skipper Kevin Nolan admitted afterwards that his wild, almost primal celebrations had been fuelled mainly by relief; by the fact that his team had dragged themselves over the line on an incredibly tense afternoon and thus made good on their aim of bouncing straight back.
It appeared to be the same story with Allardyce, as he exhaled deeply before analysing a final that his team could so easily have lost had Blackpool been more clinical in front of goal.
Ricardo Vaz Te scored the winner for West Ham with two minutes remaining on the clock. Photo: PA
The 57-year-old had spent the last few weeks talking about the importance of his team dealing with the pressure that comes with a play-off campaign, of handling their tag as favourites. After his team dismissed Cardiff 5-0 on aggregate in their play-off semi-final it seemed as though the Hammers were peaking perfectly.
But there were times at Wembley, as Blackpool's Thomas Ince repeatedly embarrassed Hammers left-back Matthew Taylor while fellow winger Matt Phillips and forward Stephen Dobbie were presented with great chances, when it looked as though Allardyce's words would ultimately have a hollow ring to them.
To be fair to Allardyce, he had never ducked the issue of what defeat would mean and openly admitted before the final that the success of West Ham's season would be dependent on securing promotion.
Certainly, a defeat for West Ham would have raised more questions than will now be the case at Blackpool following their failure. At Bloomfield Road there will be no debate about the future prospects for manager Ian Holloway, nor about the financial stability or otherwise at the defeated club.
Allardyce himself talked at length about the bruising implications the Football League's decision to adopt Financial Fair Play Regulations would have had at West Ham if they not won promotion.
"Promotion means an awful lot, because now I have not got to face the huge problem of financial fair play and how West Ham would cope with it," said Allardyce.
"It would have been devastating - according to the owners we would have had to decimate the wage bill by £10m, off-load players for little or no fee and still achieve what the fans want."
Instead, Allardyce can now plan for a return to the Premier League, 11 years after he guided Bolton to the top flight via a 3-0 play-off victory over Preston at the Millennium Stadium. That Trotters side have only just been relegated from the top flight and Allardyce is now keen to put in place at Upton Park the sort of steady progress he managed at Bolton before leaving for Newcastle in 2007.
"The task now is keeping West Ham in the Premier League," he said. "At Bolton we did that from virtually nothing, what we have got to do is sustainable, steady growth at West Ham next season."
Listening to Allardyce speak after his team's victory it was obvious that he is a manager who is still driven by a desire to silence his doubters.
"I have had to suffer two sackings - at Newcastle and Blackburn - that were harsh to say the least," he added. "They did damage my reputation but at end of the day I am still achieving great things at the clubs I work for."
But perhaps a little closer to home, Saturday could be the day when the Hammers boss formed an important and much-needed bond with the club's supporters.
Allardyce, a straight-talking, no-nonsense northerner, has not always appeared to be the most natural fit at a club whose fan base still talk about their club as the academy of football, a view that harks back to the trio of players they produced in England's 1966 World Cup-winning side.
And during the course of the season there have been times when it seemed as though Allardyce and the West Ham fan base would never see eye-to-eye, with the manager branding some supporters "deluded" after they chanted "we are West Ham United and we play on the floor" during the Hammers' 2-0 win at Peterborough in March.
But even if some think Allardyce's team are the equivalent of a backstreet bruiser, nobody can argue that he has not made good on his promise to win promotion, even if, as Holloway mused afterwards, it was achieved by the finest of margins.
Yes, there were times during the campaign when Allardyce's Hammers appeared to be overly defensive, grinding out results rather than entertaining. But they scored 81 goals in their 46 regular season fixtures and picked up 86 points on their way to finishing third.
They might have dropped too many points at home but they had the best away record in the division. They were resilient and difficult to beat. They proved at Wembley that they have guts and courage.
"My job is about thrilling fans, giving them what they want and entertaining them," added Allardyce. "We have given them a great victory and a great end to season, getting back to where we want to be."
Some supporters might feel that Allardyce is pushing his luck by suggesting his side are a side of entertainers, but in winning promotion on Saturday he might just have proved that he is not such a bad fit at West Ham after all.