LONDON • Like a man treading over broken glass, Sam Allardyce winces as he recalls the shattering of his ambitions as England manager.
Anger, embarrassment, hurt, self-recrimination - it all tumbles out painfully as Allardyce recalls for the first time how he paid for being a "f*****g idiot" with the job of his dreams.
Sitting in a London restaurant, the anguish is still palpable. Suggest to Allardyce that he has a thick skin and he replies: "Not on this."
The usual boisterousness, his joy at saving Crystal Palace from Premier League relegation, fades as he tells of his downfall and the long drive back up the motorway immediately after the sudden termination of his England reign eight months ago.
He reckons that it took him more than five solitary hours in his Mercedes, drifting along at 80kmh on an empty motorway, unable to listen to the radio, stuck with his thoughts, on a road to nowhere.
"I had never driven back so slowly in my life. I just drove in silence," he says. What was he thinking? He gazes down at his glass of white wine. "Just 's***, s***, s***'."
When he eventually arrived at his modest house in Bolton in the twilight hours of a traumatic day, it was to an ambush. Two paparazzi jumped out of the bushes. Allardyce stood there, resignedly, for a photo.
I couldn't watch. I tried to but I couldn't. It was Wembley and I hadn't even had the opportunity to get a game under my belt at Wembley. It was a gut-wrencher, that.
SAM ALLARDYCE, Crystal Palace manager, on trying to watch an England match on TV after being sacked as national team manager.
Inside, his wife, Lynn, was sitting up, waiting for him. "I just sat there with the missus. She says, 'Whatever comes our way, we'll get over it and get on with it'. Mind you, we didn't realise it was going to get that bad."
They fled to their holiday home on the Costa Blanca, Big Sam's Villa, but, pursued by cameras, ended up living like fugitives, ducking out of sight. "We lived with the blinds down in 30 deg C heat for weeks," he says.
The low point came when, less than a fortnight after he lost his job, England faced Malta in what would have been Allardyce's first game at Wembley, leading out the national team. Sitting in his villa, he tried to watch but had to give up after 10 minutes watching Gareth Southgate's team.
"I couldn't watch," he says. "I tried to but I couldn't. It was Wembley and I hadn't even had the opportunity to get a game under my belt at Wembley. It was a gut-wrencher, that. That would have been a big moment for me. I wasn't just proud to be the England manager. I was also ready."
The curse of the England tracksuit? "You know it's going to happen to you sooner or later," he says. "It just happened to me far too soon."
Even in the turbulent history of the national team, it was an extraordinary episode - and, in many ways, still a little baffling.
Allardyce is not about to deny that he messed up. "I should have kept my big mouth shut," he says of the newspaper sting that he should have seen coming.
But Scott McGarvey, an agent down on his luck, kept pestering him to meet these businessmen who were dangling lucrative opportunities.
"He was so desperate, the lad, for this position, and I thought there was no harm going along and seeing if I could help him," Allardyce says. "And he was saying it was possible that on the back of that there could be something in it for me, if I fancied it."
Undercover reporters tried to draw Allardyce on bungs but, as is often overlooked, he reacted with indignation. "What are you talking about, you idiot?" he retorted.
They discussed third-party ownership of players but hardly in a way that was sinister. They offered well-paid speaking engagements, which he said he could accept with the Football Association's (FA) approval.
He stayed too long, had a glass of wine too many. "You know me. Someone asks and I give them an opinion. My missus always tells me, 'You do too much'. That caught me again."
In truth, he had said little that was incriminatory but "England Manager For Sale" was the shock-horror story.
After ensuring Palace's safety, he says that he feels healed, reinvigorated by what he has achieved. He seems to mean it, believe it. Yet, at home in his wardrobe is his England suit and the FA tracksuit, reminders of what he had all too briefly.
"I have been England manager," he says. "I did reach the pinnacle of my career by actually getting that job."
But would you take it again? "No. Not now," he replies ruefully - moving on, yet forever stuck with his thoughts of what might have been.
THE TIMES, LONDON