Hovering precariously over the rim of relegation, three relative Premier League institutions embody the past, recent present and potential – though publicly quashed – future of a fellow piece of top-flight furniture. Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City – mired, at the time of writing, in 17th, 19th and 20th positions, respectively, at almost the midway stage of the English league season – reveal much of the media’s hubris and public cynicism surrounding Welshman Tony Pulis; a managerial quality forever fused with the tagline ‘never once relegated from such environs’. This ‘safe pair of hands’ guided the Potters reliably, and quite admirably in a position at one of the few clubs to profess local ownership and modest financial constraints, over five seasons to top-flight mid-table stability, belied the jurisdiction of his sacking with an impervious aversion mission at Crystal Palace the season later, and once again transformed a club protracted in internal dysfunction to a healthy Warwickshire environment capable of forging into the top eight last season, prior to a post-Christmas hangover. The victim of heightened expectations – or, as argued by some opinionated quarters, a failure to adapt – in cases in both Staffordshire and at the Hawthorns, Pulis has regularly been praised for his down-to-earth persona, pragmatic tactical determination and unifying morals, yet rarely for his inspiration to future coaches, or influence on the sport’s professional ranks. Yet, for a man of such humble backdrops, he is the only helmsman to have achieved the recognition of a Premier League Manager of the Season award – while at Palace, in 2013-14 – to have not, in the same term, qualified for European competition, and only the fourth to have not finished champions; Harry Redknapp, with Spurs’ fourth-placed 2010-11 finish, alongside the fifth-place finishes of both George Burley, of Ipswich in 2000-01, and Alan Pardew with Newcastle in 2011-12, in completing the list.
What separates the longevity of Pulis’ Premier League era stint, however, is a tenacity that, if what we are led to believe by mass media rhetoric is true, has instilled a domineering reign of mutual respect at each mid-table club he has helmed. For all of the multi-national accomplishments of Pardew, Mark Hughes, Paul Clement and the apparent leading contenders for what appears a poisoned Swansea chalice – continental flavours, and leading 1998 World Cup centre-backs, Slaven Bilić and Frank de Boer – rarely have they been treated as authoritative or sage employees by varying media forms, fans or even boards under which they serve. Certainly not on a consistent basis, at least. This is not an occurrence of mere coincidence. If applying ancient clichés, respect is very much earned in this arena, and actions speak much louder than words. Both adages have benefitted the stature of Pulis; a man of such few conceited utterances, and who has far exceeded the constraints of his playing days. Rarely straying far from his Pillgwenlly birthplace – a season representing Happy Valley in Hong Kong, aside – in familiar coastal settings from Bristol and Newport, to Bournemouth and Gillingham, the centre-back forged a reputation as a relative journeyman in both his playing and early managerial days; never settling in any position of employment, since his first six years of professional football at Bristol Rovers, for more than three seasons until spending the mid-to-late 1990s as Gillingham boss, and only replicating the feat at Stoke for seven consecutive seasons from 2006. Yet he has proven unduly successful even in short-term employment. Despite never holding aloft any individual trophy in his management career – spanning three divisions and eight clubs, never further north than the Britannia Stadium – and only once contributing as a player to a fruitful competition performance in the 1986-87 Third Division season with Bournemouth, his reputation is well founded within the game.
For all of the cultish resonance of his achievements, there are few secrets shrouded behind his character. Ten consecutive seasons of Premier League football pale only in comparison to the historic longevity of an exclusive octuplet including Sir Alex Ferguson (1992-2013), Arsène Wenger (1996-), Harry Redknapp (1994-2001, 2003-13), Sam Allardyce (2001-11, 12-), David Moyes (2002-14, 16-), Mark Hughes (2004-), Steve Bruce (2002-06, 07-12, 13-15) and Martin O’Neill (1996-2000, 06-10, 11-13) in respects of season-by-season experience, yet each of those in the aforementioned pact achieved qualification for continental competition, and – in all but Hughes’ case – lifted trophies, when including play-off final victories, during reigns at their respective clubs. To be entrusted with the security of Premier League livelihoods at Stoke, Crystal Palace and West Brom – clubs now led astray, and possibly fatally, by Hughes, salvaged from de Boer’s misjudged appointment by fellow trusted hand Roy Hodgson and left in a dire position to Pardew, respectively – demonstrates another factor that must cultivate a ‘Pulis effect’.
Could this effect, quite possibly, have found its demise in this era of widespread tactical revolution, however? It, after all, cannot be for any reason yet in public knowledge other than tactical expiration that his Baggies were found out so dramatically this season, leaving Pardew with such a dramatic aversion mission. As far as those in close proximity to the club have revealed, there were no resonant divides in dressing room morale, nor in boardroom relationships, courtesy of what could only be fathomed as uncharacteristic Pulis action, while nor was transfer business – such a forte of the Welshman’s influence – particularly fallible in the most expensive outing of any season, let alone window, of Pulis’ managerial career. To give this prognosis, though, disregards the practical factors of any manager’s employment. The presence that loomed over any potential weakness in his stewardship, fundamentally, was that of Lai Guochuan, the reportedly ‘football-mad’ landscape development/construction entrepreneur who completed a Chinese takeover of all four Birmingham and Black Country clubs, in this instance on behalf of Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Limited. Having established reliable rapports with Jeremy Peace – who, according to a 2013 Daily Express report amidst the sacking of five managers in three years, ran the club with a ‘rod of iron’, while forcing each manager to accept the title of ‘head coach’ – Steve Parish and Peter Coates at the Baggies, Eagles and Potters respectively, Pulis led a stable career prior to the Chinese consortium’s August 2016 Hawthorns buyout. Stable, at least, to the extent that any Premier League manager’s career security can be.
Fundamental to any form of employment – football, other sports, or otherwise – chairmanship, and ownership often entwined within it, cannot feign its culpability in destabilising a working environment. Especially in as volatile an existing atmosphere as the Premier League, to underestimate the impact of corporate expenditure across each individual employee of the institution in question – from coaches, to players, to ground staff, HR and the dearly loved canteen ladies – is to forget one’s place in the structure of any effective organisation. Unfortunately for Guochuan, the first season of his serious influence – after investing only while 2016-17 pre-season preparations reached a culminative stage – only witnessed a continuation of the previous term’s post-February demise; belying a pre-Christmas position of 7th, and 17 consecutive weeks at 8th, to finish 10th, with just five points taken from their closing twelve outings. Enabling Pulis to recruit Jay Rodriguez, Oliver Burke, Kieran Gibbs and Gareth Barry, alongside loan signatures Ahmed Hegazi and Grzegorz Krychowiak, and presumably promoting the concept of Chinese striker Zhang Yuning himself, Guochuan, through the transmission of Chairman John Williams (formerly of Blackburn Rovers), disrupted usual activity to an evidently unacceptable extent. In its entirety, this was not a standard Pulis window; the aforementioned four British permanent signings aligning with a status quo of the Welshman’s desire to revitalise downtrodden and misguided careers, but the valuable Scottish commodity of Darren Fletcher lost to Midlands rivals Stoke, and Yuning representing a £6.5 million outlay that was worthless in the short-term, while being loaned out to Werder Bremen. Never would Pulis be so profligate with his funds, nor with the career of one of his valued playing assets, with whom he often intends to guard with immeasurably principled credit. This was certainly far from the relationship Pulis had with one particular figure; loyalty once professed in the instance that when Coates was prised away from the Stoke chairmanship in 1999, and the duo bonded during the manager’s 2002-05 stint under Icelandic Potteries ownership, four weeks after signing a new contract a Pulis furious with the Stoke Holding SA’s inattentive rule of the club was sacked four weeks later, before being reappointed when the Englishman regained his ownership in May 2006.
This is certainly not to argue Pulis is impervious to blame. A resistance to tactical adaptation defined much of his 2017-18 tenure, with both 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 systems accused of conservatism and a failure to implement the talents of Rodriguez, or goal-shy Venezuelan talisman Salomón Rondón. Persisting with the unorthodox centre-back-at-full-back strategy that proved reasonably effective in the previous campaign in nullifying far-post headed threats, and contributing to personal set-piece menace, and often refuting the need for a creative midfielder in amongst Livermore, Barry and Krychowiak’s merely disruptive bullishness, flexibility was neither available, or enacted. Scorched by a 2-0 defeat suffered at the Emirates in late September, innovation was largely shelved after experimenting with a 3-5-2 approach that only exacerbated the lack of midfield variety. Yet this did not prevent arguably two of the Baggies’ most admirable performances – a King Power Stadium 1-1 which condemned Craig Shakespeare to the chop, and a 3-2 defeat that temporarily threatened Manchester City’s imperious title charge – and their respective moves towards 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 formations, for once with nigh-on the correct personnel; including Gareth McAuley’s return from injury, in the former case Nacer Chadli’s parole from defensive responsibility, and in the latter the responsibility of Allan Nyom and Gibbs as wing-backs, as opposed to Craig Dawson as a maligned full-back. Ultimately, however, further defeats at the hands of Huddersfield and Chelsea, without scoring, condemned the inevitable, given the circumstances.
In many respects, sadly, it is Pulis’ professionalism and principles that both represent his restrictions in the present era, in conjunction with his durability in the preceding period. Confining him from the upper echelon, or even a calibre of management amongst continental competition, has been his reliance on stability, and inability to sacrifice security for temporary entitlement; the kind witnessed, for example, by Harry Redknapp’s travails at Portsmouth. As with every manager, the performances and constraints of his teams have reflected correspondingly on Pulis’ battle-hardened resolve; accentuated in the instance of defeat. A penance which Pardew must heed, Hughes may well feel the reckoning of – albeit at a club, under the aforementioned Coates, where a sacking culture is defiantly opposed – and Clement has since experienced at a Mumbles outfit where American ownership has only delivered austerity, as opposed to the relevance promised; modern’s football foibles glare for all to bear witness to in such callous cases.
What may yet salvage countryman Hughes from the fate of Pulis, however, is the vision in which Coates invested sufficiently enough to topple his ally from an ultimate position at the Potteries. Despite never finishing below 14th in his five years in the Premier League, the bespectacled, perpetually tracksuit-festooned boss equally never lifted the Potters above 11th position at the close of any season, and the immediate eradication of this record by Hughes – 9th upon arrival, in the 2013-14 season – asserted the transfixion with a more expansive, perhaps optimistic, aura surrounding the club, and influencing both transfer policy and tactical innovation. If we are led to believe what mass media perpetuated about the shift of the age, it could have been as if Brian Clough replaced Don Revie at Leeds United all over again – yet without the swift demise of the former, and the title-laden achievements of the latter.
Do his exploits also reveal pertinent queries about the future lifespan of resource-defying coaches including, most prominently, Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and arguably Clement, alongside rising forces Lee Johnson, Gary Rowett, Neil Harris and the re-emergent (but sacked, minutes after this was uploaded) Garry Monk? Akin to Pulis, each of these entities bolsters a majority of management resources unable to cultivate the cultish features of a select few; they are not the modern male chauvinist, nor the slick image of widespread acclaim, or even the grizzly ex-champion. Upon retrospective evidence, it is easy to argue that to achieve at the forefront of modern football, one must – perhaps – protect a potentially vulnerable character courtesy of overawing, and perceptive, media manipulation. Taking a broader stance over the incessant demands of elite-level management, however – tasked with the cultivation of rather particular skills in training, tactical innovation, personnel management, scouting observations, board meetings, commercial demands, community engagements and award evening appearances all before the burden of media duties – observing such a manipulation as pre-emptive, and as a pivotal pre-requisite to fortune, may be a rather cynical perspective. Yet such are the repetitive irks, corrections and elaborations of Messrs Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp, Conte, Wenger and Pochettino that they certainly appear to often have dominance over common perceptions of the sport. The journalistic profession has, in many respects, been forced to accept the cultivation of personalities by a mass commercial machine in the highly monetised Premier League era, and those for whom the results have proven disabling, unfortunately, include Pulis.
If employing the example of Dyche, the depiction of his success with Burnley this season – sixth, at the time of writing, in league proceedings – has been one ever-so short of a miracle, but of an astounding feat only within the capacity of a select few managers. Such, these forms have equally argued, he should be rewarded with positions at Everton and Leicester. Coincidentally, I’m absolutely sure, these were the only vacant positions when Burnley were charging to their current position. Regardless of their statures teetering over the relegation zone, both the Foxes and Toffees were apparently the more suitable environment for one of Dyche’s clearly proven ability. As many have observed over Twitter, these sources equally state the case for Andy Carroll as an ‘alternative option’ for Gareth Southgate’s England side ‘in a tournament environment of various challenges’ after one goal from the towering striker punctuates a torrid injury-ridden recent career, and calls for the head of Wenger in each Arsenal defeat, regardless of the preceding form of the North Londoners. The duplicity is quite often astounding, but evidently effective; once a common rhetoric has been formed, seldom can it be compromised, for fear of the potential inquisition.
Considering their common fate in the media, it is perhaps not the case of tepid or insipid personal relations, but more of an aversion to those excluded from an esteemed class, for which Pulis and those aiming to exceed his modest feats from similarly humble backgrounds have to take umbrage. In remittance of Guochuan’s investment, it should not have been Pulis’ culpability that was heightened by recent events at the Hawthorns, yet neither would I wish the misfortune of the Swansea job upon him as penance. What the chairmen of these clubs require are pliable facets possessing little of Pulis’ bare-faced, brazen steel, and individuals who would not pit factions within what is considered an institution firmly under a billionaire’s prerogative. Quite simply, he was inflexible, and uncontrollable to the point beyond control, for a billionaire used to his own way.
Perhaps it is the fate of a generation beyond the Welshman that, while entering into a managerial environment of such prominent and recurrent pitfalls, subservience and a reliance on investment will only be accentuated. These figures could be stretched beyond all sense of reality in terms of responsibility as such trends in ownership and commercialisation intensify. Contrasting with pragmatic, principled local investment – a practice not upon which the unremarkable Pulis has been solely reliant, but certainly with which he thrives – the ultra-competitive fantasies of global magnates only persecute the livelihoods of those for whom the sport is a true passion.
Some may argue that few would fail to operate successfully in stable, principled hierarchies. When contemplating Pulis’ career, however, it is the extent to which he exceeds the economic capabilities of his outfits that provides the pivotal proof of his abilities. A basic observation of this just underlines how much success is a reciprocal process between management – from both fiscal and practical sporting circumstances. It appears easy to stray into clichés over his influence, but to analyse the truth of a decade of Premier League action, a number of evident correlations surmise the Newport man’s self-effacing achievements, and align with the old adages of various ancient philosophies. A few good men, those of Pulis’ ilk may be, but not without the requisite capacities for pragmatism. These are the greatest credits to their exploits, and though they may not be appreciated by all, will forever define careers that, though not finished in even the 59-year-old Welshman’s case, cannot realistically change course.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!