Tony Pulis: English football’s last great reactionary

Tony Pulis: English football’s last great reactionary

THE BRITISH PUBLIC HAVE, in recent times, shunned their own traditional footballing culture with a sort of self-effacing embarrassment, as if watching Jamie Oliver serve a plate of egg on chips to Raymond Blanc. One man who’s suffered more than most from the effects of this attempted public imposition of uniformity over their side’s footballing style is Tony Pulis.

The managerial style he honed at stoke, gradually more maligned as his reign went on, should be cherished as an act of counter-revolutionary brilliance in the face of an armada of continental managers and players that have swept over the league in the past decade, shaping it’s face interminably away from it’s history.

The reality of the British public’s distaste when faced with an embodiment of it’s own cultures is part of a wider trend of the British public’s tendency to assume what is continental is, by default, superior to what is home-grown. One can imagine the housewives of rural Surrey peeping furtively over there hedges in the hopes of catching a glimpse of André Villas-Boas – the immaculately tailored Portuguese import – but elegance and efficacy are oft confused in football and whether or not he could lay a decent bit of grout around your bath remains open to debate.

The assessment of Pulis as an antiquated and ignorant throwback in our most cerebral of games suffers from this wider phenomenon. Take, for example, the British presses two most loved foreign managers, Diego Simeone and Jürgen Klopp. Both identified as being unique for the tactical ingenuity they showed when winning league titles Spain and Germany respectively. How did they do this?

Jürgen Klopp’s slickly branded gurgen-press philosophy has been well received by the British press and public, and he’s been widely acknowledged as one of the most tactically adept coaches of his era. However, his greatest fascination is with aggressive running and impeccable organisation, hardly a groundbreaking change in tactical trends, but it’s spoken about as such. Tony Pulis was never afforded the same honour when he had Jermaine Pennant bounding up and down the touchline like a red setter after his favourite tennis ball game after game.

In the same way, Diego Simeone’s preference for playing with two banks of four, excessive height in his side and an obsession with set plays – his side scored the most of any side in a top European league last season – is lauded. As is his side’s tenacity in their role as the perpetual underdog against Spain’s great footballing duopoly, a courtesy never been afforded to a British manager like Pulis who assumed the same tools to attempt to break through the oil-stained glass ceiling that confines any smaller British club in the top-flight.

As Pulis guided the club to continual mid-table finishes, public distaste at the style he adopted to do so spiralled. The season in which public opinion – including parts of Stoke’s own fans – finally turned against Pulis was in the season of the club’s Europa League campaign, in which they reached the knockout stages before bowing out after a trip to Valencia and the Mestalla.

Stoke’s league form that season – they finished 14th, a long way from trouble – was deemed insufficient in conventional wisdom. But larger teams have struggled domestically during continental runs of late, and been judged more fairly. Take Roberto Martínez’s Everton side; so bad was their domestic form in the campaign just gone, they flirted with relegation before eventually being unceremoniously ejected from European competition by Dynamo Kyiv and retrieving some league form.

Martínez, at the helm of a larger club with nominally superior players, had only fleeting questions cast over his future at the club. Pulis was not afforded the same belief from the public or the press, and survived only one more season at Stoke. Following another respectable mid-table finish, he bowed to the pressure of the prevailing public opinion and left the club by mutual consent.

With the recent passing of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, one would have thought the British public might have overcome a psychological obsession with the pint-sized European generals, but their influx into the midfields of British sides continues unabated, seemingly leaving little room for hulking, brawny players – nor the Pulis school of management that fosters their unique talents so ably – in our modern game.

Pulis’s style of man-management too has fallen out of vogue in football. Nowadays, managers are expect to behave as if their technical area is a hyper-sanitized American boardroom – all high-fives and back-slaps and dizzying levels of positivity, and Pulis and his role of the fierce disciplinarian are thought to be archaic. But just as his tactical style has it’s own merit in eeking a higher level of performance from players than their talents would supposedly allow, so to does his man-management style.

The two most hard-working players in the system Pulis favours are the wingers. In the most successful years of his career Matthew Etherington filled that role on the left flank, with Jermaine Pennant on the other. These were two players with publicly noted battles with addiction – Etherington with gambling and Pennant with alcohol. While this does not in any way imply they are of questionable character, it does mean they may be more susceptible than most to distraction from their work by off-the-field issues.

The reality is that, as effective as the Harry Redknapp’s mind ‘ow you go son style or Jürgen Klopp’s on-field bear-hugging approach can be, their inverse has it’s advantages too. Should old-school non-conformists like Pulis be erased from the game, swathes of players with disciplinary foibles may never see their true potential harnessed by a coach who knows how handle them.

In November 2013 Pulis was appointed manager of Crystal Palace, with the club rooted to the bottom of the table and staring headlong into a future in the second tier. He immediately re-energised and re-organised the team, and after the January transfer window, where he brought in five of his own players on deadline day, a side that had hitherto been hopelessly outclassed in the division went on a run of five consecutive victories.

Scott Dann, Joe Ledley and Jason Puncheon, in particular, proved inspired signings, and Palace finished 11th that season, on 45 points. Pulis was awarded the Manager of the Year award and it seemed at last he might receive the plaudits his performances deserve. He was to leave the club on the dawn of the new campaign, with disagreements over transfer targets sighted as the reasoning.

Pulis was again left on the sidelines, awaiting another opportunity. In January 2015, he was called in to perform another fire fighting job, this time at perennial divisional yo-yoers West Bromwich Albion. In another example of inspired transfer activity, he recruited Joleon Lescott and Darren Fletcher, two signings who provided defensive solidity and considerable experience to his side. The Baggies finished 13th, on 45 points at the end of a season that included a 1-0 win at Old Trafford as well as a 3-0 victory over newly-crowned champions Chelsea. It’s a mark of the stability Pulis imbibes his sides with that a team forever threatened with relegation is now odds-on by a long chalk to finish above the drop zone in the coming campaign.

When Pulis calls an end to his time in the game, and one suspects that won’t be too far into the future, he’ll leave a remarkable legacy. But it won’t be counted in trophies. Stoke, Crystal Palace and now West Brom will all be left with an indelible mark. Unflagging defensive rigidity, unparalleled work-rate, and unapologetic use of extreme height and set-pieces to nick goals against the run of play will all remain in those sides DNA for along time to come, and while Mark Hughes and Alan Pardew continue to put their own stamp on those first two sides, their spines and their foundations remain Pulis inspired.

When he departs the game then, Tony Pulis will most likely leave three traditionally smaller clubs in a stable position in the top flight, a more significant achievement than most who have managed in this most frantic of leagues can boast. More than that though, his career has been a hymn to traditional British football, of which he’ll leave a seam running through the premier league into the future. The maintenance of those traditions will stand as an immeasurable service to a game whose beauty is so often in it’s diversity.

By David Irwin. Follow @davidj_irwin

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