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Tony Pulis: Saviour of the damned

629   //    30 Nov 2016, 00:44 IST
West Bromwich Albion v Burnley - Premier League : News Photo
Tony Pulis is widely regarded as one of the best managers for a club in turmoil

“Whether it’s the internet, radio, or television, there are always areas of debate, but you have to accept it. The media now has become an absolute Monster.”

This statement by the Welsh manager, Tony Pulis, indicated how battle-weary he was after fighting it out with critics hell-bent on constantly criticising the style of play he encourages. One fact that cannot be denied, though, is his ability to work miracles with clubs in a quagmire.

Clubs like Stoke City which got a taste of the Europa League, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, which escaped relegation in two consecutive seasons, will forever be indebted.

Pulis spent his childhood in New South Wales born in a family consisting of 8 people. After a less than impressive footballing career he decided to become a football manager which kicked off his incredible journey .

Pulis’s Beginnings

Pulis began his career at Bournemouth after Harry Redknapp left in search of better opportunities. His 28.97% win percentage in a 2-year spell was an early indication that he had the ability to fight it out even in the toughest of situations. He moved to Gillingham in the year 1995 where he shared an interesting incident about his 4-year spell. 

“They didn’t have a training ground so I got the groundsman to get a tractor, I put two goals on the back and we took them up to the park just up from the stadium. For the first month, doing all my shape and pattern for the new season, there were people walking past, old ladies with their shopping, one fella with his dog,” Pulis recalled.

”This was in the age when dog-walkers did not bother with poop bags. “I said: ‘Excuse me’ and he said: ‘Listen son, I’ve walked this park for 40 years and I don’t care what you are playing,” he added. 

After leaving Gillingham with a 43.52% win percentage in the year 1999 because of an unfortunate dispute with chairman Paul Scally, he decided to take up the gaffer’s role at clubs like Bristol and Portsmouth. He won just 10 out of 33 at Bristol and 11 out of 35 games at the latter which is an indication that his managerial tenure at both these clubs was simply not good enough. 

First spell at Stoke

Stoke City v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League : News Photo
Pulis transformed Stoke into a defensive wall

The Potters offered him an opportunity in the year 2002. The club’s scenario was extremely unfavourable with no manager willing to get scalded in this burning pot. The 2-year period between 2000 and 2002, where he was out of work ended in November of the same year after he took up the role with fresh gusto. Pulis had previously declined an opportunity to manage in 1999 which earned him the wrath of the fans.

The defence lacked the solidity required and changes had to be made at the earliest. Pulis decided to enroll players immediately who could deliver the gameplay he desired. The signings of players like Ade Akinbiyi, Mark Crossley, Paul Warhurst, Lee Mills, and goalkeeper Steve Banks indicated his desire to fight it out till the end. The team was developed into a rock solid unit which never buckled down under pressure.

This approach paid off as the same clubs which used to earlier toy around with the defence found it almost impossible to break them down. Vital victories against clubs like Watford, and Wimbledon improved the morale of the players and the fans, who till then, had resigned themselves to being relegated in a humiliating fashion.

The last game of the season against Reading left them in desperate need of a win against a club which was ranked amongst the top 5 in order to avoid relegation. Ade was the unlikely hero – scoring the only goal. Pulis had managed to achieve a nearly impossible feat which earned him praise from all corners of the footballing world.

In the 2003-04 season, Pulis decided to make changes bringing in players who could fit his philosophy. Defenders like Clint Hill and John Halls joined this revolution which further boosted the squad. The season kicked off on a bright note with 2 consecutive wins in 2 games. Sadly, this momentum could not be sustained with another relegation battle beckoning.

The introduction of experienced defender Gerry Taggart revived the fortunes and helped them finish 11th at the end of a topsy-turvy campaign.

The 2004-05 season also ended on a bitter note with the fans criticising the style of play and lack of entertainment. The12th place finish in the end was way below expectations. June 2005 marked the end of Pulis’s managerial spell at Stoke City after “he failed to exploit the foreign transfer market.”

Pulis  joined up with championship club Plymouth Argyle for one season where he helped them finish 14th in the table.

Second coming

Stoke City’s approach in 2006 was an opportunity for Pulis to take care of unfinished business at his former club. He took up this opportunity enthusiastically and bolstered the squad with players like Fuller and Pericard. The new signings had a superlative impact on the fortunes of the club. The Potters finally finished the season in 8th spot which was a result of his exemplary efforts finally bearing fruit.  

The 2007-08 season was a breakthrough season for Stoke City as they were finally promoted to the Premier League. Shrewd loan signings by Pulis played a critical role in this regard. The 2008-09 and 2010-11 season saw Pulis drive Stoke to safety with limited resources. The period between 2010-11 to May 2013 was an exceptional one for both Pulis and the Potters as they fought it out in the Europa League for the first time.

However, a meeting with chairman Coates, who was under pressure after the fans demanded better league finishes, forced his exit. 

West Ham United v Crystal Palace - Premier League : News Photo
Pulis helped Palace stave off relegation

After starting the season with just one win and nine defeats from the first 10 matches in the Premier League, Crystal Palace desperately needed someone with the same abilities as Pulis. The Welshman took up the role with the work rate dramatically improving under him.

Long balls and set pieces were the main weapons used with great effectiveness as 35 set piece opportunities were created. Ian Holloway’s managerial spell saw Palace concede 21 goals in the 12 games he managed. Pulis vastly improved the club on this factor with the defence allowing just 27 goals in his 27 games. There was less emphasis on passing with a greater focus on keeping the ball upfield.

Palace looked all set to be relegated but Pulis ensured that they finished 11th which earned him the Premier League manager of the season award.

Move to the West Midlands

He then made a move to West Bromwich Albion on 1st January 2015. He shrewdly signed up Jonny Evans, who has been a major contributor at the heart of defence, ensuring that the Baggies avoided relegation finishing 14th at the end of the season.

One major reason for the Irishman’s success has been his improved fitness with injuries playing spoilsport during his time at Manchester United. Pulis, who is very particular about the fitness of his players decided to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated again. Training routines aimed at conditioning the back muscles have helped Evans get back to his best again. 

Lambert, Anichebe, Sessègnon were the major players shipped out during the summer with Pulis clearly considering them surplus to requirements. Hal Robson- Kanu was signed on a free after his impressive performances in Euro 16 for Wales.

The LW position desperately required someone who was creative and capable of finding the back of the net on a consistent basis. Nacer Chadli, the Belgian winger was identified as the perfect signing. After being forced to settle for a role on the sidelines with his game time restricted to rare substitute appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, Chadli was signed up on a club record £13 million deal. 

Hull City v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League - KCOM Stadium : News Photo
Pulis has converted West Brom into a top half side

These transfers have certainly paid off with West Brom currently 9th in the table. Chadli’s performances have certainly boosted his chances of winning back a spot in the national team which was considered improbable earlier.

The Throstles have been scoring goals on a consistent basis with two 4-0 wins this season which is extremely surprising considering the defensive attitude Pulis usually encourages in his players. First-team fitness coach Matt Green’s comments indicate that this success has been possible only because of intense hard work.

“The interval-running develops the boys aerobically and aids their endurance capacity.”

“It is not huge in distance but they are on an incline and that is useful for two reasons: you build real functional strength in your legs, and also because it’s the first week of pre-season you don’t want to do lots of high-speed running due to risk of injury — the gradient prohibits that,” he added.

“The programme has come from the manager, his tried and tested methods he has used over the years. But like most methods that stand the test of time there are solid scientific principles that underpin it.”

He continued, “It is designed to make sure the players are tested and developed so it is certainly very hard work.”

The Baggies look all set to finish in the top 10 this season under their charismatic manager.

Pulis has achieved a great degree of success with his philosophy. A detailed analysis will certainly help in understanding it better. The main formation which Pulis has shown a preference for is a 4-4-2. The centre backs persistently mark the forward with emphasis on positioning. No player is ever caught out of position.

The central midfielders are strong and willing to put in the extra effort necessary to break down the opposition attacks by putting in the tackles. The ball is then played to the wide center halves. The key man in the game plan is the number 10. When out of possession, the number 10 pressurises the opposing playmaker - disrupting his passing. Creativity is not an option for every man in the team. Only the furthest forward player enjoys this freedom. 

Pulis’s impact on the game has been appreciated by many top managers like Sir Alex Ferguson which is a major sign of how impressive he has been so far in his managerial tenure. He will go down as the ideal manager for the perennial underdogs but his ability to overcome the odds in an ever demanding league and not to mention the manager merry go round that so often occurs at smaller clubs, makes him stand out.

With his siege mentality and unique tactics and game style, he will go down as a manager of gifted ability that transforms clubs with low budgets and wages into competitive teams.

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