Unambitious Pulis had Stoke treading water

The departing boss was allowed to take a short-term approach over too long a period, establishing the Potters in the Premier League but either unwilling or incapable of doing more
By George Ankers

The Stoke City faithful were his staunchest (and more or less only) defenders but, by the end, even they had begun to grumble. Tony Pulis had earned their loyalty but it was past time for a change.

Few neutrals found anything much to like about his methods but there is no denying that he did a lot of good for the Potters.

In his first spell at the club, in 2002-03, he arrived mid-season and engineered an impressive escape from relegation into League One and built on that in the following years despite budgetary restraints that eventually prompted his departure. After a year away, Peter Coates returned as chairman and brought the Welshman back. Within two seasons, promotion was secured.


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11th (47 points)
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When Pulis oversaw Stoke's first Premier League season in 2008-09, they took the division, if not by storm, then by the scruff of the neck. Much was made of Rory Delap's long throw-ins but the Potters made full use of their noisy home support and physical strength to comfortably avoid relegation.

The problems, perhaps, began that next summer. Pulis' approach to consolidating in the club's second top-flight season was fine in and of itself – except that it became his approach to every season that followed.

Each summer, the Welshman warned against complacency and bought for solidity, emphasising the need for experience of the top level long after he had established Stoke as mainstays of the division.

Every year, not-inconsiderable sums were spent on grizzled old hands; men who had been there, alright, but had hardly torn up any trees. Dean Whitehead. Robert Huth. Danny Collins. Jermaine Pennant.

That is not to say that some of these players did not do good work for Stoke – in the first half of this season, for instance, Huth was one of the most in-form defenders in England. Peter Crouch, on whom £10 million was spent in 2011, has contributed his fair share of goals. But all of these players were only ever there to fit the cookie-cutter blueprint of 'how to keep a recently promoted club in the Premier League'.

On the rare occasions that Pulis did recruit players who could genuinely have adapted and improved his side to aim higher, he appeared to have little idea of how to handle them. Tuncay Sanli, a £5m signing in 2009, was the most depressing example. A quick, technical player, there was so little room in Pulis' team for him that you wondered why he had been bought in the first place. Within 18 months, he was sold on to Wolfsburg for a loss.

For a loss. That may be the most keenly felt part of Pulis's legacy at the Britannia Stadium in the short-to-medium term. Coates freed up significant sums for his manager to spend and spend he did but, almost without exception, all of his recruits had negligible resale value.

In 2012-13, nine players left Stoke who had played at least one league game for the club. Only two of those were sold for a fee and neither to a top-division side. Indeed, the last time that Pulis sold a player for a noteworthy fee was Tuncay’s €5.2m (£4.4m) departure in January 2011. Of the three players in five Premier League years whom he has sold for a significant fee, the Turk's price was higher than any other by 50 per cent. It is not a sustainable model.

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This is not only due to his continued recruitment of fading veterans like Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson but also his failure to give youth a chance. In their five seasons since promotion, the Potters have fielded only one home-grown youngster (Louis Moult) in one league match in 2009-10. Extraordinarily, nobody under 24 has played a single game for the club in 2012-13. In some cases, Pulis has preferred naming a depleted bench to one incorporating youth players.

This refers, of course, to Pulis' infamous decision to bring only 15 players for his 18-man matchday squad in what should have been the proudest game of Stoke's modern history – a Europa League knockout second leg against Valencia at Mestalla. Key players including Crouch, Whitehead, Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Etherington, Jon Walters, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan were all left at home. The Potters were only 1-0 down in the tie.

It all comes back to the question of ambition. Pulis had taken Stoke to the FA Cup final the year before – admirably so – and brought them to Europe for the first time since 1974. He seemed to view it as an inconvenience.

All the while, his side were playing an alienating brand of football. There is room in the sport for a variety of styles but far more offensive to neutrals than their direct attacks were the line-crossing tackles that often put opposition players in more danger that they were entitled to expect on a football pitch. That some fans booed victims of this approach, such as Aaron Ramsey, whose recovery from Shawcross breaking his leg took much longer than his time on the treatment table, did not help the image.

Pulis and his players often spoke about breaking into the top 10 as their goal but have locked themselves in a holding pattern. Too long, it has been clear that he is either unwilling or incapable of breaking it. Indeed, their points totals have dropped year-on-year since their high of 47 in 2009-10.

A more progressive manager should now be sought, one who can get more out of under-used options like Brek Shea and profit from the astute signing of incoming goalkeeper Jack Butland. Pulis has not ruined Stoke but he leaves the club in serious need of revitalisation.

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