By George Ankers
Fans of Reading and Portsmouth will tell you that it is one thing to make an impact on the Premier League upon achieving promotion, but another thing entirely to sustain it. Yet, Tony Pulis has turned Stoke City into an unlikely part of the top-flight furniture, lifting them from the brink of relegation into the third tier in 2002-03 to the club’s most exciting fixture in decades – a trip to Mestalla to face Valencia.
The Welshman first arrived at the Britannia Stadium in November 2002, inheriting a club on the verge of dropping out of what is now the Championship and steadying the ship, returning the Potters to mid-table status before being sacked by an uncooperative board in the summer of 2005.
But the club’s takeover by chairman Peter Coates just one year later heralded a chance for Pulis to return to take care of some unfinished business, and he has not looked back since.
Backed, admittedly, by one of the more quietly generous owners in the country, the Newport-born boss has demonstrated an extraordinary capability to find value in the transfer market, identifying players overlooked by others to make key contributions.
Few, for example, could dispute that the signing of Rory Delap, initially on loan in 2006 and made permanent on a free six months later, has been one of the most valuable by any club in the land in recent years, while the capture of a young Ryan Shawcross from Manchester United has also been a masterstroke.
Delap’s incredible throw-ins became such a vital, intrinsic part of the way that Pulis’ Potters launched an initial assault on the Premier League after their 2008 promotion that one would have expected rival sides to be able to ‘figure Stoke out’ and send them crashing back down with a bump soon afterwards. This never happened, because Pulis has continued to evolve the side.
His subtle development of Stoke’s footballing methods has been fascinating to watch. In 2008-09, that first outing in the top flight for 24 years, the ‘Delap special’ was the not-so-secret weapon, complemented by canny additions such as striker James Beattie, believed to be a fading talent but who scored seven goals from January to keep the Potters up.
The following year, the long-throw tactic was still utilised but no longer relied upon, with the strong, physical style that had previously been used to profit from it now the driving force in itself. No sign of second-season hangover was shown, only constant commitment and discipline.
|REJUVENATED BY PULIS
Stoke’s ethos has not yet become traditionally aesthetically pleasing, indeed actively irritating some, like Fulham’s Danny Murphy - though, in particular, Matthew Etherington, another wise signing, has added a dash of thrilling flair in recent times.
The winger is a prime example of Pulis’ ability to get the best out of players deemed unsuitable by others. While at West Ham, Etherington admitted a gambling addiction that had caused him to incur huge debts and require treatment at the Sporting Chance clinic. Many teams would not have taken a chance on such a man but Pulis recognised his potential and harnessed it excellently – Etherington earned the club’s Player of the Year award in 2009-10 to widespread acclaim and even talk of an England cap.
This Pulis style – industry and power with room for creativity on the flanks – cannot be argued with in terms of success. It brought the club to their first ever FA Cup final appearance in 148 years of history and now, in their fourth season in the Premier League, it sees Stoke just three points away from breaking into the top 10 for the first time.
The 54-year-old’s achievements are well understood by Coates who, after their Cup final defeat by Manchester City last May, aired his belief that Pulis is “Stoke’s best ever manager”. That confidence and recognition of his ability to man-manage and get the best out of the transfer market have seen the owner happy to put his hand in his pocket to keep funding the coach’s exploits.
|ESTABLISHING STOKE AT THE TOP
12th (Premier League)
11th (Premier League)
13th (PL) & FA Cup runners-up
The show of trust was even more pronounced as the spree that brought Crouch, Cameron Jerome and Wilson Palacios (himself another underappreciated gem who should thrive now that he has recovered from injury) occurred on the deadline day of a transfer window in which hardly any other Premier League sides dared push the boat out in comparatively-strained economic circumstances.
With greater outlay comes greater obligation, however, and, having come so close to a top-half finish last season – missing out by a point – Pulis will feel that 10th is the minimum to judge that boosted spending as a success.
Football is an unforgiving game and, having given his side a taste of Europa League football, the desire to keep hold of it will increase from here.
The Potters have more than held their own in their European sojourn so far, beating the likes of Besiktas and going undefeated in two bouts against Dynamo Kiev, to progress from the group stage, and still have a chance of overturning Spanish giants Valencia on Thursday night.
They will need to improve to do so, having been outclassed at home last week, but the fact that Pulis has built a team capable of getting this far means that getting back again, should they be eliminated, becomes a serious objective.
If he can deliver European football once again, be it through league position or potentially going one step further in the FA Cup, it would be an exceptional achievement but not a surprising one, given his progress so far.
In many ways, the upward trajectory on which Pulis has driven Stoke is just as impressive as the stability engendered by, for example, David Moyes at Everton, yet it is rare to hear the Welshman’s name bandied about along with the Scot’s when vacancies at ‘bigger’ clubs are mentioned.
Pulis’ style of play is perhaps responsible for a sniffy reception when it comes to these things, but, sooner or later – and particularly if another Europa League qualification can be masterminded – football should recognise that he is one of the best club managers in the country.
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