You know him when you see him. He’s in every romantic comedy: the baxter. He is the nice but terribly dull guy who is dumped at the end of the story for the passionate protagonist. Think of Walter in Sleepless in Seattle, whose greatest flaw is that he is steady and dependable; this is somehow damning enough for us to cheer on his fiancee as she leaves him for a man she has never actually met but with whom she shares a romantic spark. We laugh at how ridiculous and unbelievable these movies are. We smirk and declare that could never happen, because we all know that real life is much more complicated. Or, at least, I thought we all knew that; the amount of groaning that a Tony Pulis side can elicit leads me to suspect that not everyone thinks romantic comedies are fiction.
Tony Pulis is steady, dependable, and has never been relegated. He is a manager with an awareness of his strengths, which he attempts to maximize, and his weaknesses, which he attempts to minimize; this is somehow damning enough for us to cheer on whatever team faces him each week. The baxter reminds us to be practical, and we hate him for it. Pulis is condemned for the crime of being a pragmatist in the age of possession-based idealism.
Growing up in South Wales as one of six children crammed into a three bedroomed terrace house, his pragmatism is understandable and can be seen throughout his career. As a player at Bristol Rovers, a 19 year old Pulis utilized eight months out with an injury to obtain his first FA coaching badges, soon followed by his UEFA A license at 21. Unable to secure a house loan on his modest wage packet at Rovers, a newly affianced Pulis left to play a season with Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Athletic Association and earn enough for a down payment on a home. The rest of his playing career hardly makes for exciting reading with spells at Newport County, Bournemouth, and Gillingham, but it was in a second spell at Bournemouth that he made the jump to player/coach under Harry Redknapp.
After ‘Arry walked out in 1992, Pulis finally got his chance to step up into management and managed the Cherries to two consecutive safe finishes in the old Second Division. This was no mean feat due to the financial chaos that engulfed Bournemouth in the mid-90’s. Pulis then moved to Gillingham and steered them to promotion to the Second Division in his first season, conceding just 20 goals in 46 games. They steadily improved until they were famously defeated by Manchester City in the 1999 promotion playoff. Pulis was then sacked under dubious circumstances by chairman Paul Scally. While the facts are hazy, there were numerous allegations: Pulis discovering Scally misappropriating funds and attempting to blackmail him; Scally refusing to pay several hundred thousand pounds worth of bonuses; Pulis getting sticky fingers with sensitive documents on his way out of the club and leaking them to the press; Scally denying he gave Pulis permission to speak to other clubs; Pulis intentionally getting himself sacked for a payoff and then celebrating with champagne when the axe finally fell. That last bit about celebrating with champagne was confirmed by Pulis in court.
Following his departure from Gillingham, there followed brief and acrimonious stints at Bristol City during the 1999/00 season, where Pulis’ formative years at Bristol Rovers hardly helped, and Milan Mandaric’s Portsmouth in 2000. By now, a pattern was developing: Pulis takes over a struggling club, overachieves with his aggressive band of bruisers, spectacularly falls out with the chairman, and leaves in bitter circumstances.
He then pitched up at Stoke in 2002. When the BBC asked the question if Pulis was the right man for the job, the comments they received overwhelmingly declared that Stoke were as good as relegated with “the worst manager in the history of modern football.” Many Bristol City supporters popped up accusing him of singlehandedly ruining their club while holding them captive with stultifyingly dull football. Amid all the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, one punter, Charlie from Stoke, wrote in to defend the new boss:
I can remember the Gillingham side managed and created by Tony Pulis that played us off the park and hammered us over two legs. Yet all the Stoke fans are talking about him being a long-ball fan who signs useless players. The fact of the matter is that we Stoke fans know nothing about Pulis except for the fact that he managed and created that class Gillingham side on pennies… No matter how good Pulis is, he won’t be good enough for us because we simply crave a big name coach with decent players, and we definitely haven’t got the latter.
I do not know Charlie from Stoke, but I like the cut of his jib; I suspect he is not a lot of fun at parties and has ruined many a good story by pointing out factual inaccuracies. He probably hates Nora Ephron films.
Tony Pulis then did at Stoke what Tony Pulis does: ensured survival, built a solid team, argued with the chairman over transfers, and was sent packing in the summer of ’05. Pulis was not out of work for long, however, and found his way to relegation threatened Plymouth Argyle in the fall. Naturally, his first win with Argyle came at the expense of Stoke, and they went on to grind out enough results to finish the 2005/06 season comfortably in 14th.
And, lo, it came to pass, that Stoke City Football Club, having seen the error of its ways, reinstated Tony Pulis to lead them to the Promised Land of the Premier League. After achieving promotion in his second year, Stoke brought Pulisball to the wider world in the 2008/09 season. Lovers of free-flowing, attacking football recoiled at the sight of Pulis’ set of grafting giants and their bloodlust.
For Pulis, every team he has ever managed exists upon a foundation of hard work, and, unfortunately, it is not terribly sexy. It does, however, translate into a side being extraordinarily difficult to break down, covering gaps in the defense right up until the final whistle. The trade-off is that a side difficult to break down often can find itself without an attacking threat of its own. Enter Rory Delap, midfield workhorse/human trebuchet. Rather than having his players stream forward and risk being caught out on a counter attack, Pulis utilized Delap’s extraordinary throw-ins as an opportunity to safely trundle his center backs forward like siege engines to wreak havoc in the opposition area.
This strategy was so effective it accounted for almost half of Stoke’s goals in the first half of the 2008/09 season; the highlight was certainly a victory over Arsenal in November courtesy of two goals from Delap throws. Arsene Wenger, the totem of football romantics everywhere, launched a verbal assault on Pulis and his side’s physical approach, calling them cowards. Pulis responded by reminding Wenger that there was only one red card on the night, but the power of narrative has ensured it is not remembered by many.
This narrative must be particularly galling to Pulis. Despite guiding Stoke to a 12th place finish in 2009, 11th in 2010, 13th in 2011 along with an FA Cup Final appearance, 14th in 2012 plus a place in the knockout rounds of the Europa League, and 13th in 2013, Pulis would see his legacy at Stoke reduced to that of a boring long ball merchant who directed his henchmen to go out and maim anything winsome that might appear. Supporters up and down the country breathed a collective sigh of relief at Pulis’ departure from Stoke. Wenger in particular must have felt a weight off of his shoulders as his football idealist worldview became increasingly more absurd with every Pulis matchup, crescendoing in his call to have throw-ins abolished because they gave Stoke an unfair advantage.
The battle of Wenger vs. Pulis was firmly cast as that of good against evil and light against darkness. That is what the dreamers would have you believe; rather, it was the conflict between idealism and reality. Every Arsenal failure to adequately clear a Delap missile into the box shattered the escapist fantasy football provided. Watching Stoke reminded one that the wine and song of the weekend would soon come to an end, and Monday morning with its accompanying hangover was just around the corner. There was no fun, no whimsy, and no escape.
When Pulis pitched up at Selhurst Park to take charge of Crystal Palace in November of 2013, the south London side were in the relegation zone. Under Ian Holloway, Palace had attempted to play attractive, attacking football which resulted in only three points taken from a possible 24. Pulis put an end to that. He immediately changed formation and drilled his midfield relentlessly to snuff out threats before they could reach the back four. The results did not disappoint, with Palace comfortably avoiding relegation while keeping 12 clean sheets. Not only did they avoid relegation, but they also struck a blow for party poopers and killjoys everywhere when they decisively ended Liverpool’s title hopes in the spring. Tellingly, while Pulis won the Premier League Manager of the Year for this feat, Brendan Rodgers was voted the League Managers’ Association Manager of the Year as “Liverpool Football Club’s performances and results this season have provoked memories of some of those momentous years in the past.” Much like the baxter played by Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama, Pulis lost out to the ineffable pull of nostalgia.
Pulis must have been feeling nostalgic himself, as he once again argued with the chairman, Steve Parish, and was sent on his way. Pulis demanded a £2m survival bonus earlier than scheduled, and he resigned 48 hours after receiving it. It later emerged that Pulis had wrangled the bonus early by claiming it was for a bogus land deal for one of his children, and that it was definitely not a way to simply cash out and find a better job. Or perhaps it was a way to simply cash out, as Judge Sir Michael Burton ruled in the fall of 2016, awarding Crystal Palace £3.77m.
While Pulis was certainly no knight in shining armor, he was a more than effective baxter. After West Bromwich Albion lost seven out of nine and sacked Alan Irvine, Pulis was soon appointed to steer the Baggies clear of relegation in 2015. What happened next should not come as a surprise to anyone. Of course, Pulis came in and strengthened the defense. Of course, he avoided relegation. And, of course, he maintained a mutual antagonism with football’s aesthetes. The Baggies once again steered clear of relegation in 2016, but some supporters began to grumble.
The dissatisfied want Pulis out because his style of play is considered boring and unambitious. As another spiky Welshman in charge of Stoke once said, “If you want entertainment, go and watch clowns.” Have these disaffected West Brom supporters forgotten what life was like with Pepe Mel? It was a possession-based, high-line dumpster fire that ended in three wins out of 17. What they are actually complaining about is that Pulis has robbed them of hope, an absurd and unrealistic hope that they too could perform as Leicester City did in 2015-2016. (As an aside, the realist in me is waiting for the resulting inquiry after several Foxes are pulled up for doping; listen to the commentary from the 1999 Tour de France and try telling me they do not sound eerily similar.) WBA will never be swinging for the fences; Pulis will have them safely plodding along reliably finishing somewhere between 15th and 10th. Where’s the entertainment in that? If you want entertainment, go and watch a romantic comedy.
But what football is entertaining and what football is not? Jonathan Wilson spilled 1500 words illustrating how hard it is define and ended with the famous quote from Potter Stewart about defining pornography: “I know it when I see it.” The beauty of the game of is that there is no one way to play it. I hate the phrase “playing the right way” because it superciliously assumes any team that does not play a possession based style with a trio of attacking hobbits has somehow ruined the purity of sport. What is so bad about plodding along contentedly?
Those with an active dislike of Pulis actually dislike what he represents: settling. Very rarely do we enjoy the story where the heroine settles for the nebbish who can provide a comfortable existence rather than the dashing love match. Settling happens to us all as we mature, and growing up isn’t particularly sexy or enjoyable. It is a regrettable march from innocence to experience. Growing up is a slow cooling of passion; it is a recognition of the benefits of practicality; it is refusing invitations to go out at night because of work in the morning; it is delaying gratification; it is settling down; it is recognizing the foolishness of characters in romantic comedies; it is becoming deeply appreciative Tony Pulis’ genius.