One issue and one issue alone is dominating football in the Potteries this week, and that is the dressing room contretemps between Stoke City manager Tony Pulis and his star striker James Beattie. In a story more befitting of an episode of now-defunct football soap Dream
Depending on which newspaper report you happened to read this week, a disagreement over plans surrounding the players’ Christmas party that weekend turned ugly, with a naked Pulis allegedly attempting to land a headbutt on his No.9. Confusion has reigned in the aftermath of the incident, with the local media reporting that Pulis has apologised to Beattie and the rest of the squad for his actions, while Beattie’s legal team has moved quickly to deny rumours of any reciprocal penitence on the player’s part. Thursday’s press conference saw the City manager claim that a line had been drawn under the incident. How true that is remains to be seen.
While one may reasonably question why a professional adult pulling in a weekly wage of five figures needs to make such a fuss over something as trivial as a yuletide night on the ale, the incident has further fuelled creeping doubts regarding Pulis’ man-management skills. The Welshman has worked wonders at Stoke but the bulk of his managerial experience has come in the lower leagues. His experience of dealing with the present day ‘celebrity’ footballer is limited. This season has seen the emergence of the first hints of cracks in the previously granite-strong team spirit carefully fostered by the manager, a togetherness which was instrumental in the Potters punching above their weight in their triumphant return to top-flight football in 2008/09.
Firstly, Dave Kitson, a record signing from Reading in July 2008, was rewarded for finally finding some form after a nightmare first season by being mysteriously dropped and then exiled to Middlesbrough amid whisperings of a training ground bust-up. Similarly, the arrival of Tuncay Sanli was supposed to herald the dawn of a new, exciting footballing era at the Britannia Stadium, yet five months later, the Turkish captain has started just one solitary Premier League game. Pulis’s decision during the recent defeat at Hull to sacrifice Tuncay following Abdoulaye Faye’s dismissal, just seven minutes after the forward’s introduction as a substitute, saw the Turk react angrily by storming down the tunnel.
A fortnight ago, Pulis gave an interview in which he railed against the egotism of the modern footballer: “players have to understand and realise that they’re part of a group who gets well paid by football clubs to get results”. Some supporters speculated that this was a pointed message to the likes of Tuncay, Kitson, and the inexplicably benched Liam Lawrence to knuckle down and fight for their place. However, once you factor in the Beattie incident, and the likelihood that someone in the squad leaked the story to the national press, it does paint a picture of a manager whose grip on the dressing room has weakened.
The short-term impact of the Beattie bust-up is unlikely to be visibly apparent. The former Southampton striker’s failure to train on Monday, and his likely omission from the starting lin- up against Wigan on Saturday, owes more to his lack of fitness and the niggling ankle and knee injuries which have hampered his performances this season and produced a disappointing return of just two goals in 14 games. Pulis himself suggested that the return to fitness of target man Mama Sidibe meant that Beattie would be given time to rest and attempt to recover the sharpness that saw him fire Stoke to safety following his arrival during last January’s transfer window.
Long-term, however, Beattie’s failure to lay to rest the issue with an apology casts a shadow over his future at the Britannia Stadium. As he approaches the age of 32, perhaps the erstwhile England international relishes the chance to repeat the heroics of last term with a new club – or even with an old one, as rumours abound that “’buttgate” has alerted Beattie’s first club Blackburn Rovers. An emotional return for the Lancashire lad to the club which started it all might prove difficult to resist if his Britannia bridge has been burned.
Whatever the outcome, and whoever is to blame, there is now an element of spice to Saturday’s early kick-off, as the Potters hope to put their visitors, the erratic Latics, to the sword. Dean Whitehead returns from suspension to compete with Glenn Whelan for a central midfield berth alongside Salif Diao. Liam Lawrence is an early doubt after falling victim to suspected swine flu and Rory Delap will probably start on the right of midfield. Ricardo Fuller, rested at the Emirates, is likely to win his battle with Sanli to partner Sidibe up front.