Tony Pulis’ sacking by Stoke City has come as a surprise to many. This is the man who led the Potters from the mid-table quagmire of the Championship to Premier League respectability, a first-ever FA Cup final and, dizzyingly, the latter stages of the Europa League. With Stoke finishing the season in 13th – one place higher than 2012/13 – what is going through Peter Coates’ mind?
The truth is that, as marvellous a job as Pulis has done – and he will go down as one of the all-time greats in ST4 – the club had regressed alarmingly since the Welshman led his players out at Wembley two years ago. There was no indication that he knew had to arrest that slide.
After the 2011 Cup final, the stage seemed set for Stoke to establish themselves as a top-half Premier League outfit. Pulis, generously backed by Coates, had assembled a fierce, physical side that raised the ire of purists with its long-ball, long throw stylings.
Yet onto that template he added pace and power in attack and genuine flair on the wings in the form of the revitalised Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant. Contrary to popular perception, Stoke could play football too, as was underlined by their 5-0 FA Cup semi-final thumping of Bolton. Pulis was handed even more cash to continue Stoke’s evolution, but that was where things started to go wrong.
Since summer 2011, Pulis has signed 14 players at a combined cost of just over £50m – but only two of those players have established themselves as first team regulars – Peter Crouch and Steven Nzonzi. Last season, Stoke were the lowest goal scorers in all four divisions. This time round, only QPR spared them that indignity. Since the start of 2012, the team has won just 13 of 58 league games, a percentage of 22%. Even this season’s 13th position was achieved with Stoke’s lowest points tally in five seasons since promotion.
As key components of Pulis’ rigid system began to age and fade, they were replaced by ‘name’ players who either didn’t fit the system anywhere near as well or didn’t buy into the manager’s ethos of unity and hard work. Crouch scored goals but lacks the mobility to lead the line in a counter-attacking side – yet his £10m price tag rendered him essentially undroppable.
Issues with form, fitness and, in Pennant’s case, discipline put paid to the wingers’ effectiveness, but Pulis failed to adequately address their decline. As a result, Stoke became more direct, negative and one-dimensional than ever, relying almost entirely on set-pieces.
This season, the team continued to struggle for goals and depended heavily on its excellent defence, and when that started to look shaky around the turn of the year, they suddenly found themselves in a relegation battle. The loss of on-field leaders like Danny Higginbotham, Rory Delap and Ricardo Fuller robbed the side of its steel, character and organisation. The quality on show was, to be frank, embarrassing for such an expensively assembled side.
Pulis did sign some creative players in an attempt to provide support for Crouch, but some, like wingers Michael Kightly and Brek Shea, flopped, while he simply seemed not to know what to do with the likes of Charlie Adam and Michael Owen. The Potters won just once in four months between January and April, and all Pulis seemed able to do was blame referees and ‘bad luck’.
There had been whispers of disquiet behind the scenes for some time – the club was seeking to plan for the future, and Pulis was proving too inflexible to move with the times. The chairman began to publicly question Stoke’s transfer business, while fans who had tolerated Pulis’ unsophisticated brand of football increasingly turned against it when results fell away. The drop in season ticket sales for 2013/14 was surely a sizeable nail in the manager’s coffin. It’s sad that it has come to this, but it does feel like the right time for a parting of the ways.
Tony Pulis leaves with the knowledge that he delivered some of the greatest times in the club’s 150-year history; but he prided himself on being a throwback to a forgotten age, and while for years that was Stoke’s greatest strength, by the end he was holding them back. He had to go.
See what the expert tipsters are tipping on OLBG