Sympathy for the Pulis

Jan Kruger

At the end of the last Premier League season, Stoke City's manager Tony Pulis was sacked, despite doing what he always does. Here we look at the reasons for quite an unusual dismissal.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of managerial dismissal. There's the straight-up sacking, which tends to follow an unsustainably poor series of results or the irretrievable loss of a dressing room. Then there's the upgrade, where the man in situ isn't exactly failing, but is nevertheless jettisoned in favour of somebody that's been identified as better in some way or other. Think Nigel Adkins, whose disturbingly intense middle-manager stylings were deemed less appealing than Mauricio Pochettino curious hair. Or Roberto Mancini, who was brutally sunsetted when Manuel Pellegrini emerged as the preferred candidate to exemplify the desired holistic approach of the major stakeholders going forward.

So what to make of Tony Pulis's removal from the Stoke dugout? While largely unlamented, the Welshman's departure from Stoke City is, in some ways, the most interesting of all the managerial contortions that marked the end of the last Premier League, as it doesn't really fit either of the definitions above.

Here are Stoke's five Premier League seasons expressed through the medium of numbers:


Position

W

D

L

For

A

GD

Pts

2008/09

12

12

9

17

38

55

-17

45

2009/10

11

11

14

13

34

48

-14

47

2010/11

13

13

7

18

46

46

-2

46

2011/12

14

11

12

15

45

46

-1

45

2012/13

13

9

15

14

34

45

-11

42

Pretty exciting stuff. Looking at the most recent season, then, it's perhaps possible to discern some signs of decline. Nine wins, 34 goals, and 42 points are are either the lowest or joint-lowest across the five seasons. On the other hand, it's important to remember that points are not gained in isolation from the rest of the league, and that this season's 13th place finish is an improvement on last season's 14th. Also, with just 45 goals conceded, last season was Stoke's best defensively since coming up.

But stagnation is a word that's been put forward. It's a cruel word, bringing to mind as it does an abandoned and unloved backwater, seething with hideously furry life, noxious and repulsive to the eye and the nose. (Those of you that enjoy mocking Stoke can pop in your own punchline to that one.) It's also not entirely accurate: Pulis's Stoke were, if a touch malodorous at times, still a perfectly serviceable lower-end-of-mid-table Premier League side, and showed every sign of continuing in that vein. The same kind of thing is true of all the other adjectives being used to explain Pulis's sacking: stale, and so on. None of them are quite right, because all of them imply a decline, a descent into obsolescence, that doesn't quite chime with the results.

Was he wasting money? Looking just at transfer fees -- which is stupid, but is the way the conversation generally goes -- it's possible to notice with a gasp that Stoke's net spend (KLAXON) over the last five seasons is third in the Premier League, behind only the fuel-injected Chelsea and Manchester City. But that's not so much down to expensive purchasing, since their gross spend is only the tenth. It's down to a slightly weird inability to sell anybody for anything significant. £88,825,000 spent, only £8,650,000 recouped. Perhaps the process of Pulisification renders previously useful footballers unsuitable for wider consumption, like abused animals; or perhaps Stoke aren't too fussed about resale value, which is its own brand of extravagance. But it's not as simple as 'he bought loads of expensive players that turned out to be crap'; more like 'he bought a few expensive players who didn't really change anything'. As for the wage-bill -- real money too, folks! -- last season Stoke were 14th in the Premier League; bang on, just about.

Note: those figures came from transferleague.co.uk (http://www.transferleague.co.uk/), which for all I know could be nonsense. Still, you've got to trust somebody, and it might as well be a random site on the internet. And there are of course a few 'undisclosed' fees knocking around as well. But it's probably indicative, if not perhaps entirely precise.

Or was it all, at heart, down to the eternal question of style? Here are Stoke's five seasons in the Premier League expressed through the medium of song:

Whether you viewed Stokeball as a perfectly legitimate variation in style, or as an offensive practice that could make angels weep, is of course a matter of taste. But aesthetics colours even the most clear-eyed of perceptions, and it's hard to escape the thought that had Pulis's Stoke achieved the same results but in a manner more soothing to the neutral, and more pleasing to the sensibilities and shin-bones of their opponents, then the talk would be less of stagnation and more of promise, less of the bad and more of the good. That's quite heartening, in some ways, since it implies that there is at least a little bit of desire for showmanship left in football.

But at the same time, it's tough not to feel just a little bit sorry for Pulis. After all, he's not been sacked for being rubbish, and he's not been sacked because there's definitely somebody better. Things weren't stagnant, they just weren't getting any prettier: the water is still perfectly fine, but it's time to think about getting some fish, or maybe installing a fountain. He's been sacked aspirationally, by a chairman who thinks there's something better out there and wants to be free to find it, even if that journey begins with the appointment of the most miserable man in football. In the final reckoning, Tony Pulis is perhaps the first manager in the history of football to fall victim to the seven-year itch. Do please enjoy the mental image of Mark Hughes trying in vain to control his billowing skirts.

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