Most managers shoot for the moon; Tony Pulis always shot for 40 points. He rarely missed. The perpetually capped Welshman rarely faltered during his spells with Stoke and Crystal Palace, often reflexively hitting the season goals in time to shut the doors and book summer holidays. With West Brom, Pulis managed to haul the team back to calm waters, after a few dodgy coach appointments.
He has become an ailing club’s Red Adair, popping in to assess damage and then putting out fires. Ever consistent, he gained a reputation at creating teams that could torment any defence during set pieces, hiring giants in all positions of the pitch, and refusing to give in to the odd short mercurial wonder. His corners gave Liverpool and Arsenal nightmares, and his sides, especially West Brom, became the bogey team of the bigger clubs on match days; never an easy win. While most managers would try to play football on the ground, he kept it in the air where only his players could reach, and built strong defensive foundations that made them hard to beat.
His sacking has been coming since the start of the season, his name always mumbled behind Slaven Bilic and Ronald Koeman. With each result the murmuring has grown louder, until the eventual booing by fans on Saturday. His firing has bucked the trend, due to the fact that the casualties so far have been down to issues with teams in transition. With Pulis, however, you got stability, not revolution.
As usual, Tony Pulis hit the stop button immediately after securing safety for the Baggies last season, but then forgot to hit start again at the beginning of the next. Having prided himself on never being relegated across his career as both player and manager, his team’s form spelled troubled waters further afield.
No wins since August, and his once rock solid defense is now like wet clay, ever pliable and easily ripped apart. With no attacking nous and now no defensive foundations, Pulis was stuck in a spiraling situation with only one result. The West Brom fans and board could accept unfussy football, but they couldn’t abide it when they weren’t taking points home at the end of the day. Performances on the pitch were turgid with an equally stinking position in the table, and players seemed to stop caring.
It didn’t help that recruitment was thin, and the aging squad that he now leaves, leaves behind plenty of issues for the next incumbent. Typical first-choice defender Gareth McAuley is now 37, and isn’t getting younger. His replacement, Ahmed Hegazi, has the Pulis DNA but not the permanent contract to match, with him set to return to Al Ahly at the end of the season. Up front, Solomon Rondon is great with his head but nothing much else, and Jay Rodriguez seems to be the right fit but hasn’t been the same since an injury in 2014.
With his sacking, a fixture of the Premier League since 2008 is absent. Striking up an unlikely bromance of sorts with Pep Guardiola and a chilly relationship with Arsene Wenger, Pulis has been entertaining journalists and fans alike with his no-nonsense press conferences for years. It is hoped that his departure from football will be short term. If anything, there is a high likelihood of more managerial shuffles in the build up to the Christmas footballing blitz, increasing the chances of seeing him standing in the dugout once again, with a different shade baseball cap and another baggy tracksuit.
Brian Clough once epitomised the style of play that he demanded of his teams by pointing up at the sky and asking John Motson one simple question: ‘Do you see any grass up there?’
Clough, a stalwart believer in passing football, never needed to wear a cap — he made it clear to Motson how often he expected to be turning his gaze skywards during a football match.
Pulis, on the other hand, was never without one — indeed, if ever he had been, he’d likely be blinded by the sun before the final whistle had been blown.
Like the legendary Clough, Pulis has become synonymous with his own play-style. He delighted in filling his sides with physical presence, with belligerent brutes of footballers who would battle for every blade of grass. A Pulis team would never give an inch, but it would never play football either.
Matches involving a Pulis-managed side rarely inspired, instead descending into attritional contests, rife with hoofball tactics that saw tall, hulking strikers receive pitch-long lofted passes from the boots of tall, hulking defenders.
Perhaps more than anything else associated with the cap-sized Welshman, this method indicated the problem at the centre of his managerial mantra, one that has traditionally frustrated his supporters and critics alike — he is ambitionless.
As Adam Sturrock has so rightly pointed out, Pulis set himself a goal to reach but never overreach. If he was a sprinter, he’d run over the line and immediately collapse after it, never to sprint again. The master of treading water, he might argue that he could keep a sieve afloat, but it was clear that this time around at West Brom, survival wasn’t what the fans were looking for.
The season started well for the Baggies — an unbeaten August, accompanied by the progressive signings of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Jay Rodriguez, seemed to indicate that steps were being taken in the right direction, but a severe drop in form has seen Albion defeated in their last four matches.
Pulis’s sacking was, hence, inevitable, and he certainly couldn’t keep his job with the likes of Bilic and Koeman falling around him. More than anything, though, his marching orders are a sign of the times.
In a footballing world that constantly finds new ways to excite and astound, Pulis’s savvy but ultimately mundane tactics feel archaic. For many fans, the fact that their club might manage to survive year on year feels more like stalling than progress.
From a sentimental standpoint, Pulis’s sacking is a shame because he’s undoubtedly an astute helmsman and it tarnishes his record. From a footballing standpoint, however, West Brom’s decision might demonstrate the new direction that football is aiming towards.
Regardless, it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the back of Pulis, even for this season. If he has anything to say about it, there’s plenty more football to be played in the sky.