x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A single-minded tactician

Tony Pulis has been evolving his technique since claiming his Uefa badge at the age of 21.

Tony Pulis, the Stoke City manager, has built the club up gradually since earning promotion to the Premier League. PA Photo
Tony Pulis, the Stoke City manager, has built the club up gradually since earning promotion to the Premier League. PA Photo

Tony Pulis has been evolving his technique since claiming his Uefa badge at the age of 21, writes Duncan Castles

For some he is the leader of a rugby team, a manager who sends out players so "pumped up" that the bones and ligaments of opponents are imperilled. From the debut-day defeat in England's top tier in 2008, Tony Pulis has been encircled by critics.

Fighting off all of them has become a dogged habit.

Three seasons on, the Welshman's team remain the least welcome of opposition. No one puts more muscle on the pitch than Stoke. No one plays more directly from their own penalty area to the other. No one scores more of their goals from set pieces. And the problem for everyone else is that the tactics work.

This FA Cup final afternoon, Stoke seek to bridge what Pulis describes "as big a void as you'll get" to the lavish resources of Manchester City. Undefeated in his four previous meetings with City, Pulis's uncultured pontoon could well carry his club to a first major trophy in 39 years.

Whatever happens, Stoke will represent English football in next season's Europa League at the expense of either Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur.

Ahead of Stoke's elevation to the Premier League, the entirety of Pulis's 19-year career in management was spent entirely in the lower divisions. But the bluntness of his tactics should not be taken as an indication of unsubtle thinking. In the same way that opponents are carefully studied and his own players drilled on how to nullify them, the manager considered several strategies for Premier League survival before selecting the direct route.

"I spoke to lots of good, good people when we got promoted," Pulis said. "Managers who'd been in the Premiership, retired, still in there, who'd been in there and dropped out. And I came to conclusions that this was the best way of doing it.

"We have a plan. When we got into the Premiership the one thing we didn't want to do was put the club at any financial risk. We wanted to build really gradually and slowly. We knew we'd be criticised for certain things that we do, certain things that we don't do."

Perched on a blustery bluff overlooking the Potteries' town, Stoke's home ground is one of the most intimidating venues in the division, their support raucously buying into a message "that nobody likes us but we do not care" that Pulis concedes he intentionally sold them.

The destructiveness of their game plan, the focus on winning second balls and exploiting set pieces, has proved persistently difficult to solve for a Premier League evolved towards flowing possession football.

And Stoke's position in the table has risen as television money has been astutely filtered through the squad. Twelfth the first season, 11th last year, eighth going into this weekend.

"You have to be strong, the players have to be strong, because you will get criticised," Pulis said.

"But I'm pretty single-minded in how I think our football club should evolve from being a Championship club to being a Premier League club.

"I have to be honest, the first year we were in the Premiership, we worked very, very hard, were very organised and methodical in what we did. But I think we've moved on from that first season and we've gradually got better and will continue to get better. We've got more quality players, we are more expansive.

"We've not got promoted and got relegated, then got promoted and got relegated. We've worked hard to stay in the Premiership because that's vital for us.

"It's given us just a little bit more resources to go out and get the Matthew Etheringtons, to get the Kenwyne Joneses. We know we'll improve the team as we go along. We can't do it over a short period of time."

The stubborn personality and relentless appetite for work have driven Pulis.

Now 53, he gained his first FA coaching qualification while still a teenager and had his Uefa badge by the age of 21.

Since taking over from friend and mentor Harry Redknapp as the Bournemouth manager in 1992, Pulis has never suffered relegation. And his response to losing Gillingham's 1999 Division Two play-off final to City when 2-0 up with a minute of normal time remaining was to swear never to re-enter Wembley until his next competitive match there.

"I'll tell you what it did do, it made me a much stronger person," Pulis said after his eventual return delivered last month's 5-0 semi-final defeat of Bolton.

Stoke's strongman is in no mood for yielding to City again.