Tony Pulis has made a deserved return to Premier League football with Crystal Palace. Critics of the Welsh Manager are seemingly found at every corner in the British press. Yet his accomplishments with Stoke City, his previous Premier League job, have gone wildly under-appreciated. It seems when he was ousted this past summer from Stoke, champagne corks were exploding across Fleet Street.
The Welshman returned to Stoke in 2006 after boardroom intrigue had forced him out of the job previously. That first season back as the manager of the Championship side, Pulis took a team that many felt before the season could have been relegated and just missed the promotion playoffs.
The following year Pulis guided Stoke to automatic promotion and immediately set to solidify Premier League status. The season would be the historic club’s first in the top flight since the formation of the Premier League. The 2008-09 season saw Stoke gain 45 points and finish 12th in the table, never being seriously threatened with relegation. Critics of Pulis complained about the style of play but often conceded that the manager had to play a certain way to maximize results. Rory Delap’s long throws became a thing of fascination that season but would in the future prove fodder for the numerous critics Pulis was accumulating.
The 2009-10 season saw Stoke buy several established Premier League performers and finish 11th, again not being threatened by relegation. However, the injury to Aaron Ramsey in February 2010 put Pulis’ tactics into question in the London press. The inquest that followed has not let up in reality since. Stoke’s style, while far from easy on the eye, was keeping the club far away from seriously being threatened by relegation.
In the 2010-11 season, Stoke became more progressive in its play after the signing of Jermaine Pennant. Combined with Matthew Etherington, the two quick and classy wingers gave Stoke a new dimension. The Potters reached the FA Cup Final after smashing Bolton, a side that played “the right way” under Owen Coyle, in the Wembley semifinal. Yet Stoke was still unable to shake its reputation. But the reality was the Stoke finished ABOVE Arsenal in the discipline table that season and committed four fewer red card offenses than the Gunners.
The 2011-12 season saw Stoke compete in Europe and qualify for the knock-out stages of the Europa League, an immense accomplishment for a club of its size. The need to compete on multiple fronts hurt the team and the Potters resorted to the same negative tactics that had become infamous in the club’s first two Premier League seasons.
Last season, Stoke ran out of ideas and made some unwise transfer moves but again survived despite a temporary scare towards the end of April. However, the sense was that the Stoke City supporters were fed up with Pulis’s too conservative tactics, poor substitutions and evasive answers in press conferences.
But with Pulis gone from Stoke, Mark Hughes, his replacement, has quickly recognized that a more open aggressive style of football is perhaps not wise. With Palace, Pulis will inherit a side Ian Holloway had well drilled defensively and will try to implement a more direct approach to goal scoring. The side contains several players that can play in a direct manner as well as a defensive toughness and stoutness that sometimes was lacking from Stoke, especially away from home.
Ultimately, Palace have a squad that are not equipped for survival, but if any single manager in English football can keep them competitive it is perhaps Pulis.
West Brom (under Tony Mowbray), Burnley and Blackpool all came up to the Premier League in Stoke’s first three seasons and went right back down despite critics lauding the open and free-flowing football the sides provided. Yet Stoke, attacked by critics consistently for negativity was never seriously relegation threatened during Pulis’ tenure. The club served as a model for responsible spending, savvy tactics to stay in the division and rejecting the advice of critics in the media (and among supporters) and doing what is best to remain in the top flight. It is a model newly promoted sides would be wise to follow, and perhaps Palace will follow the model as closely as possible.
Palace’s board however ultimately must determine whether spending this summer will be worthwhile or whether it would be wiser to go back down to the Championship and consolidate. Pulis can do either job well, and his appointment is a step in the right direction for the South London based club.