‘Yeah, but can he do it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke City?’
Never has one manager given his team such a powerful aura. 14 years on, the football community still refers to Stoke as the place for players to show their mettle, physical toughness and will to win. And it’s all down to Tony Pulis, the manager that ripped up the Premier League rulebook and drove fear into the hearts of every side that visited the Britannia Stadium.
As he confirmed his retirement from football today, it’s worth remembering the mighty impact he had on the Premier League. He will be remembered as a boss that managed to wring every last drop of talent and desire out of his team. They were horrible to play against and Arsene Wenger in particular was given sleepless nights by a style of play that would become simply known as ‘Pulisball’.
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“We never, ever talked about anything else other than being big, strong and horrible to play against,” Pulis told Football JOE. “And psychologically, I can remember Patrick Vieira at a coaching course.
“He said that Wenger was absolutely, psychologically struck in going to the Britannia. The long throw. He always thought the grass was too long and the pitch was too narrow. He moaned and groaned like a drain. But when we went to the Emirates, the pitch was the biggest pitch in the league, the grass was cut like a bowling green, and watered before which suited his team.
“So why moan about going to the Britannia when we’re doing everything that suits us?
“And he said to us (Vieira), ‘I can remember one game we were playing you, and he (Wenger) worked for the first time ever on defending long throws – and we turned up and Rory Delap was one the bench!’”
You simply cannot mention Pulis’ Stoke without a reference to Rory Delap. The manager reportedly was ‘like a man who had one the lottery five times’ when he stumbled upon his unique talent one day in training. The long-throw specialist caused havoc in opposition boxes and allowed Stoke to get their giants up the pitch, while striker Ricardo Fuller was potent in the box from those extra set-pieces.
His throws were so dangerous and became so iconic that opposition players were terrified. Against Hull City, Boaz Myhill intentionally kicked the ball out for a corner rather than a throw-in, such was the danger of Delap’s throw. Wenger, the man that Stoke tormented the most, has been trying to get throw-ins removed from the sport altogether ever since.
Given he was there for a total of ten seasons across two spells, Pulis’ side did have different iterations. Ryan Shawcross came in and became a club legend while Peter Crouch shone in his latter years. But all of Pulis’ teams were built upon the same principles. Hard work, physicality and complete dedication to the team.
He often signed ‘characters’ over talented individuals and, as Crouch spoke about on his podcast, his old school dedication to the art of defending
“He had this thing when he would work with the midfield and the back four, always, and the two wingers and forwards would be luxury players. Everyone else would be a defensive unit.
“He would call the defensive players the ‘ham and eggers’ and the attacking players the ‘tip tap Charlies’. Genuinely it would be, ‘You go and create and score goals and the rest of us will hold fort.’”
Those methods may have seemed slightly outdated even 15 years ago, but they worked a treat. Newly-promoted Stoke were never troubled by relegation and had five consistent mid-table finishes under the Welsh boss. Given one bookmaker paid out after just one game on them to be relegated on their first season back in the top flight, it was quite the feat.
The Potters and Pulis were the perfect match and it is there where he will be most fondly remembered, but he was also a success elsewhere. He got Gillingham promoted, took Portsmouth away from relegation danger and rescued Stoke from a near-certain relegation in his first spell.
Then after his magic was done in the potteries, he kept Crystal Palace in the top flight before moving on to West Bromwich Albion where he secured an unlikely top half finish. The Welshman then took Middlesbrough to the play-offs in 2018. His final spell at Sheffield Wednesday was misjudged and he left after just ten matches, but this ‘outdated’ manager made it work at so many clubs.
He ends his career having managed over 1000 matches but was never relegated as a player, coach or manager. And he gave the Premier League one of its most iconic teams.