Tony Pulis: Seven-year hitch threatens Britannia rule
Stoke City have defied the doubters in the top flight but now relegation looms and supporters are finally turning on their defensive manager. Steve Tongue meets Tony Pulis
The Britannia Stadium, Stoke, once officially recorded as having the highest decibels of any Premier League ground, has recently been notable for a different sort of noise. After the last game, a 3-1 home defeat by Aston Villa, rumblings of discontent and even boos were to be heard as it dawned on the locals that for the first time in five seasons at the elite level they are in serious danger of relegation.
Suddenly only three points above the bottom three, they face the champions-elect, Manchester United, today before crucial games against Queens Park Rangers, Norwich and Sunderland, all of whom are in equally desperate need of points. Then Spurs visit the Potteries on the occasion of a proud club's 150th anniversary, and the season finishes at Southampton, who "Stokies" should probably hope will by then be safe and carefree.
Not only have Stoke been remarkably consistent in their Premier League history – finishing 12th, 11th, 13th and 14th – but this season has followed an almost identical pattern to the previous one. Going into 2013 in eighth place, they have subsequently lost nine and drawn two of their 12 League games, winning only 2-1 at home to bottom-of-the-table Reading. Last season, they also started the new year eighth but finished down in 14th place, after one win in 11.
Yet that was a comfortable nine points clear of relegation; this morning the margins are much thinner. Then there is Stoke's style of play, which supporters were prepared to defend against outside criticism while it was bringing results, but is increasingly perceived as merely negative.
Tony Pulis, who in his second spell as manager has been in charge for seven years, has been coming under increased pressure, although not from his supportive chairman, Peter Coates, who summoned him back as manager after regaining control of the club from an Icelandic consortium in 2006. The close relationship between the two men means Pulis has been in no great danger of losing his job, and in a round of interviews over the past few days the manager has been relentlessly upbeat.
His twin themes are that everyone, including supporters, must pull together for the rest of the campaign, making the Britannia a fearsome place again for the remaining three home games; and that the period since he returned has been "probably the most successful seven years in the club's history".
"Supporters have the right to say what they want," he said. "I had booing when I was here the first time and when I came back. When I came to the club first time round [in 2002] we were getting 10,000, now we sell out nearly 28,000 every week.
The problem is that this is the first year really that we've got anywhere near having to fight for our lives. And after five or six years people get a little bit blasé about everything. It's expectations. The more you achieve, the more people want. We've had seven unbelievable years, been to Europe, to Wembley, to places people would never have dreamed of. But I'm not silly, I understand the nature of the world and society, and that everyone's concerned with 'today'."
He is grateful for his relationship with Coates, a local man whose family own Bet365: "Peter's a wonderful man and it's a unique situation. It puts a bit more pressure on me because he's a friend and he's been more concerned about me than anyone else."
The chairman escapes much criticism from supporters, apart from those dissidents who believe he has stood by Pulis for too long. He even said publicly that he did not agree with paying £10 million for Peter Crouch, but stumped up the money nonetheless. Indeed, until Liverpool's splurge on Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in January, Stoke were the third-highest net spenders over the past five years, partly because of a policy of buying seasoned professionals with little sell-on value.
There is less support in the stands, however, for Pulis now that progress has stalled over the past two seasons. Martin Smith, editor of The Oatcake fanzine, reels off statistics with more sorrow than anger, although he is well aware that many other supporters are among the angrier brigade.
"I think it's eight wins in 44 games now and one in 25 away games; lowest scorers in the top five leagues in Europe last year, and I believe we may have that accolade again this season. However terrible the football, when you're winning you can get away with it. But when the winning goes, there's no entertainment, nothing.
"We don't do 4-3 thrillers. One of our forwards, usually Jon Walters, has to practically be a defender. In a 4-4-1-1 formation we've got two central midfielders, [Stephen] Nzonzi and [Glenn] Whelan, neither of whom have scored a goal this season. The whole system just isn't working. We don't really set out to win away games, we just hang on for a nil-nil."
Pulis attracted much derision with one interview in which he said that Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale would suit his style perfectly; and Smith, with his memories of Tony Waddington's early-Seventies team finishing fifth in successive seasons and winning the League Cup, calls the claims about this being the most successful period in the club's history "utter nonsense".
So to Manchester United, a game nobody expects Stoke to win, but a fixture that could leave them in even worse trouble by tonight. "I think the crowd realise we've got three massive home games and I think they'll be fantastic," Pulis said.
He will be his usual animated self on the touchline although, contrary to popular belief, he is not one for dramatic mood swings: "You never see me doing somersaults when things are going well and you won't see me hanging from a tree. I accept that in life and football you have good times and bad, and it's how you deal with it. Adversity is when you show your strength of character. We're a very close and tight unit here and hopefully they'll enjoy this challenge."
Stoke City v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 2.05pm
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