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

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments