Managing nicely by guiding Potters to the promised land

Tony Pulis couldn't care less about winning ugly and will pull off a minor miracle if he earns promotion with Stoke. By Ronald Atkin
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The Independent Football

Stoke City's tribute to their finest son, Stanley Matthews, is paid with not one but three statues on a plinth outside the Britannia Stadium, a reminder of the better days that may be on their way back to a now unfashionable club who are suddenly in the forefront of the Championship's promotion race.

Should Stoke achieve promotion, their manager, Tony Pulis, may need to dispatch a crate of bubbly to Harry Redknapp, the man he regards as his mentor, for helping to show him how to go about it. The 50-year-old Pulis, who was at Bournemouth, first as a player and then a coach, in the days when Redknapp was manager, says: "Harry's big thing, and this has always stuck with me, is that football management is knowing about the industry. The most important thing in the industry is your stock, and your stock is the players.

"I can be out two or three nights a week watching games, because if you don't know where the players are, when it comes to getting them you are always taking chances. I have seen managers with enormous budgets who have brought in players you would never bring into your own club. I do pride myself on knowing the industry, and you only do that by working hard."

Stoke's total of 59 goals from 35 League games this season, second only to West Bromwich, is also down to the work ethic of Pulis. "We always look as though we're going to score," he said before the team set off for today's televised game at QPR. "We have people in the team who always look threatening."

More than one Championship club have had a whinge this season about the nature of that threat, accusing Stoke – composed almost entirely of players6ft tall and above – of crudity, physicality and relying on goals from set-pieces. Pulis dismissescomplaints with a smile. "I don't think we win ugly," he said. "Ask our supporters, they think we win beautifully. Teams don't like playing us because we are very well organised."

After today's visit to Loftus Road, Stoke's 10 remaining games appear manageable, since they include only two close rivals, Watford and Bristol City. "By those standards, Preston last Tuesday was manageable, and we got beat 2-0," he said of what was only Stoke's second defeat in 19 League games. "That Preston result says everything about this division. The Premier League is the best-quality league, but the Championship is the most exciting and closely contested because you could turn up anywhere in the country, watch two teams play and not know who was at the top and who was at the bottom. So we have to concentrate on all our remaining fixtures, starting with QPR."

A player with Bristol Rovers, Newport County, Bournemouth and Gillingham, Pulis obtained his FA coaching badge at 19 and his Uefa A licence at 21. At the age of 50, he is in his 16th year of management, at Bournemouth, Gillingham, Bristol City, Portsmouth, Plymouth and, for the second time, Stoke. The nature of those jobs has meant that his achievements have always been against the odds, something he relishes.

"It's lovely to feel you have overachieved," he said. "People never look at the resources you are given or what you are competing against. We are playing against Charlton, Sheffield United, Watford and West Brom, who have £6 to £7 million [parachute] revenue before the season starts. They've also got bigger crowds, they pay bigger wages and are more attractive, so if there is a player in the market and you are interested in him, if one of those fancy him you've no chance. So we have to work around that and try to be cuter."

That cuteness consists of working the loan system for all it is worth, using the Redknapp-style "industrial knowledge" to tempt Premier League footballers to give Stoke a try. Pulis dismisses any suggestion that he might be envious of people with better resources at bigger clubs by documenting his background: "I come from the docks area of South Wales, a family of eight in a three-bedroom terrace house. Every day I wake up, I'm in professional football, the luckiest man alive. It's a tough job and there is lots of stress and pressure, but reality sets in when I consider my childhood."

The pressures associated with expectations of promotion are regarded by Pulis as "good times, to be honest" compared to his first time at Stoke. "When I arrived they were struggling, and we only stayed up by winning the last game of the season." That spell, 2002-05, ended with him being sacked by the then chairman, the Icelander Gunnar Gislason, for "failing to exploit the foreign transfer market".

Pulis remains unrepentant, numbering just Salif Diao, Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller as his foreign contingent. "I have always worked with the British market because you can find out about their background," he explained. "There are some fantastic foreign players in this country, but there are a lotwho are no better than we already have here and they have certainly blocked the system up."

That said, he acknowledges that, in the event of Stoke getting into the Premier League, that attitude might have to change. Typically, he has already spoken to managers at similar clubs who have gone up and struggled. One of his problems, he concedes, would again be in attracting the right home-bred players. However, it would be another challenge for Tony Pulis to relish and, should promotion come, be assured it will be done Harry's Way.

Today's matches

QPR v Stoke City; Championship, Sky Sports 1, 1.15pm

Bolton v Liverpool; Premier League, 1.30pm

Everton v Portsmouth; Premier League, Sky Sports 1, 4pm