In the end the fans decided Tony Pulis had made a pig's ear of the job at Stoke City
Disillusion with a siege mentality and negative playing style made change inevitable
The Stoke City players had their end-of-season bash a week early on the penultimate Sunday of the season, and rather than Stoke-on-Trent it was 55 miles north up the M6 at a restaurant in the upmarket new Spinningfields district of Manchester city centre that they toasted another year in the Premier League.
With WAGs in attendance, the players finished dinner by each putting their credit cards into an ice bucket from which they were drawn out one by one until the last man standing had to pick up the bill. It was a boisterous, boozy event but the fact that they were all out together, albeit before the infamous training ground pig's head incident, was indicative of the bond that Tony Pulis has built among his squad.
He created a highly competitive environment in which new signings were vetted to ensure that they had the right attitude to fit in among the group, where the qualities of hard work and dedication to the cause were prized above all. Those who turned out to be unwilling to put in the extra graft were quickly shipped out again.
Now, however, nothing will be the same again at the club's impressive Clayton Wood training ground. The manager who took the club from the Championship and was eighth in the Premier League in November is gone, and with him one of the most divisive, and often reductive, playing styles seen in the English top flight in modern times.
Pulis's story at Stoke was one of a siege mentality fostered by players and supporters alike in response to condemnation of their physical, aggressive approach that opposition teams hated and some felt could become downright dangerous. The most infamous moment was Ryan Shawcross's leg-breaking challenge on Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey in 2010. Pulis defended his player to the hilt, his Arsenal counterpart, Arsène Wenger, said it was "horrendous".
The incident only seemed to consolidate the Stoke and Pulis view that the world was against them and they were being stigmatised by a bigger club and a hostile press. But in terms of Pulis's career, it was nothing like as damaging as the gradual disenchantment of Stoke's supporters and the club hierarchy with his ultra-defensive, ultra-conservative approach to life in the Premier League.
By the end of a season in which Stoke finished 13th, many of the fans were questioning the essence of the Pulis approach when the football played was so risk-averse. Technical director Mark Cartwright was at loggerheads with the manager. The players themselves were beginning to wonder if they could handle another season of attritional football. Making signings was becoming a problem.
Sadly for Pulis, the achievement of taking Stoke to the Premier League and staying there was in danger of being overshadowed by the universal dissatisfaction with his method. He has never been relegated in more than 20 years as a manager at six clubs, including two stints at Stoke. It is an unfortunate way for his time at the club to end but there was simply no prospect of him adapting to a different style.
The last week has been overshadowed by the incident in which the striker Kenwyne Jones reacted badly to finding a pig's head in his training ground locker and damaging his team-mate Glenn Whelan's car in retaliation before finding out he was not the perpetrator. It is understood that Jon Walters was responsible for the pig's head originally. He placed it in the locker of Matt Etherington, who thought Whelan was responsible and mistook Jones' locker for his.
In truth, however, that has been peripheral to the key events at the club where the chairman and owner, Peter Coates, who backed Pulis's drive to get Stoke into the Premier League with his Bet365 fortune, has been forced to make a difficult call. It is unclear what role Coates' daughter, Denise, had in the decision, but there is no doubt that it is she, not her father, who is the driving force behind Bet365.
Stoke's players were already on their post-season holidays when the news of Pulis's fate broke but they would have guessed it was coming. Pulis has been unhappy at the club's decision to spend more on the academy and the influence of Cartwright, a former goalkeeper in the lower leagues, and a former agent, who was trying to instigate change at the club.
There is an acknowledgement that abandoning the Pulis approach is a risk but it was reaching the stage where the style of football was – to put it bluntly – so dreadful that there seemed little alternative. The likes of Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion and Southampton have proved that it is possible to remain in the Premier League without resorting to the kind of negativity that has been Stoke's trademark.
There was a justification, of sorts, while Stoke were thriving but they went into steep decline, winning just three games after the Boxing Day victory over Liverpool and those were against Reading, Queen's Park Rangers and Norwich City. Stoke reached the FA Cup final two years ago and lost to Manchester City. They never finished lower than 14th in the Premier League since their promotion in 2008.
The supporters' criticism of Pulis, which has hardened in recent months, has been more complex than the over-simplified allegations of ingratitude thrown at them. The Pulis years remain a fundamental part of the club's history but for many regular Stoke watchers his approach would have led to a relegation struggle at some point anyway. Changing the team's style was not a luxury, it was a necessity.
While Stoke conceded fewer goals, 45, than fifth-placed Tottenham, only bottom-placed QPR scored fewer. Stoke and QPR were the only sides to average less than a goal a game. Without Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, who had been completely frozen out by Pulis, there was no width. Aside from Charlie Adam's sporadic performances there was no creativity in the centre.
Despite that, the relationship between Pulis and Peter Coates might have been enough for him to be given another season, especially with his record in the Premier League. It appears clear, however, that Stoke felt change – to the way the team played, and to the playing staff – was crucial, and that Pulis was judged either incapable or unwilling to deliver it.
End of an era: Pulis in numbers
1985 Pulis led Stoke back to the top flight for the first time since 1985.
91 All league clubs bar Arsenal have changed manager since Arsène Wenger last won a trophy in 2005.
5 Only five top-flight clubs from 2012-13 now have a manager that has served more than a year.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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