Tony Pulis admits he is more likely to give Martin O'Neill one of his trademark baseball caps than a £300 bottle of claret when his team visit Aston Villa in a top-versus-bottom encounter today. Yet the Stoke City manager's admiration for the man he believes should succeed Fabio Capello with England is every bit as strong as the respect between Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Stoke gained their opening Premier League victory at Villa's expense in August and Pulis, heartened by James Beattie's scoring form and the return of the muscular target-man Mamady Sidibe, now hopes for a first away success against the same opponents. Although O'Neill's decision to leave eight first-choice players in the Midlands for Thursday's Uefa Cup defeat at CSKA Moscow lessened the chances of it happening, it drew an impish smile from Pulis.
"I was ringing the local radio stations saying he must take his first team," the Welshman quipped. "Given the choice, I'd have preferred them to have travelled to Russia. But seriously, Martin runs Aston Villa, not me. I think he's a top, top manager and was very unfortunate to get overlooked for the England job last time round. Villa won't thank me for saying this, but if he keeps doing what he's been doing, he should be the next England manager – if he wants it.
"What I admire is that he had the balls to start in non-League football with Shepshed and Grantham. That says something," Pulis reflected. "Martin is very passionate, and it will be nice to be up against a manager wearing a tracksuit. There are loads drifting away to wearing suits. He's old-fashioned in that sense, but you can't say that about his team.
"Villa have pace and power in the right areas, though the real strength is their balance. The players are in the right positions and know exactly what their jobs are. Martin is like Brian Clough, who got people to play to their strengths. The football they play is very attractive. They are good at counterattacking and set-plays, but he also has players with great ability."
Pulis's opinion of his only rival in the touchline histrionics stakes is informed by gratitude for O'Neill's unwitting part in Stoke's return to the English elite after a 23-year absence. "Letting me have Lee Hendrie and Pat-rik Berger on loan was a big influence on the club," he said. "It showed we could attract bigger players and took us to a different level. Martin is very straight. There's no ifs, buts or maybes. If he says he'll do a deal, he will."
This afternoon, however, Villa and Stoke will suspend goodwill for 90 minutes, with O'Neill's team keen to maintain their pursuit of a Champions' League place and the visitors desperate to kick-start their fight against relegation. Beattie's four goals in five outings since Pulis paid Sheffield United £2.5 million for the striker has given the Potteries club renewed optimism, as has Sidibe's fitness after the 6ft 5in Malian spent two months out with a knee problem.
"James has given us goals, but everything about him – the way he trains, his great enthusiasm – has livened up the place," Pulis said. "The opportunity to play in the Premier League again is a big spur for him. With Mama injured, we had missed having a focal point to our attack, so his coming back as well is a massive plus for us. Those two together will be a handful."
Villa have cause to be wary of both. Four years ago, during David O'Leary's tenure, they were found guilty by the Football Association of making an illegal approach to Beattie – then with Southampton – while Sidibe settled the last meeting in stoppage time.
Stoke, with one victory in 14 League and cup fixtures and without an away victory in the top flight since 1984, urgently need a repeat performance.
Manchester United v Tottenham hotspur (3pm, Sky Sports 1) United using half-a-dozen reserves should even the game up nicely. The outcome may depend on how soon they send for reinforcements.
Aston Villa v Stoke city (3pm) Villa clearly feel they are exciting enough to pull a crowd while the Wembley game is live on TV. Stoke (three points from 13 away games) are not part of the attraction.
Bolton wanderers v Newcastle Utd (1pm, Setanta Sports 1) What a lot of water under the Tyne Bridge since Sam Allardyce took Newcastle to Bolton on the first day of last season and won easily.
Hull City v Blackburn Rovers (12.30pm)
Allardyce goes to Humberside instead today, six points behind Hull but with a game in hand. A key match in both teams' season.
West Ham Utd v Manchester City (12.30pm) Craig Bellamy will be on a high visiting another of his old clubs, but West Ham are having a flat patch: two goals and no win in five games.
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