Summer 1995. Tony Pulis is about to take his first day's training at Gillingham. Still a rookie manager, his task is to turn around a club fresh out of administration after two seasons of fighting relegation to the Conference.
The club did not own a training ground so, says Pulis, "we looked around and found a park. I got the groundsman, Bill Collins, to take a set of portable goals up on the tractor. We jogged there from the club. It was on a slope but we did some work, then started on some shapes. As we did so this fellow walks across the pitch with his dog. Right in the middle of the pitch the dog stops, goes to the toilet, then moves on. I've brought half-a-dozen players in and they are looking and saying, 'This isn't the picture he painted'. It's a long way away, but I'll never forget it. It makes you appreciate where you've come from."
Thirteen summers on, Pulis is on the threshold of the Premier League. As we sit in his office, overlooking the Britannia Stadium pitch at Stoke City, there is evidence all around of the jump he and the club are about to make. The builders are at work, preparing for Stoke's first season in the top flight since 1985, when City were still playing at the Victoria Ground and this site was a working colliery. Downstairs fans are arguing with office staff about tickets for the season's opener, at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. The Potters are back and the city is abuzz.
For Pulis the madness started within hours of winning promotion in May. "The Sunday we went up I turned the phone off. I turned it on late Monday afternoon and I had 87 messages. Quite a big percentage were from agents I had never spoken to before in my life. I had all these new friends. I have been so deluged by 'greatest hits' DVDs I have had to bring in a new member of staff to deal with them."
To get a break Pulis and his wife, Debs, went to Florida to stay with her sister's family. "The great thing is, from six o'clock onwards the phone goes dead because everybody in England is sleeping. In Europe Debs would have no chance. So at least you get the evenings."
While he was away the fixtures came out. Anfield, 20 September. Chelsea at home the week after. Arsenal at home 1 November, Old Trafford a fortnight later. "That is when it hits home you are among the top clubs," he says.
Pulis is 50. He has been in the game since he was 15 but this is his bow in the top flight. When we meet the enormity of the task is beginning to sink in.
The bookies, and most others, believe his proud record of never being relegated will fall. Derby's nightmare campaign has been mentioned, as has Stoke's last season in the top flight when they won three games in taking 17 points from 42 matches. Even a member of staff said, when discussing how many tickets they expect to sell over the season as I waited for Pulis, "it depends how often we are embarrassed".
Pulis says: "When we were promoted the emotion was relief. Then there was satisfaction at achieving something only two other managers at this club, a famous club with players like Sir Stanley Matthews and Gordon Banks, had done [Tony Waddington and Alan Durban]. But now the season is approaching, and that shine is rubbing away."
It has not helped that, by mid-July, Pulis had failed to sign a single new recruit. All those phone calls had not produced the right player, at the right price. Then, in the space of a fortnight, Pulis landed Reading's Dave Kitson, for £5.5m, Wolves' Seyi Olofinjana for £3m and the former Aston Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen on a free. The team was taking shape. Since then, however, he has failed to secure a work permit for the Jamaican Rudolph Austin.
"I can't say that we have found it easy to get the ones we want," says Pulis, who has had to adapt the "buy British" policy that got him this far. Pulis was once sacked for not buying foreign players – by Stoke's then Icelandic owners in 2005. He admits: "I have been very pro-British players all through my career. I would rather deal with players I know, players I can find out about. But I recognise it is a different level now."
British players are expensive, but foreign ones carry a risk. "If you are spending money on bringing people in they have to be the right character. The bottom line is finding that out. At home I can speak to five or six people I trust on one player. When it comes to signing from abroad, who do you ring? You might know a player who was at their club, but you don't really get to the bottom of it. Before I came back one of the record signings was Sami Bangoura. More than £1m and he was a nightmare. He went missing for three months, the club were paying him an absolute fortune and he did not have any respect, not just for the club but for his team-mates as well." Pulis sold Bangoura for £270,000; he was last heard of playing for Cadiz in Spain's Second Division.
The popular belief is that the first yardstick Pulis judges a player by is just that, a measure. Anyone under six foot need not apply. En route to promotion Stoke were derided as purveyors of direct football reliant on set pieces, notably Rory Delap's long throw, and big strikers.
Pulis accepts there is some truth in this, but denies his team are all about route one. "There is a perception that I always like a big team. I can remember talking to [former football manager] Alec Stock when I was at Bournemouth. He used to say when his teams walked out he liked to see men, not boys.
"Have a look at all the teams, look at what Harry [Redknapp] has done at Portsmouth. No one likes to play football more than him. His team are absolute giants – but they can all play.
"Sometimes managers of teams we have beaten use that as an excuse. The so-called better teams, their managers sometimes had to find a reason why they lost to little old Stoke.
"Our game has developed. No one talks about Lee Hendrie being at the club, that big, black, 6ft 6in player beating everybody up [Hendrie, a slight, white, passing midfielder, was on a lengthy loan at Stoke]. Or Patrik Berger, or Salif Diao, and what a great player Ricardo Fuller is. Liam Lawrence is only 5ft 10in. The criticism does not bother me. The only thing that bothers me is getting a team on the pitch that is competitive and keeping my supporters happy." That said, he recognises that "we will have to be more flexible than last season. We will have to adapt as we are playing teams who are much stronger."
Pulis will enjoy pitting his wits against managers such as Arsène Wenger and Luiz Felipe Scolari. At the age of 21, while a player at Bristol Rovers, he had acquired all his coaching badges. Initially, he saw the courses as a way of regaining fitness after a long-term injury, but then he became hooked on coaching itself.
"It is something I would encourage players to do. It makes you think. The biggest thing about life today is people expect. And footballers have been given everything, it is almost a fantasy world. The money they get, the way they are treated. They don't have to do anything for themselves. They are spoilt, mollycoddled. Doing that when I was 21 opened my eyes."
Pulis's first coaching role came at the age of 32, at Bournemouth under Harry Redknapp, who was to prove something of a mentor. He became manager when Redknapp moved to West Ham, then had five years at Gillingham where he took a dead-beat club to the brink of their first stint in the First Division [now Championship]. Two late Manchester City goals in the play-offs denied them. Pulis left after a spectacular falling-out with the chairman Paul Scally, but the core of the team he built went up the following season.
Pulis moved on to Bristol City but his eight years playing for Rovers did not endear him to fans and he soon joined Portsmouth. Milan Mandaric sacked him after 10 months and Pulis had two years out of work before joining Stoke. Fired by the Icelandic owners, he went to Plymouth, keeping them up before receiving a call from Peter Coates, who had taken over for the second time at Stoke.
Pulis has not always got on with his chairmen but in Coates he knows he has "a dream. He is not only a smashing person, a loyal person, but he knows his football as well and he is sensible with it. It was an honour when he asked me to come back.
"You always learn from a chairman, good or bad. I believe the chairmen I have worked with have made me a more rounded person and more experienced manager. People have said I am a bit disruptive, that I am confrontational, but when we went up I got congratulations from most clubs I had worked at, including Milan [Mandaric, whose Leicester team were relegated by Stoke's last day victory]."
The family home remains in Bournemouth, with Pulis having commuted to all the clubs he has managed since. Partly this is because it is a lovely part of the world, and it meant that his three children – one of whom, Anthony, is on the books at Stoke – did not have to change schools. But it is also a bolthole.
"It was difficult when I managed Bournemouth, everything, papers, radio, people in the street, was about Bournemouth. But now, when I go back, nobody cares about Stoke or me."
The other antidote is a return to Newport, where he was brought up. Pulis retains friends there, living in the houses they grew up in. While he respects that, it was not for him.
"My dad worked in the steelworks. There was eight of us in a three-bed house. When I got the chance to go and play football and get paid I realised how lucky I was. I would wake up not believing it. I was the one given the opportunity [to get away] and I never wanted to go back, so I did all I could to stay in football. I'm 50 and still in it. If the curtain came down tomorrow, you would get no gripes from me because I have been the luckiest person alive."
There will be times this season, when strikers such as Fernando Torres are advancing on Thomas Sorensen's goal, with defenders gone AWOL and the scoreboard operators working up a sweat, when it will be hard to maintain such a belief, but one senses Pulis will manage it.
Redknapp, the Rothmans guru, gives Pulissome smoking inspiration
Stoke City's matches at Anfield and Old Trafford will highlight their new status, but Tony Pulis is looking forward just as much to visiting Fratton Park on 5 October. The Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, has been instrumental in his development, Pulis playing and coaching under him at Bournemouth, then succeeding him as manager.
"I learnt a lot from Harry. We used to travel up the motorway and I would get the Rothmans [Football Yearbook] out. He would be driving and he'd say, 'Pick a player'. I'd say, 'N Jones', and he'd be off, how old he was, who he played for, left-sided or right-sided, good in the air or not. The thing he taught me was the players are the products, and if you have good products you will be successful.
"I was mad on coaching and H would let me get on with it, but he would say, 'You can spend hours and hours out there, but if they don't take it in, Tone, you've got no chance. They have to be good players.'
"Harry is probably the funniest guy I have ever known, but he is also a fantastic football manager. People go on about him being a wheeler-dealer, but if you know him he lives and sleeps football – and horse racing."
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