Autumn 1992. Tony Pulis is a rookie manager at Bournemouth setting out on the long road that has brought him to the point of his 1,000th match. His first company car, a gift from the chairman, Norman Hayward, has already been to the garage after smoke started pouring out of the dashboard on the M3 and Pulis is getting an early lesson in the economics of lower-division football.
“The chairman has bought me a car that’s about 20 years old,” Pulis recalls. “Money meant everything to him. We went to watch Grimsby play one night. We drove up in his Mercedes, then all the way back and he dropped me off where my car, this enormous old shack, was parked by the road in Fordingbridge. The windscreen was iced up so I turned on my engine and Norman got out his credit card to try to get the ice off. As he was scraping away, I could suddenly hear him going: ‘Oh my God, no! I can’t believe it!’ I thought he must have broken his credit card. He’d actually just seen my tax disc. ‘They’ve given you 12 months,’ he was shouting: ‘I told them six months.’ I said: ‘Thanks Norman, that gives me loads of confidence.’”
Almost a quarter of a century on, Pulis is on the threshold of joining the 1,000 Club, or what Sir Alex Ferguson calls “the band of brothers”. He will become the 25th manager on the list, meaning a place in the League Managers Association’s hall of fame, and there is a neat symmetry about the West Bromwich Albion manager marking the achievement against Stoke City, the club he found “drifting nowhere” and took to the Premier League.
One of his interviews in the past few days began with a television reporter mischievously asking Pulis what had changed over the past 999 games, then adding: “Obviously not your tactics.” Only a joke, perhaps, and Pulis is willing to send himself up on that front. “Preston away, 1-1, August 15, 1992,” he says of his first match in management. “John Beck was the Preston manager and the corners of their pitch were filled with sand so the ball would stay in play. I learned from him, you see …”
He can see the funny side but, at 58, Pulis has grown wearily accustomed to people denigrating his management style. “You get pigeonholed. You accept it or you fight it. I’ve accepted it. That’s what people think and it doesn’t bother me. People go on about my style of play. But I tell you what I do – I go into football clubs, I try to find out what systems suit the players and I try to get the damnedest out of those players. That’s what I’ve done everywhere I’ve been. I’ve got a load of centre-halves who can’t pass. You want them to pass out from the back, but you have to look at their strengths and work round that.”
For the most part, that formula has been successful; otherwise Pulis would not be here looking back on a 24-year career that has taken him from Bournemouth to Gillingham, Bristol City, Portsmouth, Stoke, Plymouth, back to Stoke, Crystal Palace and now West Brom. His current job has looked vulnerable recently in the wake of Albion’s takeover but, overall, there has been plenty more good than bad. Even that trip to Grimsby. “We’d gone to see Joe Parkinson, who was playing up there for Wigan – we signed him for £20,000 and then sold him to Everton for £800,000.”
Ryan Shawcross, the Stoke captain, is another example. “We took Shawcross from Man United, where he was playing in the third team. He was just a tall streak of nothing when we saw him. He didn’t have great balance, he wasn’t strong. But we brought him in, worked him and worked him and I’m absolutely delighted how well he’s done.”
Shawcross also features in another story that demonstrates how Pulis, like many successful managers, knows how to use his temper to good effect. “We played at Blackburn and were 2-0 up at half-time, having absolutely murdered them. But the break always worries me when we’ve played well because the flow stops. All the players were patting each other on the back so I went up to Ryan – who had been different class – and absolutely slaughtered him. Hammered him. Ryan’s agent came on after the game saying he was down in the dumps and didn’t know what had happened. I pulled Ryan in, told him he was my captain and I thought the world of him but the team needed a jolt because everybody was too comfortable – and he was the one who got it.”
At other times, Pulis has gone even further. He has no appetite to discuss the infamous dressing-room encounter with James Beattie (when Pulis is said to have head-butted his player, while completely naked, in a row about a cancelled Christmas party) but he does acknowledge the game has changed and managers can no longer pin players – “the film stars” as he calls them – against the wall to make their point.
“There was a time and place for that, but that was years ago. We’ve moved on. There are times when I still lose my temper and go after one or two players but it would never come to that. You could not do it now, but I cannot say I have never lost my temper and I generally go for the senior players, never the young players. When I have lost it, I have lost it.”
Equally, there is a pragmatic streak to Pulis whereby he does not mind dealing with difficult characters on a short‑term basis. Jermaine Pennant is one he identifies. “We got a good 12 months out of him,” he says. “There are players like that – you know they have been rascals, and that you can bring them in, give them a new environment and get a length of time out of them, but they will always return to type. You can get something out of them, then you have to get rid of them. Jermaine was always a one- or two-window player.
“That’s management. It’s a social job as much as anything else, finding out what people are like, seeing through them. There have been good players and not-so-good players who I have moved along because I thought there would be a clash of character. If someone has been top cock, or whatever you call it, I’ve knocked him down, and he’s responded … as Cloughie used to say: ‘There’s no room for two big heads in this club.’”
At Gillingham, his relationship with the chairman, Paul Scally, ended badly, but his time at Priestfield was an early indication of Pulis’s ability to make the most of what he had. “They didn’t have a training ground so I got the groundsman to get a tractor, I put two goals on the back and we took them up to the park just up from the stadium. For the first month, doing all my shape and pattern for the new season, there were people walking past, old ladies with their shopping, one fella with his dog.”
This was in the age when dog-walkers did not bother with poop bags. “I said: ‘Excuse me’ and he said: ‘Listen son, I’ve walked this park for 40 years and I don’t care what you are playing.’”
Pulis is not entirely comfortable with the way the modern game has “gone Hollywood”. Some of the kids these days drive him crackers. “The biggest thing is giving them too much too soon. We spoil them before they’ve achieved anything. The Premier League, Sky, BT and everyone else have created this creature and they’re spoilt, all the way through. They [Premier League players] are so far removed from society, and from the crux.”
Compare the modern-day attitudes, he says, with Gary Mabbutt, the player he regards as the most inspirational he has ever known. “At Bristol Rovers when I started as a 17-year-old, I watched Mabbs at the back of the bus injecting insulin into his thigh because of his diabetes. One Christmas I was injured and had to go in for treatment. He was 16 or 17 years old. He was out with a load of balls on the training pitch, and that was Christmas morning.”
One thing that has never changed is the pain of defeat. “I’ve got a little room at home that I go in,” he says. “There is just a television in there. My wife brings in my food and a glass of wine. Then she leaves me until the morning. I don’t sleep much. Losing a game of football, even when you have played well, kills you. It must be a nightmare for football managers’ wives, putting up with us.”
Otherwise, Pulis says the secret of his longevity is his ability to adjust with the times and deal with the modern player. He has, however, always remembered the advice of the late Alec Stock, one of the other members of the 1,000 Club. “He was in a nursing home in Wimbourne. I sat him with one day and one of the things he said was: ‘Tony, always believe your eyes, never get away from that.’
“Peter Coates [the Stoke chairman] wanted me to move with technology: ‘You must have this, you must have that.’ We had heart monitors and there was one pre-season when I didn’t use them. Somebody asked me how I could know how the players were doing. I said: ‘I know, because if they are sweating and moaning, they are fucking working.’ That was my monitor. But I have embraced everything.”
Everything, that is, apart from social media (“some of the stuff is crazy”). On that basis, he might be unaware about the fascination with his match-day attire: the baseball cap, the tracksuit, the white trainers. Pulis, as the song goes, wears the club shop. “I’ve just had a shoot with the BBC and they wanted me to put some trainers on. I asked why and they said: ‘You get new ones every game.’ I said: ‘What? This is West Bromwich Albion – they get washed. If they get muddy they get washed. It is a pat on the back for Jacko the kit man that he manages to get them so white. But they honestly thought I had a brand new pair delivered for every game.”
Beyond football, Pulis has plans to follow one of Napoleon’s marches across the Italian alps “at the same time of the year to understand what they went through”. A Napoleon obsessive, he has already visited some of the battlegrounds in France and Russia. “There’s so much more I want to do in life,” he says. But first, it’s back to the Potteries.
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