Mark Holmes sums up the highs and lows of Tony Pulis' two spells in charge of Stoke, and explains why the axe ultimately fell
Last Updated: 23/05/13 10:05pm
Tony Pulis' story as Stoke City manager is quite remarkable.
First hired in November 2002 with the club struggling to avoid relegation back to the third tier, he was sacked for a second time on Tuesday, May 23, 2013, on the back of the Potters' fifth successive mid-table finish in the Premier League.
Who would have thought when he was first appointed that a 13th-placed finish in the top flight would eventually lead to his demise?
First spell in charge
Pulis successfully steered the club clear of relegation back in 2002-03, a feat he still regards as one of his greatest in management, before leading them to an 11th-placed finish in the following season.
He had not been a popular appointment at first, something not helped by no wins in his first 10 games in charge. But Pulis had won supporters over by this point until, in the 2004-05 season, Stoke went on an incredible run of 18 results in which the only scorelines were exclusively 0-0, 1-0, 0-1 or 1-1.
Just 36 goals were scored and 38 conceded in 46 league games that season, and the decision of the club's Icelandic owners to sack Pulis, for 'failing to implement the strategy of exploiting foreign markets', was almost universally welcomed by a supporter base that had grown tired of his defensive approach.
Return to Stoke
Remarkably, after an entertaining if no more successful season with Johan Boskamp in charge at Stoke, Pulis was reappointed manager at the Britannia Stadium by Peter Coates, who had bought the club back from the Icelanders after a previous spell as majority shareholder between 1989 and 1999.
It was the worst possible news as far as Stoke fans were concerned but, backed by Coates' new-found riches, Pulis was able to win over his doubters as loan signings such as Lee Hendrie and Salif Diao, not to mention the permanent arrival of Ricardo Fuller, completely transformed the club's fortunes.
Not only did they begin to win games but, for the first time under Pulis, they began to win them in style, winning 4-0 at Leeds and then thrashing Norwich 5-0 in the space of four games shortly after the first influx of loan signings.
Stoke eventually finished eighth that season, missing out on a play-off spot by two points, but it was clear in which direction the club was heading.
The Potters were still outsiders with the bookmakers to gain promotion in 2007-08 but some more good signings, including Ryan Shawcross, were made as Pulis led the club to the Premier League for the first time.
Promotion to the Premier League
Any doubters among the Stoke support had long since been won over, but the team's direct style of play, in particular their use of Rory Delap's long throw, had not impressed the wider world, with many predicting Pulis' side would fare even worse in the Premier League than Derby, who had just been relegated with 11 points.
One bookmaker even paid out on their relegation after an opening day 3-1 defeat at Bolton, but the criticism was music to the ears of Pulis, who created a siege mentality to help turn the Britannia Stadium into an unlikely fortress as Stoke finished 12th, some 11 points clear of the bottom three.
The doubters, of course, predicted that Pulis' approach would soon be found out and that Stoke would struggle to build on their impressive first season in the Premier League.
Yet Pulis continued to prove them wrong, leading Stoke to an even higher finish, 11th, the following season, and then an FA Cup final in 2011.
By that point, Pulis had also successfully introduced a more positive style of football. Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant were deployed as touchline-hogging wingers, and provided eight goals and 15 assists between them in 2010-11, with a 5-0 win over Bolton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley a clear sign of what Stoke were now capable.
The Potters also scored 46 goals in the league that season, comfortably the club's highest total in the Premier League to date.
Beginning of the end
With Stoke now in the Europa League and Coates once again providing a sizeable transfer budget, Pulis looked to be in a strong position to deliver yet more progress.
However, for the first time in either of his two spells in charge, the Welshman got things badly wrong in the transfer market.
Peter Crouch was purchased for £10million but as a replacement rather than a partner for Kenwyne Jones, bought for £8million only the previous summer, while Wilson Palacios arrived alongside Crouch from Tottenham for another £8million but made just nine league starts all season due to a chronic lack of fitness.
A further £4million was spent on Birmingham's Cameron Jerome, who made only seven league starts, while Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson arrived on free transfers, the former spending long spells looking horribly uncomfortable at right-back after Pulis had realised the error of his ways in breaking up Ryan Shawcross' partnership with Robert Huth.
Stoke did well in the Europa League, coming through two qualifying rounds before getting out of a group containing Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas and Maccabi Tel Aviv, eventually going out to Valencia in the last 32, but just four wins from their last 22 Premier League games hinted at regression.
Stoke finished 14th, their lowest placing yet, scoring only 36 goals, and Pulis suddenly found himself under pressure from supporters to up the entertainment level.
Attempt at evolution
Pulis undoubtedly tried to implement change going into this season, signing six midfielders and Michael Owen over the summer, with Charlie Adam replacing Jon Walters in the role between midfield and attack as Stoke, for the first time since their promotion, looked to build attacks through midfield rather than solely down the wings.
"We're trying to evolve and turn into a team that will play through the pitch quickly, but can play better small passes," Pulis said of his changes in October.
However, although Stoke were eighth at the halfway point of the season, it was a stronger defence rather than a more potent attack that was getting them results.
Stoke conceded just 14 goals in their first 19 games, four of them in one game at Old Trafford, but scored only 18 at the other end. Results were good and there were a few more passes, but it was largely as dull as ever.
While dull but winning football was not upsetting too many people in the Potteries, what followed in the second half of the season proved too much for many to accept.
As Stoke's defence suddenly began to look shaky - 31 goals were conceded in the second half of the season, almost double the tally from the first half - there was more pressure than ever on Pulis to increase the team's potency at the other end. But it never happened, with only 16 goals scored in the last 19 games, even less than in the first 19.
It was little surprise, then, that Stoke won just three of those games - and two of them against relegated sides in Reading and QPR.
The end of an era
Had Stoke's defence not gone missing in the second half of the season, there is every chance that Pulis would still be in a job having led the team to a first top-half finish.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that results alone have cost the Welshman his position.
The overly-defensive approach, particularly away from home, certainly lost him support in the stands during a season in which evolution had been promised, while his unwillingness to drop certain players during periods of bad form became an increasing source of frustration for supporters as the season went on.His apparent lack of trust in young players was also mooted as one of the reasons behind his departure, although it should be pointed out that none of the youngsters to have left Stoke during Pulis' reign are currently playing in the Premier League.
The biggest criticism Pulis has faced, however, certainly from outsiders, is regarding his spending since Stoke's promotion to the top flight.
In Pulis' defence, £87million spent in five seasons is not an extortionate amount by Premier League standards - Sunderland, for example, have spent around £113million during the same period, some £26million more than Stoke - while the Potters' wage bill is only the 14th highest in the top flight, according to the most recent figures.
Pulis, though, has been able to keep hold of his best players, hence the club's high net spend, which should have enabled him to build a stronger team.
Unfortunately, he has shown a lack of invention in the transfer market. While Wigan have picked up bargains from overseas and Aston Villa from the lower leagues, Pulis has continued to shop in the same expensive, limited pool of proven but unwanted Premier League players.
Stoke appointed a technical director in December to head their scouting and player recruitment department. But it was a move that did not appear to go down well with Pulis, who openly expressed his unhappiness that he was not able to strengthen his first team in the January transfer window. Neither Brek Shea nor Jack Butland were his signings.
With a minority of doubters edging towards a majority over the past season, it was perhaps best for both Stoke and Pulis that a change was made before he lost any more of the goodwill that he has built up over the past seven seasons.
As it is, he leaves with his legacy more or less intact. His style of play might have annoyed some and infuriated others. But Pulis built a team that the biggest clubs in the land feared playing against. He led the club to promotion, five mid-table finishes in the Premier League, a 5-0 Wembley win, an FA Cup final, the last 32 of Europe, and memorable wins over the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.
The next manager might be more liked by the wider world, but Tony Pulis is one hell of a hard act to follow for Stoke City.