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Tony Pulis’s problem at West Brom: Style issues just won’t go away
Last Updated: 21/11/16 7:05pm
West Brom ended their winless run with a 2-1 win at Leicester before the international break. But issues of identity mean Tony Pulis may never be fully embraced at the Hawthorns, writes Adam Bate.
Tony Pulis is used to pressure. Perhaps that's his natural habitat. Earlier this season, West Brom supporters spent part of a 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth chanting: "Tony Pulis, your football is ****." The man himself pleaded for unity. "We are going to be in for a tough few months," he said afterwards. "We all need to get together. We need the supporters."
A fine 4-2 home win over West Ham assuaged the anger. The subsequent five-game winless streak saw it build again. Sunday's 2-1 triumph at Leicester - the champions' first Premier League defeat at the King Power Stadium in over a year - has lanced the boil once more, but for how long? Slip up against Burnley next time out and the complaints will re-emerge.
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With Pulis quick to point out that his West Brom side is the "highest ranked team in the Midlands", sympathy for Albion supporters will be limited. Should the Welshman eventually depart with his record of never being relegated still intact, there'll be many quick to criticise the club if the next man fails to find the task of keeping the Baggies afloat any easier.
Certainly some would seek to style it as a hasty move that Albion could be left to repent at their leisure in the Championship. So what's their problem? Well, in truth, Pulis's stay at the Hawthorns has always been a marriage of inconvenience. A myriad of factors have muddied the waters further. Tales of contracts and disputes, ownership changes and money matters.
And yet, it's what's happening on the field that's the source of most anger and frustration. Pulis's style of football has a knack of aggravating. It's a familiar complaint. Pulis and style. A word you'd ordinarily want as far apart as possible when discussing the merits of a middle-aged man in a baseball cap, but one that's nevertheless destined to dog his career.
Sam Allardyce has faced similar questions but, nationally at least, that was regarded as more understandable when tackling the West Ham job - a club that openly advertises itself as the academy of football. West Ham claim they won the World Cup. England, Allardyce's most recent employers, literally did. Supporters of both expect things to be done in a certain way.
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Whether it's London bias or a more specific incredulity that Midlands folk might have designs on looking good too, the notion that Pulis is a good fit for clubs like Stoke and West Brom prevails. It's a practical thought. The two clubs were both relegated in the mid-1980s and neither returned to the top flight until after the turn of the century. It's rarely been easy.
As such, some might see it as delusions of grandeur to want more than a man who hasn't finished lower than 14th in eight full seasons as a Premier League manager. But it's not quite that simple. Such 'delusions' might be more accurately described instead as a keen sense of cultural identity. Put simply, Albion fans do not like their team playing ugly football.
West Brom's identity as footballing aesthetes might not resonate as strongly as West Ham's outside of the West Midlands but it certainly predates it. English champions in 1920, it's the Vic Buckingham side of the 1950s that provided the basis for Albion's fiercely protected reputation as a club that plays football that's easy on the eye.
Buckingham was the sort of coach who got the balls out on the first day of pre-season, unheard of in an era when players were supposed to be starved of it in order to add to their hunger to get hold of the ball on a Saturday. "He encouraged displays of trickery and ball-mastery," wrote Rory Smith in Mister, "instituting a daily ball-juggling competition."
In the same book, former West Brom defender Graham Williams recounts Buckingham's vision. "He was all about pass and move," said Williams. "He wanted to see tricks and goals. Just flow, like ice cream and chocolate. There were no long balls from defence. The defenders would fetch it down and we would play it out."
It was enough to win the 1954 FA Cup with only late-season fixture congestion hampering the Baggies' bid for the double. But Buckingham had created a template for the club to build from. Williams captained them to another FA Cup win in 1968 before Ron Atkinson's side of the late 1970s seemed to cement the idea of Albion as football's entertainers.
The team of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson - the Three Degrees - was briefly the most exciting side in the land. Playing with style and swagger, they finished third in 1979 with Regis winning goal of the season in 1982. Supporters still gain pleasure from their club being so associated with the country's first major influx of black players.
Have Albion always been so enthralling? Of course not. But in a sense, when it comes to cultural identity, such details are mere footnotes. As Republican strategist Lee Atwater once said: "Perception is reality." The stories we tell ourselves are important. It's about ideas of self, an oral tradition passed down through generations. Albion stand for something more.
"Some of my first memories of watching Albion were when the club was in the third division," recalls West Brom fan and Birmingham Mail blogger Andrew Benbow. "My heroes were guys like Andy Hunt and Kevin Donovan. It was a mile away from the great teams that my dad and my grandad had watched down the Hawthorns.
"But you were still very conscious of the fact that Albion had a tradition to uphold. We've not won a European Cup like Villa and we've rarely had the sort of money that they like to chuck around at Wolves, but we do have a tradition of trying to play the right way. It's always been a source of pride for supporters. It might not seem a big thing, but it matters."
West Brom's style of play
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It's a rich tradition and one that West Brom fans have come to revel in. It's a key point of difference between the club and its rivals. There's the delicious juxtaposition with Wolves, for example, a club that conquered the country - but only by playing the sort of long-ball football that was anathema to Buckingham throughout the 1950s.
Atkinson himself was once a groundsman at Molineux, one of the young men responsible for soaking the pitch to neutralise the visitors' silky skills for the famous visit of Honved in 1954. In those less tribal times, not for nothing was there the maxim: "I go to Wolves to watch them win, I go to Albion to watch football."
Such concepts are malleable, of course. Even at the most historic of clubs, witness the enthusiasm with which many United supporters threw their lot in with Jose Mourinho, or the swiftness with which Arsenal fans morphed from embracing 1-0 wins and offside traps under George Graham to becoming self-styled guardians of the 'right way' to play.
It's not as though West Brom supporters cannot countenance the pragmatic under the right circumstances. They remain admirers of the much-maligned Gary Megson for his sterling efforts in twice taking the club into the Premier League. Those against-the-odds triumphs were not achieved playing football from the gods.
West Brom's declining attendances
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However, there's a sense in which issues of identity can only ever be put on hold. Much like a ceasing of intra-national hostilities to deal with an imminent threat from outside, the spectre of relegation had to be addressed at the Hawthorns and Pulis was the man to address it. Two years on and the mood has changed.
Southampton and West Ham are embarking on their fifth consecutive seasons as Premier League clubs. For Leicester, it's their third. This is West Brom's seventh season in a row in the top flight. Their fans are entitled to wonder why it still needs to feel like such a struggle. As it stands, the club's average attendance is set to fall for a fourth season in a row.
Ironically, with relegation a risk, Pulis remains ostensibly the right fit for West Brom. Indeed, he has every right to still consider himself the man best suited for the task they face. But the situation is complicated by the fact that Pulis continues to challenge rather than embrace Albion's identity.
"We know that Pulis has a record of keeping teams in the division," adds Benbow. "But isn't football supposed to be entertaining too? It's not even a case of wanting better results. It'd just be nice to see us try and get similar results in a better way." He might be the man they need, but it seems Tony Pulis will never be the man they want.