Ahead of Norwich City’s vital clash with West Brom, Dan Brigham finally lets it all out: an irrational dislike of Tony Pulis’ party-pooping, moustache-and braces football. Isn't it about time he left the Premier League alone? Warning: contains analogies
Another Premier League season, another Tony Pulis success.
Makes you sigh, doesn't it?
Well, maybe it does if, like me, a perfectly rational dislike of PulisBall has turned mildly... irrational. West Brom’s results are always the second I look out for, desperate for my thirst for Pulis-misery to be quenched, desperate for my pre-season belief that West Brom would be relegated to have moved a step closer to reality. It’s not going to happen though, is it. It was never going to happen.
Pulis, whose teams will still be sat in a rigid defensive shape when the nuclear waste begins to rain down and we all leg it to underground bunkers and start breeding with mutant rats, does not do relegation. What he does do is walk through every room at the Premier League party, turning the music down and looking sternly at his watch. There is tutting.
What makes it worse, in a way, is he is rather admirable. He is very effective at what he does. He would keep Norwich up.
After a decade bumbling around the lower leagues crafting his home-brew tactics, making friends at Gillingham but enemies at Bournemouth, Bristol City and Portsmouth, Stoke’s rise was as unexpected as it was outstanding: Pulis got them promoted, established them in the Premier League, wound up Arsène Wenger, built the Britannia into a Colosseum, took them to an FA Cup final, into Europe and turned them into the closest thing English football has had to a cult since Wimbledon (almost but not quite: he would never have tolerated many of the dickwadery elements that Dave Bassett and Joe Kinnear encouraged).
Whatever you think of Pulis’s football, Stoke City are one of modern British football's great success stories. Their fans remain fiercely loyal to Pulis, talking about him with that loving, glazed expression of a man remembering his first lawnmower. One day, wouldn’t it be lovely if Norwich fans did the same when reminiscing about the Alex Neil era?
While many managers never recapture the glory after being so closely associated with one club, Pulis left Stoke to revitalise Crystal Palace, turning a corpse into a fully-functioning animal again. He saved them from relegation and even introduced an attacking style that occasionally dared to border on entertaining (a shock similar to that time you discovered John Major had a sense of humour behind his dour persona).
Despite reverting back to his favourite moustache-and-braces football at West Brom, he’s done an excellent job with a poor side, cementing his reputation as a fixer; Winston Wolfe in trackie bottoms and a baseball cap. At WBA he’s achieved mid-table stasis by essentially playing centre-backs in nearly every position on the pitch, turning the Hawthorns into a rest home for immobile, hard-bastard defenders no one else wants. I’ll be amazed if it hasn't crossed his mind to try and squeeze in a centre-back as a striker. Maybe even stick one in goal. Such is his obsession with hoarding them that he’s probably got old defenders stuffed to the rafters in his house; he can't get to the toilet for Neil Ruddock, Phil Babb, Ian Butterworth and Colin Hendry sprawled across the bathroom floor. Please let us go, Tony. Please.
Perhaps there’s another reason why I shouldn’t be so po-faced about Pulis: it is very much a good thing that the Premier League is full of different styles of football. Varied approaches, assorted formations, possession vs non-possession, attacking vs counter-attacking, pressing vs sitting. It’s all great for the game, layering it with a nuance and subtlety that would be alien to the first serfs to kick a bladder across their masters’ land several centuries ago. This diversity, bundled up in a very simple game, is why football has turned into the globe-shrinking behemoth it is today. Equally, English football's beige, long-ball uniformity of the 1970s and 1980s (a generalisation, but it was certainly the prevailing style) almost garrotted the game in this country.
So variation is absolutely vital. And Pulis’s teams, it could be argued, provide an alternative compared to what else is on offer in the Premie League. This isn't good variation though. It is bad variation. You don't find yourself watching, say, a classic Woody Allen movie, followed by a brilliant horror – let's say The Shining, followed by an all-time masterpiece such as The Godfather; you don't do that and think “yeh, that's some excellent variety: Comedy. Horror. Thriller. But what I really need now is to throw in some classic rom-com era Matthew McConaughey”.
Is this snobbery? Is turning your nose up at something so aesthetically displeasing, so bloody-mindedly unappealing really a form of snobbery? It’s OK to dislike shit things. And direct football can be fun. Lots of fun. Not the violent Wimbledon side of the 1990s – a fairytale with fangs – but the current Leicester side, sitting deeply and breaking quickly and lethally. It’s simple, it's old-fashioned, and it's thrilling to watch. Even Sam Allardyce's teams often have a verve about them, and a spot of wit and invention. Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth side of giants played some of the most exciting, direct football of the mid-2000s.
But Pulis’s teams, Palace aside, aren't like that. They are aggressively one-note. They are so offensively meat and potatoes – and not a juicy bit of Wagyu with fondant, but boiled leathery beef and microwaved jacket potatoes with fucking coleslaw – that it’s a wonder there hasn’t been an ironic movement to push Pulis’ cause as the ultimate footballing hipster for ignoring all current trends. Pulis as trailblazer. Pulis as promoter of the avant-garde.
Really, though, it is Pulis as machine operator. For that's what his teams are. Machines. He removes the human from football and turns his players into efficient cogs, like Jose Mourinho on a budget. Pulis's sides are 19th-century factories blotting the landscape, they are joylessly industrial, and DH Lawrence was absolutely right when he called industrialism a tragedy of ugliness – although he probably wasn't thinking of James Chester playing at full-back when he said it.
I have nothing against Pulis The Man. His treatment of Saido Berahino, from an outsider's perspective, looked like a willing misuse of young talent, but Pulis's crimes nestle, much like his teams, in mid-table mediocrity among his Premier League peers. Indeed he seems relatively honest, and aware there is life beyond football. He looks like he’d quite happily still drive around in a 1983 Vauxhall Cavalier, and plays keyboards in a prog-rock covers band every other Friday night in his local O'Neil’s. He looks and acts like someone who remembers his lower-league roots, and this is, again, admirable.
But, please, no more. All I want is for the Premier League to be cleansed of Pulis’s overweight-doorman style of football. No more centre-backs on the wing. No more setting up for a draw at home to Aston Villa. No more shackling creative players. We already all pay far too much to follow the Premier League on TV and at grounds – and the £30 limit will still be at least £25 too much to visit the home of whichever team Pulis is robbing of its autonomy next season.
Enough is enough. Be gone, Tony, be gone.
Dan Brigham tweets at @dan_brigham
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