Tony Pulis will take charge of his first game as Middlesbrough manager tomorrow when Aston Villa visit the Riverside. In the final instalment of a two-part series, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson looks at the 59-year-old’s managerial career so far


HE has enjoyed success at the highest level for more than one-and-a-half decades, but Tony Pulis’ managerial career hasn’t always been plain sailing. During his first ten years in the dug-out, there were plenty of occasions when it looked as though the 59-year-old’s time in football was coming crashing to an end.

He managed four different clubs before things took off at Stoke City, and none of the spells were especially successful. At Bournemouth, he struggled to live up to his predecessor, Harry Redknapp, and never finished higher than 17th in what is now League One.

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Leading Gillingham was initially a much more positive experience, and having won promotion from the bottom tier in his first full season at Priestfield, he led the Gills to the Second Division play-off final. They led Manchester City 2-0 with only two minutes of the play-off final remaining, but were pegged back to 2-2 and lost the subsequent penalty shoot-out.

A few weeks later, though, Pulis was sacked, with his employers claiming gross misconduct. A messy court case ensued, with Pulis eventually agreeing an out-of-court settlement with Gillingham chairman Paul Scally over unpaid bonuses that was worth £75,000.

After Gillingham, Pulis had brief spells with Bristol City and Portsmouth, but when he was dismissed from the latter after just ten months at Fratton Park, his managerial stock was just about at rock bottom. He was out of work for two years, but was offered a lifeline when Stoke City chairman Peter Coates was looking for a new manager in 2002. Pulis would spend ten years leading Stoke, in two different spells, and to many, his time at the Britannia Stadium continues to define him.

Having joined a club that were perennial strugglers in the Championship, Pulis transformed Stoke into an established Premier League force. He regularly led the Potters into the top half of the table, embarrassing most of the top-flight’s leading lights along the way. There was an FA Cup final appearance and a spell in Europe that saw Stoke progress through the group stage of the Europa League before losing to Valencia in the last-32.

Under Pulis, Stoke signed England internationals such as Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate, not to mention overseas stars like Steven N’Zonzi and Wilson Palacios. The Potters became the side that nobody wanted to face, but their success attracted both criticism and praise.

To some, Pulis is a footballing alchemist, turning base raw materials into sporting gold. To others, he is a throwback to the days when physical exertion trumped tactical or technical excellence, and defensive resilience meant more than attacking flair.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Pulis has always been a manager who likes his players to be well-drilled, but there is still much to be said for the virtues of organisation, discipline and resilience.

Middlesbrough’s players will notice an immediate difference between Pulis’ training-ground methods and the approach adopted by his predecessor, Garry Monk. Whereas Monk wanted his players to be off-the-cuff, and talked of radically altering the approach adopted by former Boro head coach Aitor Karanka, Pulis’ training sessions will be both structured and repetitive. His methods aren’t always popular, but over the last two decades, they have tended to produce results.

“There is no middle ground with Tony Pulis,” said Stoke striker Peter Crouch, in a recent column for the Daily Mail. “Depending on which side of the debate you stand, you’ll either dislike him or love him. It is that simple. What isn’t up for debate is the way I think about him – I’m firmly in the latter category.

“It gets said he won’t play expansive football, but the players he’s worked with as manager have, in general, been below the level of top-six sides. First and foremost, Tony wants his teams to be organised because without organisation you get picked off.

“Tony is one of the best at organising a team, making them tough to beat. His philosophy was to have seven or eight players who were very, very disciplined, and then two or three who could be a little bit more creative and try to unlock defences.

“When you play up front for him on your own, you know it is going to be tough because the team behind you is more defensive-minded.

“Training isn’t about fun for him. He doesn’t care if you haven’t got a smile on your face. There is a lot of shape, and sometimes the players want to do more but he won’t let them because they have to be fresh for the weekend. That is his philosophy and it is what he has always done. He has been very successful with it.”

There was certainly plenty of success at Stoke, but after more than a decade at the Britannia Stadium, briefly split by a stint at Plymouth Argyle, Pulis moved on in May 2013. It was commonly felt his time had run its course, and he continues to bear no malice to Coates, who he regards as a close family friend.

Six month after leaving the Potteries, Pulis re-emerged at Crystal Palace, and while he only spent seven months in charge at Selhurst Park, his achievements in South London were arguably the greatest of his career. Taking over a side that looked dead and buried at the foot of the Premier League, Pulis engineered a remarkable renaissance that eventually saw Palace finish in 11th position.

He was named Premier League Manager of the Year for his efforts, but walked out on the Eagles shortly before the start of the following season. The precise reasons for his departure are unclear, although it is thought he received promises about the transfer window that subsequently failed to materialise.

He was not out of work for long, and has spent most of the last three years mounting a frantic rear-guard action with West Brom. He successfully kept the Baggies in the Premier League, and celebrated the milestone of his 1,000th senior game as a manager, but the merits of his approach divided the West Brom fans and he was dismissed in November with his side in the bottom three.

His departure from the Hawthorns captured the attention of Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, and after a series of telephone conversations on Christmas Eve, Pulis travelled to Teesside on Boxing Day to be confirmed as Boro’s new boss.

He takes charge of his first game tomorrow, when Aston Villa visit the Riverside, and will hope to guide his new employers back to the Premier League in the next five months. If he is successful, any debate over his tactics or methods will be redundant.