TONY PULIS returns to management in the Championship for the first time in more than a decade this afternoon, and Middlesbrough’s new manager claims he is returning to a completely different division to the one he left in 2007.

Having watched Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers from the comfort of the front row of the directors’ box, Pulis will be in the Riverside dug-out when Boro host Aston Villa in their final game of 2017.

The 59-year-old has presided over more than 1,000 senior matches, but the vast majority of those games have come in the Premier League during lengthy spells at Stoke City and West Brom, and a brief sojourn at Crystal Palace.

Loading article content

Pulis has not managed in the Championship since he guided Stoke to promotion in the 2007-08 season. Back then, the Potters were lining up against the likes of Colchester, Plymouth and Scunthorpe, and the second tier was a poor relation to the Premier League.

Today, he takes charge of a Boro squad that was assembled for a price tag of more than £50m in the summer, and that boasts a £15m striker in the shape of Britt Assombalonga.

However, the Teessiders are not the only Championship club to have been splashing the cash in the last few years, and while Pulis has been charged with the task of winning promotion after succeeding Garry Monk, he accepts it will be a difficult challenge given the strength in depth that is currently evident within the second tier.

“There’s a lot more money in the Championship now than there was when I first came into the division,” said Pulis, who has likened the situation he has inherited at Middlesbrough to the one he encountered when he first took over at Stoke. “There’s a lot more foreign owners in the Championship now than there was at that time too.

“Everybody is aspiring to get to the Premier League. Everybody wants to hit that Premier League, but unfortunately for Middlesbrough, getting there and then dropping out was a massive misfortune for the club. It’s trying to get them back in there. I know it’s not going to be easy.”

Nevertheless, in his brief time on Teesside, Pulis has seen enough to convince him that a rapid return to the Premier League should not be beyond Boro’s capabilities in the next four-and-a-half months.

It is generally agreed that Boro boast one of the strongest squads in the Championship, but while there were fleeting signs of promise under Monk, the Teessiders were unable to string together a sustained spell of success under their former boss.

Pulis’ challenge is to change that, and he takes over a side that are already just one victory short of their joint-longest winning run of the season after successes over Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton.

Boro have only won three games in a row once this term – they beat Reading, Hull and Sunderland in the space of just over a week in October and November – so a win over Aston Villa this afternoon would represent a notable landmark right at the start of Pulis’ reign.

Villa are level on points with Boro in the table, but Steve Bruce’s side have not won any of their last five matches and despite last week’s off-field upheaval, Pulis is hoping his players will have gained considerable confidence from their last two outings.

“I was very pleased with the result against Bolton,” he said. “Garry had a great result at Sheffield Wednesday, so hopefully getting back-to-back results will give the lads even more confidence.

“It’s a massive game against Villa, who were one of the favourites to get promoted at the start of the season. I think people are now starting to recognise that the Championship is a tough league.”

Prior to taking over on Teesside, Pulis’ last managerial job had seen him leading West Brom. He was dismissed from the Hawthorns with the Baggies in the Premier League relegation zone, but while he insists he does not harbour any ill feeling towards the West Brom hierarchy, he insists his sacking was harsh.

He was handicapped by a series of serious injuries in the first two months of the season, and was unable to recover the momentum that was lost at the start of the campaign. Nevertheless, having dropped into the Championship, it is imperative he succeeds with Boro if his reputation is not to suffer.

“I wasn’t hurt at all by West Brom,” said Pulis. “I understand what happens if you don’t get results. But I think the big thing is that if you look at the results in early season, we didn’t have (James) Morrison, (Matt) Phillips, (Chris) Brunt, (Nacer) Chadli, (Craig) Dawson.

“When you see all those players missing, it was always going to be a difficult start. When they get those players back, they’ll be okay.”

Teams (probable):

Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Randolph; Christie, Shotton, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter, Howson; Downing, Bamford, Braithwaite; Assombalonga.

Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; Hutton, Chester, Elphick, Taylor; Jedinak, Whelan; Onomah, Grealish, Snodgrass; Hogan.