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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Aug 6, 2014

Big Sam, Pulis two of a kind

Tony Pulis orchestrated an improbable run to help Crystal Palace avoid relegation during the 2013-14 Premier League season.

They are the ugly ducklings; managers to remind that the Premier League is not always about entertainment. For them, football must always be a results business first and foremost. Neither has won a major trophy, but crucially, neither has been responsible for a relegation. West Ham boss Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace's Tony Pulis do not court popularity contests. As obdurate perennials, they are both keenly aware of their worth. Playing hard and direct, with reliance on set pieces, theirs is a different answer to those of Roberto Martinez or Brendan Rodgers.

- Prem previews: Crystal Palace
- Prem previews: West Ham United

Dinosaur managers preaching prehistoric football? Such a view ignores both managers' ability to adapt to the constant change of the Premier League. Allardyce was an early adopter of analysis tool Pro Zone and employs a department of statistical boffins, while Pulis spends significant spare time visiting European clubs to research coaching techniques.

"When you come against a Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce team, you are going to have to do your very best to come away with a win or draw," says James Scowcroft, who played in the Premier League for Ipswich and Leicester and in the Championship for Coventry and Crystal Palace. "You mentally know that both managers are great motivators; they have done their homework on the opposition and they won't have left any stone unturned. Their knowledge of the game is very, very good.

"A manager has to be the biggest personality at a football club, and you look at that pair -- they've got their clubs in the palm of their hand."

While sharing stylistic similarities, both enter the new season in differing circumstances. Pulis ended last season as an unlikely media darling, winning a League Managers Association award for a Houdini act with Crystal Palace. Allardyce's campaign ended with a West Ham statement which assured his future, but included the manager pledging to vary his approach. Matters had hit a crisis point when Allardyce reacted flippantly to fans who booed a tawdry victory over Hull in March. For some Hammers, the moribund, risk-averse achievement of safety is not worth their money.

"Entertainment, contrary to what some people say and think, is high on my list," read Allardyce's statement, before a telling note of caution. "It is also a results business, though, and we need to win matches."

Allardyce will this season work alongside Teddy Sheringham, latterly known as a pro poker player, as an "attacking coach" appointed by his club's owners. Meanwhile, rancorous preseason trips to New Zealand and Germany resulted in the loss of Andy Carroll to injury, and both co-chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold making media interventions that hardly dampened disquiet.

The Allardyce mission remains clear: Keep the club up so their summer 2016 move to the Olympic Stadium is made as a top-division club. A note of caution against his removal is that both previous clubs that sacked him, Newcastle and Blackburn, swiftly got relegated from the Premier League.

While Allardyce leads bookmakers' lists to be the next manager sacked, Pulis' stock is high. Joe Dunne, manager of League One Colchester United, played under Pulis at Gillingham in the mid-90s and remains close to his former boss. Dunne says that while Pulis is unfussed by reputation, his season at Palace should have silenced any doubters.

"They played football," says Dunne. "All Tony wants is that when you don't have the ball, you get organised, but every manager would want that. Everybody can play football, but it's when you don't have the ball that you lose games. Tony, if given a chance with players with flair -- he can bring the best out of them."

That Palace rescue job showed off fine attacking play, especially in their comeback to 3-3 against Liverpool, in which Rodgers' team paid the price of losing their shape.

Sam Allardyce is at the top of many prognosticators' preseason list of managers on the hot seat.

"Sometimes you have to work with what you've got," says Dunne. "If you look at Tony's record, he built Stoke from the bottom. He gets the best out of what he's given. Palace were very shrewd in getting him, and I bet there's a couple of clubs who probably wish they had done.

"His man management is very good," continues Dunne, pinpointing a quality that Allardyce shares. "Once you give your best to Tony, you become very special."

Pulis' May 2013 departure from Stoke was not exactly sweet sorrow. Despite the outgoing manager's role in establishing the Potters as a Premier League force, memories faded of their 2011 run to the FA Cup final, in which wingers Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant thrilled. Signings like Michael Owen and Peter Crouch did not justify their cost. A shelf-life had been passed, a pitfall for managers who practice pragmatism over progression. The managerial brief demanded by a club with aspirations of promotion or survival is rather different from that which expects trophies -- though expectations change over time.

"It does become boring watching a team in the middle," says Scowcroft. "You knew Stoke were never going to go down but that's actually an indictment of what Tony Pulis had achieved."

Pulis reached a stagnation point strikingly similar to that which currently faces Allardyce. With ticket sales in mind, chairman Peter Coates took a reluctant decision to remove a manager who had inspired the club's revival, though a mark of Coates' continuing admiration was his part in persuading a doubtful Pulis to accept the Palace post.

As Allardyce suffered a difficult summer, Pulis, working as a commentator, was an interested observer at the World Cup, though his closing remarks to the BBC suggested that Brazil's charms had not altered his worldview. "One thing I noticed while I was out in Brazil was how poor some of the marking was in the group stage, and that should not happen whatever system you use," he commented.

Like Allardyce, the basics are always adhered to, and never deserted. Such clarity of vision is what has allowed them to survive for so long. Football is open to several interpretations, but theirs continues to deliver results.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.

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