Tony Pulis explains why West Brom made sure Saido Berahino stayed
WALSALL, England -- It's 7 a.m. on Friday morning and a grey, watery dawn has broken unenthusiastically over the West Midlands. In a prime parking space next to the front door of West Bromwich Albion's training ground sits manager Tony Pulis' car. It has been there for more than an hour; Pulis does not do lie-ins. While Walsall snoozes in the late winter gloom, Pulis is already in the gym. He emerges before 8 a.m. clad in a fresh tracksuit, chin shaved close.
He's eager for breakfast.
"I enjoy the gym," he says as he tucks into porridge and fresh fruit. "I think if you're fit in your body, you're fit in your mind. So I get up most mornings and I'm first there usually. I stay in there for an hour, an hour and a half, do my work, shower and then I have a nice breakfast. I love my breakfast." In fact, he loves two breakfasts. Two boiled eggs and toast swiftly follow, quickly demolished with great satisfaction.
In 36 hours' time his team will beat Crystal Palace, blowing them away with an uncharacteristic three-goal first half and then holding out against a spirited comeback to confirm the win. It lifts them to 35 points just before the end of February, enough to almost certainly secure another season of Premier League football for the Baggies -- no mean feat given that the club was nearly relegated in 2014, winning just seven games all season, and that he took over in January 2015 with demotion again a strong possibility. The presence of Pulis seems the closest thing to a guarantee of survival in the top flight, but he won't entertain such talk.
"It's as far away from the truth as anything," he says. "If you don't work hard at it, nothing's given in this game. This league, this year, is so open that we've got 12 games to go and we need the points as quick as we possibly can.
"Most probably what I've done is make it look so easy that people think it is easy," he says. "And it isn't. It's anything but easy." And yet it keeps happening.
Pulis made his name with Stoke City, taking them into the Premier League in 2008, keeping them there with a degree of comfort, reaching the FA Cup Final and repeatedly upsetting the established elite with his uncompromising style of football. He left after a disappointingly stagnant final campaign and reappeared at Crystal Palace the next season.
The Eagles were three points adrift and looked doomed, but Pulis swiftly got to work. He shored up the defence, accumulated points swiftly and, not content with simply avoiding relegation, eventually finished 11th, an extraordinary achievement given the mess he'd inherited. It won him the manager of the year award. He left Selhurst Park that summer "by mutual consent" -- reportedly after a dispute over transfer policy -- but it wasn't long before he was back to work, this time at West Brom.
In February, Pulis secured a victory away at Everton that seemed to encapsulate his ability to overturn the odds. Roberto Martinez's Everton side are the polar opposite to the Baggies: free-flowing, light-hearted and cavalier. Pulis pulled his men back, had them work tirelessly off the ball and snatched a goal on the break. Everton had 34 chances to equalise but only six of them were on target; 15 were blocked. A heat map of West Brom's average positions that day looked as though someone had plugged a halogen bulb into their penalty area, but they got the victory.
So how does he do it?
"Hard work," he says. "Loads of work on the training ground. You play with the ball and you play without the ball. I think the biggest thing in the Premier League is the divide between the people who have and the people who haven't. I think everybody has got to understand that you go into certain games, and they've got all the tools and the weapons to win a game of football and you're really trying to contend as much as anything else.
"This year has been great. It's been an exceptional year for teams to get results against the bigger teams, but generally, if you're working with a team that you know is below the fold, you have to get results. And to do that, you have to be organised. You have to be a team and you have to work very hard, with the ball and without the ball."
Albion have a mature squad. The bulk of their players are in their late 20s or their 30s (or late 30s, in the case of Gareth McAuley) but Pulis dismisses the suggestion that this is deliberate or that there's an advantage to working with veterans.
"I think you get people who want to learn at every age. You get people who'll accept that what you're doing will get results, and you'll get other people who just don't want to do the work that you want them to do.
"You have people who buy into it for a short period of time and then they get bored with it, you get other people who really enjoy it and grasp it and stick with it, and then you get other people who can't take it on and don't understand why you're doing it. They're the ones who flitter in and flitter out. There are individuals who are willing to learn and there are people who are technically very gifted and feel as though that's enough to see them through."
Pulis highlights two players whose work rate was hardly prodigious in their previous lives at Sunderland but who have come on immensely since they arrived in the Midlands.
"James McClean's work rate is phenomenal," he says. "I've never seen someone work as hard. 'Sess' [Stephane Sessegnon] has bought into it as well, which is good. But they all have to buy into it as the group buys into it. To be successful in the way that we play, you have to work really hard as a team. And there can't be any individual who is not doing the work that is needed."
Toward the end of last season with safety almost secured, Albion's form dipped alarmingly and Pulis was forced to issue a very pointed public warning to his players to stop being so complacent.
"That's life in general. If you become comfortable, if you become settled ... it's very different working with players today compared to when I first started 20 years ago. Players today, they're financially secure, they're multimillionaires, they've got everything set up for life. Getting that little bit more out of them week in, week out can be difficult."
But Pulis doesn't like the notion that he can't "scare" players into performing.
"It's not 'scaring,'" he says. "I think that's the wrong label. It's getting them to concentrate and realise that this is their life and they won't have it forever. Trying to get them to understand that this doesn't last forever and the short period of time they've got, between when they start their career to when they finish it, is just a small portion of their life, it's the best time they'll ever have and they should enjoy it. And by enjoy it, I mean get the most out of it. And that's where I'm a little bit different -- I think they should squeeze the pips out of it."
Not for the first time in our chat, thoughts turn to Saido Berahino, Albion's prodigiously talented striker. Pulis uses that "squeezing the pips" line directly about his young forward after his role in the victory over Crystal Palace.
The 22-year-old forward was furious when a potential move to Tottenham broke down in the summer and appeared to use social media to suggest that he was going on strike. The situation did not deteriorate to that extent but Berahino's focus drifted; he has made more appearances from the bench than the starting line-up this season. However, he's enjoyed a recent run in the team and an admirable public apology to the club last week seems to have cleared the air.
If Berahino plays as he did against Palace, the Baggies will easily finish some distance clear of the drop zone, which goes some way to explaining why owner Jeremy Peace didn't sell him in January.
"If you say to Jeremy that he's got to do something, he's one of them that'll dig his heels in and be really bloody minded and stubborn, but that's the way he is," says Pulis. "The fact of the matter was that he had a price and a value for Saido and irrespective of the price that was offered even late on, I don't think Jeremy though it was the right thing for the club. And like I say, once he makes his mind up, I don't think you can sway him to go either way. He sticks with it."
There's no sign of any bad blood between Pulis and Berahino. The young striker's use of Twitter is certainly something that Pulis finds less than ideal, but it's something that he's willing to accept.
"I think it's part of their lives now. I don't agree with it, but they want to do it so that's fine. It's different to what I would want, or what I would expose myself or my family to, but so be it."
Pulis certainly isn't embracing the internet and there's absolutely no chance that he'll be starting a Twitter account any time soon.
"I still like to have conversations with human beings and not with machines. I'll never change now. That's my way of life. No, not a chance. I find it extraordinary. A friend of mine had told me about the stick that Joleon [Lescott] had taken. He's a great lad, Joleon, and to see some of the stuff on there... it was the first time I'd been exposed to it. I found it frightening as much as anything else, that people can put things like that out there and not be responsible for it. But that's just confirmed for me that I'm best off away from it, leading this very simple life of mine."
While the idea of Pulis roaming free on the internet is a beguiling one, he's probably made the right choice not least because the pressure that football managers are under would doubtless be reflected in the tone of the messages he'd receive. And he receives enough messages the old fashioned way.
"There's more money involved now so the pressure is greater," he says. "It's the only business in the world where you have a shareholders meeting every other week and you're stuck out in front of those shareholders every other week for them to tell you what they think of you. You know, if you're not strong enough, if you can't accept that..." He smiles.
Pulis' pragmatism has brought plenty of criticism. For some, he represents anti-football, a dark-hearted, mean-spirited version of the game. But he's not too concerned.
"I don't look at what people are saying," he shrugs. "I just stay focused on what I've got to do, I stay focused on the job. As a country, we worry far far too much about what other people think of us. I'm quite happy with my life. People don't know me. People don't know what I'm like. They have a perception. Well, brilliant. Their perception is their perception. But they don't know what I'm like."
But surely that perception is damaging? Surely it's held him back in his career?
"No!" he says with a laugh. "I came out of South Wales as a young kid from a big family, eight of us in a three bedroomed terrace house. I've been the luckiest boy alive. I'm coming up to 1,000 games in management. Ha! Yeah, things have gone all right."
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.