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Apr 9, 2009

Who will keep you up: Purist or pragmatist?

Gareth Southgate is intelligent, eloquent and committed to a progressive brand of football. He has shipped out overpaid underachievers, uncomplainingly reduced the wage bill by around £7m and promoted home-grown youngsters in a youthful team.

Gary Megson has a hard-earned reputation for defensiveness and negativity. He has left more than one club amid acrimony, made public his desire for more players by only naming four substitutes at Arsenal earlier this season and was the choice of just 1.7% of Bolton fans to succeed Sammy Lee 18 months ago.

Yet when Middlesbrough travelled to the Reebok Stadium last Saturday, they were emphatically beaten. Pragmatism 4-1 Purism, perhaps: Megson's side are almost certain to stay in the Premier League, Southgate's likely to be condemned to the Championship. That defeat was the suffix to a setback at Stoke whose manager, Tony Pulis, gets few marks for style but plenty of points for achievements.

Images of managers can, of course, be simplistic, and Megson would be entitled to point out that, with 36 goals to Middlesbrough's 22, Bolton have comfortably outscored Southgate's supposedly more adventurous side, or that Matt Taylor's strikes would illuminate almost any match. Despite Middlesbrough's much-vaunted faith in their own, too, their most conspicuous example of both commitment and quality is from Turkey, not Teesside, in the excellent Tuncay.

Yet the relegation battle lends itself to conclusions about the ideal manager for the lower half of the Premier League: experienced, grittily realistic and not averse to launching the ball high into the stratosphere.

Then there are those who appear the antithesis of that model: with the admirable exception of Gianfranco Zola, the romantic choices have had their naivety swiftly exposed. It is too soon to judge Alan Shearer, but the precedents are scarcely auspicious. Roy Keane left Sunderland in 18th place, despite lavish spending; Paul Ince was sacked with Blackburn 19th and in freefall; Tony Adams took Portsmouth eight places in the wrong direction before a senior man, Paul Hart, provided a steadying influence at Fratton Park.

The advantages of maturity are apparent elsewhere, even if the methods are unlikely to attract admirers. Pulis, Megson and Sam Allardyce are steering a course to safety, even if the scenery is not necessarily pretty.

Overlooked for Ince last summer, Allardyce was parachuted into Blackburn in January, a less glamorous choice but one equipped to engineer safety. He has since only lost three league games, all to members of the top five. He has reinvented Morten Gamst Pedersen as Ewood Park's answer to Rory Delap and thrust the giant Christopher Samba into attack at every opportunity. Total football it is not, but it has been effective thus far.

Pulis, meanwhile, is on course to extend an exemplary record of never being relegated as a manager. Unashamedly direct, undeniably powerful and often unstoppable at home, his Stoke side are capable of intimidating opponents. Their manager is unlikely to ever be confused with Arsene Wenger. Only one seems to sign players for their height alone. Only one, too, of them is an advocate of national service, and it isn't the Frenchman.

Yet Stoke's sergeant major has drilled his troops expertly, allying organisation with a formidable team spirit and producing a method of winning games against more talented opponents.

They are viewed with distaste elsewhere in the West Midlands, where one Tony is an antidote to the other. Yet Tony Mowbray's purist principles appear to include the belief that passing football and competent defending are mutually incompatible.

The West Bromwich Albion manager may not belong to the same template as such decorated players as Southgate, Ince and Keane, but he can represent another impractical choice for the top flight.

Then there are those whose credentials come, in part, from their work in the background. It may be touch and go for the career coaches who have taken on the main job. Ricky Sbragia has seen Sunderland's form tail-off after an encouraging start, endangering his own position, while Phil Brown's idiosyncratic attempts at ensuring survival may just prevail for Hull.

Attitude and approach, however, can be overshadowed by an astuteness in the transfer market. It is an area, once again, where the battle-hardened managers' decades of scouring the lower divisions appears an invaluable asset.

Brown's record signing, Jimmy Bullard, has only played 37 minutes. Rather than a belief in aesthetically pleasing football, the major factor in Middlesbrough's probable relegation may prove to be the abject failing of Southgate's biggest buy, the £12.8m Afonso Alves. While Pulis erred in signing Dave Kitson, he found redemption in the January acquisition of James Beattie to accompany cut-price recruit Ricardo Fuller in attack.

Goalscorers have a significance for the other seasoned managers: both Jason Roberts and Benni McCarthy have proved more prolific for Allardyce than they were under Ince, while Megson has conjured a career-best haul from Kevin Davies to ally his prowess as a physical force.

Yet praise is comparatively rare. Trips to Bolton, Blackburn and Stoke may be spurned with the neutrals and viewed with distaste by opponents, but that represents a backhanded compliment.

Idealism is understandable, both in appointing a manager and selecting a style of play, but pragmatism appears a surer method of staying in the Premier League. With almost half a century of managerial experience between them, a trio of hard-headed realists in Megson, Pulis and Allardyce are the survival experts.

As Stoke, Blackburn and Bolton can testify, winning ugly is preferable to losing prettily.

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