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May 13, 2011

Pragmatic Pulis brings good times back

The FA Cup final will complete a painstakingly long journey. If, as the majority expect, Manchester City triumph, it will end their 35-year wait for a major trophy. Yet if thoughts turn to the 1970s, they might not been confined merely to the nostalgic in sky blue. Stoke's only piece of silverware came in the 1972 League Cup final - four years before City. Perhaps more pertinently for the Potters, Tony Pulis acquired his FA coaching badge five years later, at the tender age of 19.

In an era when too many assume that playing football is an automatic qualification for life in the dugout, Pulis represents a welcome antidote. His is a career that has been framed by a constancy of purpose and a consistency of results and one of the oft-quoted facts about a manager approaching 800 games at the helm of six different clubs is that he has never been demoted.

It is all the more admirable as he has twice been parachuted into a relegation struggle (in his first spell at Stoke and then at Plymouth), kept a promoted side in the Premier League for three successive seasons (Stoke, upon his return to the Britannia Stadium), been bequeathed one of the worst teams in the Football League (Gillingham) and never exactly enjoyed a glittering inheritance anywhere.

His achievements have not come gift-wrapped: Pulis is one whose only chance of operating in the top flight was to take a side up himself (indeed, he was an unpopular choice when brought back to Stoke in 2006). For much of his time in the Premier League, he has been arguably the division's most unfashionable manager; indeed, with the brusque and businesslike manner of one utterly uninterested in hype and celebrity, he might take that as more of a compliment than a criticism.

An advocate of national service can seem a man from another era. Yet his work ethic has been mirrored in a Stoke side who, in turn, reflect and represent a working-class city. Their vocal crowd both rail against and revel in an image as outsiders. While Ryan Shawcross and Andy Wilkinson have been guilty of reprehensible challenges, Stoke have proved convenient bogeymen.

Until the 5-0 demolition of Bolton in last month's FA Cup semi-final, such praise as they have attracted has tended to be grudging. Even Arsene Wenger, Pulis' antithesis, has now conceded they are a good side, rather than the 'rugby team' he once branded them. Arsenal's meetings with Stoke have tended to be interpreted as culture clashes, the classical against the heavy metal.

As Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington illustrated by eviscerating Bolton, however, Stoke have progressed beyond the clichés of long balls and long throws. Pulis has a strong pragmatic streak and, while he mentioned a three-year plan to establish the club in the Premier League with such regularity that eyes started rolling, the initial part involved employing the tactics likeliest to keep a team of comparatively limited ability up.

Forging flair onto an industrious outfit has not been without its pitfalls - as the unsuccessful spells of Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen at the Britannia Stadium show - but Stoke are not as one-dimensional as was the case. While they used to name sides in which Liam Lawrence, half an inch under six foot, was the shortest player, Stoke's is not the tall story it once was.

But Pulis has proved astute enough to exploit weaknesses. Rory Delap's ability to propel the ball huge distances from the touchline troubled top-flight teams rather more than their lower-division counterparts, so Stoke duly profited. Sides who struggle against set-pieces are routinely exposed. While some feel Championship clubs' power to borrow much of their side is a loophole in the laws, Pulis used the loan market to his benefit in Stoke's promotion season.

Owner Peter Coates' considerable investment has made it possible, but so has his manager's in-depth knowledge of the lower leagues and reserve teams. Jonathan Walters, who scored twice against Bolton and has struck against Chelsea and Arsenal recently, is a case in point, a former Chester and Wrexham man signed from Ipswich; Shawcross was plucked from Manchester United's second string, with Pulis' persuasive efforts coming to the fore in convincing the defender to join Stoke ahead of a host of other suitors; the promotion-winning strike partnership of Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidibe, both of whom have featured regularly in the Premier League, came for a combined cost of £500,000.

An old-fashioned ethos can be allied with some distinctly antiquated methods - allegedly head-butting James Beattie in the dressing room while naked brought unwanted headlines - but greater delicacy has been shown towards others; Etherington and Pennant, two players with troubled personal lives, have been rehabilitated at the Britannia Stadium.

Besides bringing quality, both have bought into the team ethic. That offers the Potters a potential trump card in a meeting of two very different Cities. It is as hard to envisage Roberto Mancini managing Stoke as it is imagining Sheikh Mansour appointing Pulis, but when the designer suit encounters the tracksuit and trademark baseball cap on the Wembley touchline, plenty will gravitate towards the man with earthier values.

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