Stoke City manager Tony Pulis: 'When I joined, the club was a shambles'
TONY Pulis should never have been Stoke City manager.
That's not an outspoken opinion, but a statement of fact.
Ten years ago this week it was a Scotsman, not the Welshman, who was lined up to take over at the Britannia Stadium.
George Burley had sat next to then chairman Gunnar Gislason in the directors' box during a midweek defeat at home to Watford.
Visiting the Home & Garden show this Sunday?
We will have some exclusive deals for you so make sure you visit our stand and say hello
Terms: With free entry just visit the show at the Moat House hotel Festival Park between 11am and 4pm and pick up a leaflet
Contact: 01782 342609
Valid until: Sunday, June 23 2013
A press conference to was arranged for the next morning, but by the time the appointed hour had arrived, Burley was already halfway back to Ipswich.
Call it cold feet, call it a wise u-turn, but either way Stoke's hierarchy were left with a managerless team sinking towards the foot of the Championship.
The club's Icelandic owners were prepared to fly home and re-start the hiring process all over again, but chief executive Jonathan Fuller put his foot down and insisted an appointment was needed pronto.
Step forward Tony Pulis, the right man in the right place at the right time because he was about to settle an old legal score with Portsmouth and become available for work again.
"Stoke had spoken to me at the same time as they had spoken to George," recalled Pulis.
"I then had a phone call to say they had decided it was going to be George, but thanks for the interview and all that.
"But then I think George looked at it and just didn't fancy it. I got a phone call that same morning and the rest, as they say, is history."
His honeymoon period, such as it was, can be said to have lasted all of 70 minutes.
That's when he substituted fans' favourite Bjarni Gudjonsson and replaced him with Andy Cooke, unleashing cries of "you don't know what you're doing" from Stoke supporters during his first match in charge at Walsall on November 2, 2002.
That Cooke and fellow sub Chris Greenacre should score for Stoke that day simply provided the new manager with the first of many ripostes towards his critics over the next 10 years.
"I walked into an absolute shambles," he remembers. "That first game at Walsall highlighted the task ahead and I thought: 'George aint a bad judge!'"
Not long after the Walsall game, and with those chants still ringing in his ears, he courageously fronted up to around 300 fans demanding answers at a meet-the-manager evening in the Waddington Suite.
Minutes before stepping out on to the stage, Pulis asked director of football John Rudge, his chaperone for the night, why they sounded so lively.
"They're always that noisy before an execution," came the reply.
Their anger was understandable. In the blink of an eye they had witnessed Steve Cotterill's moonlight flit to Sunderland and George Burley's getaway to East Anglia.
So here was Tony Pulis, a man widely known to have opted for Bristol City instead of Stoke City three years earlier, assuring those 300 supporters that he really was here for the long haul to try to bring back the good times.
They listened, they even applauded periodically, but they shuffled away at the end of the evening, yet to be convinced he would still be their manager after the next 10 games, never mind 10 years.
At least they would give him a chance, however, a chance to eventually gravitate away from the depths of a 4-2 defeat at Walsall and a 2-1 loss at home to Grimsby in his very first games at the helm.
But not before a spine-chilling 6-0 humiliation at Nottingham Forest the following February, a result proving pivotal to Stoke's survival.
"The turning point was when we got beat at Forest," says Pulis, taking up the grim story.
"I remember jumping into the car and ringing the chairman to say: 'let's cut all the crap and forget all this nonsense about how good these players are. Unless we get some good players in quickly, we've got absolutely no chance of staying up'."
Most of his first six months was spent in the bottom three of the Championship – the first season after promotion – but Pulis had his way as the likes of Mark Crossley and Ade Akinibiyi were recruited to stiffen the club's resolve.
And on the very last day of that first season, when victory at home to Reading was needed to guarantee survival, Stoke wriggled free of the relegation noose after Akinbiyi headed home the game's only goal. Salvation.
"I can't tell you how important that game was," Pulis now reflects.
"Because of the position of the team and the significance to the club, I would say that achievement was as good as any I've had in football.
"If we had gone down, I don't think any of this we have today would have happened."
Not that it was all plain sailing from then onwards – as he was to find out that summer.
"We'd just got murdered in a pre-season friendly at Rhyl," he remembers, "and I was walking out of the ground after the game when I overheard this guy on his phone who never knew I was there.
"He was a Scouser and he was saying to whoever was on the other end of the phone: 'Put as much as you can on Stoke to get relegated'."
It would all end for Pulis two years later, not in relegation but in the sack, when agreement on a new contract to remain in the Potteries didn't prevent the Icelanders changing their mind and dispensing with his services a few days later to replace him with Johan Boskamp.
"That first spell at the club was an experience," he winces. "People wouldn't believe some of the things going on.
"I thought the Icelanders were decent people and I always got on with Gunnar, but they were naive on their football. Being so far away, they relied on hearsay more than their own personal knowledge.
"They were listening to every Tom, Dick and Harry... and that was their big weakness.
"From what I gather, the new Stoke manager had already been lined up, so it was disappointing that I was hearing these rumours and not being told by them face-to-face."
While Boskamp was keeping us all entertained on and off the field in 2005/06, Pulis spent the majority of that season keeping Plymouth in the Championship and keeping himself active for a much greater calling.
For it was always obvious that once Peter Coates had regained control of Stoke City, Tony Pulis would be the man summoned to try to resurrect the club's fading fortunes.
And so to the early summer of 2006 and the momentous decision of Coates, pictured below, and Pulis to risk the wrath of previous enemies by returning arm-in-arm to the Britannia.
"I had no qualms about coming back," says Pulis. "Peter rang me and said he was going to buy the club, but only if I came back as well.
"Yes, it was an enormous pressure on me, but he thought Stoke City could be an established Premier League club and, touch wood, everything he said has come true."
He knew there would be opposition, to both of them, but the clincher came from his chairman-in-waiting.
Pulis recalls: "Peter said: 'I'm tough enough to take it on, are you tough enough?' It was difficult for me to say 'I don't fancy it Peter, all the best!'"
Today's Stoke City is on a different planet to the one Pulis inherited a decade ago this week, of course, when muddied players jumped like Sunday league footballers into their three-year old Ford Mondeos and drove from the training ground back to the stadium to clean themselves up.
"Well, I've never been given a football club on the up," Pulis laughs.
Now, a decade after first stumbling into Stoke City, he presides over an on-going, ever-expanding project destined to define his reputation as a football manager.
And with his 55th birthday just round the corner, Stoke City remains a job – perhaps more of a mission – still whetting his appetite and exciting his passion.
"Only the other day I got into a right temper about something, so I suppose that shows the passion is still there.
"I don't see myself managing another Premier League club. I know you should never say never, especially in football, but I can't see past Stoke.
"I'm so engrossed in the football club and in what we are trying to achieve.
"I've gone through the first stage of us being a strong, awkward and a difficult team to beat, a team people don't like playing against. Now I am trying to refine it, but it does take time."
And after Stoke, will it be time to put his feet up and build sand castles on Bournemouth beach?
"Down the line I do have an inkling to manage abroad," he admits. "Then there is the Welsh thing, if that ever came up and it was the right time. That's a possibility.
"But I am 55 in January and I still class myself as young in managerial terms and still learning.
"People go on about the younger managers coming into the game, but I look at the Fergusons, Redknapps and O'Neills, then think managers don't become managers until their mid-50s and beyond.
"So there's lots still to be done."
See tomorrow's Sentinel as chairman Peter Coates reflects on Tony Pulis' achievements.