Stoke City: It's 800 not out as TP hits new milestone
HOW times have changed for Tony Pulis since he first dipped his toes into management at the grand old age of 34.
His medical back-up team at Bournemouth in 1992 was a converted kitman with a wet sponge and an excellent line in prayers.
Nowadays, as he stands on the threshold of his 800th game in management, his multi-million pound squad is nursed by five fully-qualified medical staff attending to its every need.
Then there are the four or five coaches and consultants backing him up on the footballing side.
But strip away all the paraphernalia that surrounds Premier League managers and you will find in Pulis the very same thirst for success and fear of failure sustaining him through good times and bad over the last two decades.
Here, on his own admission, was a manager born with a plastic spoon in his mouth and one who, let's be honest, has rarely enjoyed much credit for his achievements ever since.
Only now, after sustained survival in the Premier League and an FA Cup final appearance, has the wider world began acknowledging the kind of understated ability rarely failing him during his seven managerial appointments.
It all began with the kind of break befalling the best of managers at the outset, when Harry Redknapp left Bournemouth for West Ham and advised his former employers to upgrade his assistant at Dean Court.
"I remember the first game well enough," said Pulis. "It was at Preston on their plastic pitch when John Beck was manager and we drew 1-1.
"I remember Adrian Pennock was playing for me that day and now he sits next to me on the bench at Stoke.
"Working in management then compared to now really is chalk and cheese.
"Back at Bournemouth there was me, my assistant, the bus driver and the physio, who was actually the old kitman with a sponge, a smashing fella by the name of John Kirk." And his favourite game during his two seasons in charge at Bournemouth after taking over from Redknapp?
"We went up to Fulham and won 2-0," he recalled, "and I'm pretty sure we went second or third in the league. But from that point on we ended up selling all of our best players because of financial problems."
Bournemouth's loss would eventually be Gillingham's gain and, notwithstanding an increasingly stormy relationship with chairman Paul Scally, some great times followed at the Priestfield Stadium.
"I think what stands out about my time at Gillingham is that we built three teams which were successful sides, and we did it over four years."
He won promotion from the fourth to the third tier with Gillingham, but gaining entry to the Championship was denied in the cruellest fashion possible in 1999 after a late 2-0 lead was blown in a Wembley play-off final en route to losing out on penalties to Manchester City.
Pulis departed soon after that game, his differences with Scally destined for the courtroom, and he was courted by Stoke that summer before his managerial career took a very different direction.
So the Britannia Stadium had to wait while Pulis went first to Bristol City, then to Portsmouth, in and around the turn of the century.
Short spells at Ashton Gate and Fratton Park left his reputation intact, if not too greatly enhanced, and he had just won an out-of-court settlement with former Pompey owner Milan Mandaric by the time he drove from his Bournemouth home to the Potteries for the first time to assume the reins left dangling by Steve Cotterill in 2002.
In two spells at Stoke, either side of a successful little stint at Plymouth in 2005/06, no manager has worked harder than Pulis to win the respect and gratitude of his own supporters.
Many, by their own admission, have performed somersaults to transform bloodthirsty opposition into undiluted support and respect for a man exciting emotional extremes at various junctures of his two reigns as Stoke manager.
Final-day survival in the Championship, the sack in 2005, his re-appointment a year later, promotion to the Premier League, the club's first-ever FA Cup final, re-entry into Europe...
So is there one match that stands out above all others during his 369 in charge of Stoke?
After little reflection, he said: "The one that will most probably always stay with me will be the first victory in the Premier League when we won 3-2 at home to Aston Villa.
"Not just because it was our first win, but because of the way we did it that day."
But while he opts for the day we were wowed by Ricardo Fuller's soft-shoe shuffle for Stoke's second, not to mention Mama Sidibe's 94th-minute header for their third, Pulis reckons supporters might go for a more recent vintage.
"I think most supporters who were there on the day will never forget the Bolton game at Wembley in the FA Cup. To win 5-0 in a semi-final will go down as one of the greatest games this football club has ever been involved in."
Now all that remains statistically is to follow the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Dario Gradi and Denis Smith into that exalted group of managers reaching the big 1,000.
"I'm just happy to go from game to game," he laughed.
"For me to get there, with the number of games we play, it's going to take another five seasons. So that's a long time and a long way off."
True, but we've all learned to be patient in these parts.