It’s hard to imagine Tony Pulis listing Nirvana as his preferred band, for the Welshman doesn’t come across like a stereotypical grunge fan, but his tenure at Stoke could have well been inspired by one Kurt Cobain’s most famous quotes.
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not,” the late Kurt Cobain once said. The same mantra by which Pulis and his side have lived by over the last seven years, when the then 48-year-old manager began his second managerial stint with Stoke City, which, subsequently, led the club to their first season in the top-flight after 23 years when they secured promotions on the final day of the 2007-08 season.
Upon their arrival in the Premier League, Stoke’s physical approach would often see Pulis resorting to paraphrase the Nirvana’s leader, as he often explained how Stoke were fighting a war against much better equipped armies and therefore had to play to their strengths if they were to survive.
Such logic was initially backed up by slow, yet steady, progress over Stoke’s first two seasons in the top flight when they achieved very respectable 12th and 11th-place finishes respectively, results which managed to disguise the side’s dull and – at times – brutal style of football.
Results slightly worsened the following season, but Stoke still manage to reach – and narrowly lose – the FA Cup final after dismantling Bolton Wanderers 5-0 in the semifinal, undoubtedly Pulis’ finest hour as manager.
Unfortunately for him, as well as because of him, that performance wasn’t to be a springboard towards a more entertaining and palatable football, rather a mere confirmation that, occasionally, even the rigid man wearing a baseball cap on the sidelines could get his team to abandon route one football for one afternoon.
As Pulis quickly retreated to his comfort zone – an environment where talented, crafty players are looked upon with contempt, if not disdain – so did his team. Following their FA Cup final, Stoke began to adopt a, if possible, even more regressive brand of football which irked opponents and seemed to please the Britannia crowd and was still, albeit only partly, justified by results as Stoke finished 13th and 14th.
This season, though, it became apparent that Pulis had not only established Stoke as a Premier League side – something that is no mean feat, considering the extreme competitiveness and fine margins that separate the clubs in the bottom half of the table – but he had also taken the club as far as he could.
Even the fans, that 12th man that had for so long endorsed players like Robert Huth, Geoff Cameron and Andy Wilkinson rather than – slightly – more flamboyant footballers such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jermaine Pennant, quickly seized the stagnation in which their club had fallen into under Pulis, despite the club consistent presence in the Premier League’s top eight net spenders.
Dismissing Pulis as inadequate to the level required in the Premier League would be predictable and rather petulant, but Peter Coates’ decision to swap safe mediocrity for a breath of fresh air speaks volume of the direction the club was heading towards under Tony Pulis.
The transition to offer the supporters a more palatable entertainment on Saturday’s afternoon could well prove to be a tricky one, but Pulis’ stubborn insistence in sticking to his strengths had become detrimental for the club and, ultimately, proved to be his demise.
Perhaps, Stoke’s next manager should look to mould his side around another of Cobain’s famous quotes, according to which burning out is better than simply fading away.