By MATT LAWTON
As a resident of Lilliput, albeit the one in Dorset, it’s perhaps not surprising that Tony Pulis likes to keep a low profile. Take the remarkable progress he has made as the manager of Stoke City. He is reluctant to accept too much credit, preferring instead to praise his players and the family that has provided him with so much support.
‘I’m indebted to Peter and Denise Coates [club owners],’ he says, and in fairness they have done a marvellous job alongside Pulis in turning Stoke into an established Premier League club. A solvent one too.
The smart new training ground appears to be Pulis’s pride and joy. He insists on giving a guided tour, introducing everyone from the medical staff to the laundry lady. ‘That’s where the players go for their cuddles,’ he says as we stroll past the treatment room.
Pulis loves a cuddle. You could not meet a more tactile person. Everyone gets an arm around the shoulder or a friendly nudge with an elbow, as well as a smile that could stretch from the Britannia Stadium to his home on the South Coast.
‘My wife has never wanted to move,’ he says. ‘I have a place up here and I go back when I can but she’s right; football can be a precarious business and it was better to bring up the kids in one place.’
She is right, even if her husband must now rank alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes as one of the most secure managers in English football. He did not just guide Stoke to promotion but he has kept them there while also taking them to last season’s FA Cup final and into Europe.
They were the only British club to progress from the group stages to the last 32 of the Europa League, their reward a glamorous encounter with Valencia. ‘Have you been to the Mestalla?’ he says with all the excitement of a kid at Christmas. ‘We can’t wait.’
Pulis is like everyone’s favourite uncle. So much energy and enthusiasm; the kind of personality that clearly inspires those around him. ‘I have my grumpy days,’ he says. ‘The players will tell you that. But you have to be positive because you have to lift them.
‘The biggest thing about management is self-motivation. The biggest thing about being in the Premier League, if you’re a club like Stoke, is recognising that you are going to lose games on a fairly regular basis. If you can’t handle that you are going to go under. You have to be strong.’
There is no doubting Pulis’s strength, because for all this bonhomie there is another side to this son of a Welsh steelworker. The hard as nails side and one that does not suffer fools or tolerate indifference. ‘If we have anyone who doesn’t buy into what we are doing here, we try and get them out as quickly as possible,’ he says.
One particular incident springs to mind, two years ago. There was a problem involving James Beattie, and what was said to be a row over the cancellation of a Christmas knees-up after a game at Arsenal. There was a physical confrontation, Pulis emerging naked from the showers to challenge his then striker.
‘It’s not very good Matt, is it?’ he says with an uneasy laugh and a squeeze of my arm. ‘But the biggest thing for me is what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room, and I’m not telling you buggers what went on. But everything was sorted. The lads went out.
‘I’m actually a lot softer now than when I first started in management. Society has changed. Football has changed. The world has changed. If you don’t change with it you’ll get left behind, so we all have to adapt. But you still have to be in charge of the group, and there are times when you have to show you are in charge of the group.’
Beattie moved on, Pulis moved on, again with the full support of his chairman. But he accepts now that such incidents probably helped him cement his position at Stoke. One only has to see the way he engages with his players in the staff canteen to realise that Pulis is very much the boss.
There were reports that it was only after meeting Pulis that Peter Crouch decided to leave Tottenham for Stoke. The Welshman’s infectious personality seduced the England striker, enabling the club to secure the services of a player in a deal that amounted to a ‘real statement of intent’.
Again, though, Pulis is reluctant to take any real credit. ‘I think the biggest thing was getting to the Cup Final and into Europe,’ he says. ‘We felt it gave us a better chance of selling the club to one or two bigger name players.
‘At the same time, though, I think there’s a respect for what we’ve done and the way we’ve done it. When it came to speaking to players like Crouch, Woodgate and Upson, they recognised the fact that we have progressed gradually year after year.
‘This place helped as well. We couldn’t have brought Crouchy to the training ground two years ago when there were just Portakabins where the car park is now. Now we can show them this and we can tell them they will enjoy it, because the spirit is fantastic here. Everyone gets on well. It’s a good place to come to work.
‘Signing Crouchy was a real statement of intent, and he’s not let us down. He’s been absolutely fantastic. All the lads who have come in have been fantastic. On and off the pitch. They’ve embraced the club, bought into what we’re about. It’s given everyone a lift because the players who were here already enjoy working with good new players too.’
They must enjoy working with this guy as well. ‘I’ve come from a working class background in South Wales with eight of us in a three bedroom house,’ he says. ‘Four boys in one bed, two sisters in the other bedroom and mum and dad in the box room.
‘My dad was a steelworker but I had the opportunity to become a player. A very average player but a player all the same. But I worked my socks off to make something of myself. When I left Newport on the train at 16, to go to Bristol Rovers, I told myself then that I was never going back to that life. Not because I don’t love South Wales. I still have friends I went to school with. A couple of weeks ago I had four lads up for a game from my under 12s team.
‘I just thought this is my chance and I wanted to take it. And after playing I was lucky enough to be guided into coaching. My attitude has always been to make the most of it, and I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. Every day is Christmas Day.’
When Pulis was first at Stoke, they would have Christmas dinner every week. ‘We’ve stopped that because the chef got a bit tired of doing it,’ he says. ‘But we have a theme day every week. Chinese one week, Indian the next. And we’ll have our Christmas dinner this week too.’
They’ve certainly earned it, the four straight wins that came prior to Wednesday’s defeat at Manchester City propelling them to eighth in the table and so proving that a club of Stoke’s stature can juggle the demands of domestic and European football.
‘I actually think some of our players were looking forward more to playing in Europe than in the Premier League, because it was fresh and new,’ he says. ‘We’ve embraced it, I’ve enjoyed it, and the Britannia on a Thursday night can be amazing.
‘We just want to give it a good crack. We need to make sure we stay in the Premier League but we like to give the cup competitions a good go too.’ And yet people still have a go at them. Their long-throw specialists get accused of wearing towels under their shirts; Arsene Wenger brands them a rugby team. It must annoy him.
‘Most of it just makes me laugh,’ he says. ‘Manchester City have one of the biggest pitches in the league and the grass is half an inch shorter than ours. They also have the best players and the biggest budget. Everything they want. We go there and we give it our best shot and we don’t complain when we lose.
‘But then teams come to the Britannia and our grass is half an inch longer, the pitch is within regulation but smaller and they moan if they lose. That pitch is the same size as the one Arsenal played on for 120-odd years at Highbury. The same as Goodison Park.
‘Our fans are great. Arsene Wenger called us a rugby team and our fans now sing “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot” when we play Arsenal. And this thing about towels is ludicrous. They all wear undershirts and a couple of the lads have had them cut because they rub under the armpits. It might look like a towel but I can assure you it’s not.’
But what about Wenger? ‘In life you do the best you can with what you’ve got,’ he says. ‘I’ve got no gripes with what people say. I get annoyed if other clubs criticise us as a club, but personally I try not to let it affect me. I can’t affect what Wenger thinks so I don’t worry about it. We all need to stop worrying about things we can’t affect. We worry ourselves into our graves.’
Instead, Pulis tries to draw inspiration from criticism. ‘We played Bolton first game of our first season in the top flight and got beaten 3-1, and one of the big bookmakers offered to pay out on us going down there and then,’ he says.
‘They made a big song and dance about it and got a lot of publicity but I’ll never forget that. It was actually a real source of inspiration. It helped us immensely. Nobody expected us to get promoted just as nobody expected us to stay in the league. And the greatest thing about it is the fact that we’ve done it at our own pace. We’ve not got carried away. We’ve been sensible.
‘This is something the Coates family always had in mind; to build an infrastructure that will last a long time. This year we will spend more on our academy than ever before. Peter wants us to achieve the top academy status and that takes a lot of money.
'But we realise we are surrounded by some strong competition — north, south, east and west — and the aim is to try and fight against that and bring more of our own players through.
‘This place is a great story, and I hope I’m here for a long time yet. But when I do leave one day it’s a proper football club I want to leave behind.’
It would make him the proudest man in Lilliput.