16th August 2008. Bolton Wanderers 3 Stoke City 1. It was Stoke’s first top-flight fixture in 23 years, and it turned out to be a bit of a disaster. The next day, bookie Paddy Power paid out on all bets on them to be relegated.
Nine months later, 16th May 2009. Stoke City 2 Wigan Athletic 0. The Potters’ final home game of the season. Tony Pulis had led them to a comfortable 12th place finish, and supporters were enjoying free ice cream in the early summer sun, given out by Paddy Power as an apology for writing their team off.
And thus began a ten season spell in the Premier League, the first five of which were overseen by Pulis, and saw Pulisball become embedded in the parlance of the English football supporter.
Pulisball originated from a discussion that the man from Newport had with Sir Alex Ferguson around how Stoke might survive in the Premier League, and from that, Pulis developed a plan around four key principles.
Firstly, Pulis made the Britannia Stadium a fortress. He instructed the grounds staff to leave the playing surface long to make life harder for footballing teams, and had the pitch shortened to the minimum allowable dimensions in order to take advantage of a secret weapon (more on that below). He pitched Stoke City as the underdog but drew on the area’s working class culture, developing a siege mentality, and getting the club’s support on side, who fed off that. Thus, the Britannia Stadium’s bear pit atmosphere was born, while the ground’s unique climate added to it (“could [add perceived over-paid show pony player’s name here] do it on a cold, wet, windy night in Stoke’).
Secondly, he built a squad of big players, though not necessarily big names. Pulis valued experienced players with big characters and good professionals. Fit players who would put in a shift and work within a system.
Thirdly, and this was a crucial part of the Pulisball system, he ensured that his team made the most of set pieces, and he worked his players to death on them at the Clayton Wood training ground.
And then there was the secret weapon, stumbled upon during one of Pulis’ training sessions: Rory Delap’s famous long throw. Delap’s throw-ins caused bedlam, and Stoke scored 18 goals directly from them during the Pulisball years, 9 of them coming during that crucial first campaign, almost a quarter of Stoke’s Premier League goals that season. Delap’s throws were basically footballing Chaos Theory.
Indeed, if there is one thing that people remember Pulisball by, it’s Delap’s rockets, and they provided many highlights during the 2008/09 season.
Heurelho Gomes’ meltdown in Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium which saw him lose his shit under Stoke’s aerial bombardment, leading him to knock-out team mate Vedran Corluka as he attempted to punch away a Delap howitzer, and eventually break down in tears.
The way Arsenal crumbled – this became a regular occurrence – conceding twice from Delap throws, including the winning goal which Seyi Olofinjana scored with his face, was a thing of beauty.
But the one incident that summed up how Delap’s long throws had struck fear into other sides came during a 1-1 draw at home to Hull City when Hull keeper Boaz Myhill, under pressure from 6’ 5” Mama Sidibe kicked the ball out to concede a corner rather than a throw-in.
Peak Pulisball arrived on 17th April 2011 on a glorious afternoon at Wembley Stadium, when Pulis’ Stoke City side destroyed Bolton Wanderers, beating the Trotters 5-0 to reach the FA Cup Final for the first time in the club’s history. They went on to lose to Manchester City in their second trip to Wembley, but who knows what might’ve happened if Kenwyne Jones had scored when clean through with the scores at 0-0? Pulis’ side knew how to defend a lead.
That FA Cup Final appearance saw the Potters qualify for European football for the first time since the 1970s, and they did well, reaching the knock-out stages where they were defeated by Spanish giants Valencia.
Many football supporters attacked Pulisball as dull, as anti-football, describing the Welshman as a dinosaur, including some of the club’s own fans. But that’s not something that I ever bought into. There are many ways to play the game, and Pulis’ methods are as valid as those of Pep Guardiola’s. When Pulisball was good, it was exhilarating; when it was bad, it was awful. But you could never say it was boring. You could never call a team with Ricardo Fuller in it boring.
Some of the best goals I’ve seen Stoke City score came during the Pulisball era.
Three superb individual goals from Fuller will forever stick in my mind; the first a Bergkamp-esque effort in the Potters’ first Premier League win over Aston Villa, the second a mazy individual goal at West Ham which left Matthew Upson on his arse suffering from twisted blood, and the third during a win over Birmingham City which saw him cut in from the right and send a brilliant curling effort beyond on-loan Joe Hart.
Then there were two goals which basically summed-up Pulisball.
The first was scored by Peter Crouch – who at the time was the club’s record signing – at home to Manchester City, who were on their way to becoming champions. Around the hour mark, the ball found its way back to Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic, who launched a long ball forward towards Crouch on the right, who flicked it on towards Jermaine Pennant. Pennant nodded the ball back to Crouch, who controlled it before lashing an unstoppable volley beyond Joe Hart, for arguably the best goal seen at the bet365 Stadium. Between leaving Begovic’s foot and hitting the back of the net, the ball never touched the ground.
The second was scored by Jonathan Walters in a 1-1 draw away at West Ham United from a superbly executed corner routine straight from the Clayton Wood training ground. At the time, Gary Neville was making a name for himself on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, and he raved about the goal, calling it one of the goals of the season and used his half-time analysis of it to tell us why:
“I loved it, I absolutely loved it and I’ll go into the detail of it here. It’s the timing I’m most interested in, looking at Glenn Whelan and when did Jon Walters start his run? Whelan puts a little touch on the ball and if you move the film forward frame by frame it’s at that point that Walters starts to move. The signal has happened. Then the next man kicks in: Peter Crouch. On cue. And he gives a little glimpse to Walters to make sure he’s done his job. ‘Yes, he’s gone.’ Then the next man kicks in: Charlie Adam, blocking George McCartney. Some might not like it. A foul? I loved it, absolutely loved it. Then the next man kicks in. As Whelan is just about to kick it, Robert Huth engages O’Brien. And all this time, Jon Walters is making his run around the back. Then two things have to happen: the pass has to be accurate and quick over a long distance, which is difficult; and the finish has to be perfect. Believe me, that is a difficult technique. That is clockwork and meticulous preparation. It’s an ethic of standing on a windswept 6 degrees Stoke pitch on a Friday morning for an hour probably going through it while 15 of the squad are either being shadow defenders or watching from the sidelines. For every little bit of that to work, you need four or five people to do everything perfectly at exactly the right time. The key of that goal is the timing. It’s meticulous work and the reward that Tony Pulis, his coaches and his players deserve for discipline in doing that. There’s a massive amount of skill in putting that together and if any coach of a football team wants to try that set-piece and try to get five or six players to time it the way happened when Whelan just steps back…not many people will have that on their goal of the season list but for me who has been on both sides as a player and now a coach, I appreciate that goal massively. If anyone has a football team, try to recreate that. It is tough.”
Huge respect from a man that won everything as a player with Manchester United.
Respect and fascination was something that was often extended towards Tony Pulis and his methods from his peers, and has often be found in unexpected quarters. In an interview with the Guardian in September 2011, then Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas talked about the first time he met Sir Alex Ferguson at that month’s Elite Club Coaches Forum at UEFA’s HQ in Nyon, when Tony Pulis and Stoke City were on the agenda:
“Sir Alex was coming out of the loo and I was just there. We said hello and spoke about something…Stoke, funnily enough. Stoke were one of the main discussion points of the elite clubs’ meeting…”
And following Manchester City’s win at Cheltenham Town in the FA Cup last month, Pep Guardiola was asked his opinion of Cheltenham captain Ben Tozer’s long throw. Guardiola had this to say:
“Unfortunately I was not here during the Tony Pulis era [at Stoke], but I hear a lot about it. It’s an incredible weapon, more dangerous than a corner. You can avoid corners, avoid free-kicks but throw-ins: impossible”
It should also be noted that today, many clubs have throw-in coaches – the most prominent has been Liverpool – and treat them as an important part of their armoury. That can be traced back to the Pulisball era.
And throughout his managerial career that spans almost thirty years and over 1,000 games, Pulis has never been relegated, leading to José Mourinho to comment that if he owned a football club and it was in trouble, he’d phone Tony Pulis.
However, that respect is not universal, and one manager in particular had no problem at all with public displays of fear and loathing towards Tony Pulis and his team. That was Arsène Wenger, who moaned about the use of Rory Delap’s long throw, bleated about Pulis’ exploitation of set-pieces, and likened Stoke to a Ruby team, often when his Arsenal team fell apart at the Britannia Stadium. Pulis, his team and the club’s supporters greatly enjoyed Wenger’s meltdowns. The fans fed off it when the Gunners were in town, mocking Wenger’s arms outstretched protests while bellowing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. It all generated a severe mutual dislike which still lingers to this day.
Tony Pulis left Stoke City in the summer of 2013 after seven years, during which time he’d established the club in the Premier League, taken them to their first FA Cup Final, and reached the knock-out stages of the Europa League. And he made a huge impact of the Premier League and its psyche; almost eight years later, the wet windy night in Stoke cliché is still rolled out on a very regular basis.
Stoke went on to enjoy three good seasons under Mark Hughes, as Pulis’ successor built a different type of team. But it still retained the old Pulis spine of hard-working players with big characters, and it was when this was eroded that things fell apart.
Stoke City, Tony Pulis and Pulisball may not have been popular, but they will never be forgotten.
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