We’d all like to see our team sweeping opponents aside, owning the pitch with the confident swagger of an unbeatable army. But, for many fans this reality is unknown, and matches are often closely fought contests between two evenly matched opponents. This is bearable providing your team can compete and has a chance of victory. However, if your team ends up in a league where the average standard appears unachievable then your ability to enjoy football is rapidly eroded. The Championship has a history of placing teams in this horrible predicament by promoting them to the Premier League completely unprepared.
Gaining promotion is euphoric, but a season long slog of inevitable defeats is a joyless existence. This is the scenario Crystal Palace faced when Ian Holloway departed in the early stages of this season. Palace had chalked up one victory, but lost their other seven fixtures, including a 4-1 home defeat to Fulham. Derby’s miserable 2007/08 record breaking campaign total of 11 points was suddenly looking evidently beatable. Holloway suggested the new players he acquired in the summer had disrupted the team spirit from the previous campaign. They had also lost Wilfred Zaha – the star player responsible for scoring or creating all of the goals that secured Palace’s promotion through the playoffs. To pretty much everyone Palace were as good as relegated by mid-October, but Tony Pulis made a different assessment of their fate and decided he fancied his chances.
What Pulis has achieved since is one of the most sensational managerial achievements of the past decade, eclipsing his early triumphs at Stoke. The problem with acknowledging what Pulis has done is that it requires people to accept that he has some skills and insights that other managers do not, when it is easier just to dismiss him as a Luddite. The kind of football played by Pulis’ teams doesn’t get blogged about, it doesn’t appear on YouTube videos, and it doesn’t get turned into graphic designs and printed on t-shirts. Pulis’ football is characterised by a mantra of results first, with entertainment a distant second, if you’re lucky.
That said it would be wrong to argue that Crystal Palace haven’t provided any entertainment this season; they have provided plenty more than many other sides, brilliantly performing the role of underdogs and getting their opponents on the back foot. Their victory over Chelsea is not going to win a beauty contests, but flooring Jose Mourinho’s team (who had just destroyed Arsenal 6-0) was a sensational win. To see Chelsea, of all teams, humbled by sustained, determined aggression was indeed entertaining. That single result probably cost Chelsea a chance of winning the league title and provided the platform for Palace to win five on the bounce. Generally, though, teams that play in the style favoured by Pulis will never achieve wider popularity. No one wanted to be friends with Stoke City, just like no one liked Wimbledon or Cambridge United in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
If Wimbledon’s football was frowned upon in the 80’s then these days the physical, no nonsense approach of Pulis’ teams is about as fashionable as a fleece from BHS. More and more teams at all levels are trying to play a generic interpretation of possession based football. The teams that take a more direct route to goal are seen as the philistines of the league, and let’s not kid ourselves, Stoke under Pulis were often horrendous to watch. But, haters gon’ hate, and right now it’s hard to think of a Premier League manager to rival Pulis as a leader.
When a team looks rudderless and doomed to failure, as Palace did, you cannot underestimate the impact of a strong leader on both players and supporters. The modern obsession with being a student of the game and a devotee of tactics is fine and well, but these traits are of little use when you’re trying to rally your men for football’s equivalent of a suicide mission. Former Stoke fullback, Danny Higginbotham, described how Pulis galvanised the players there:
‘There was plenty of criticism but the manager used that to our advantage and created a siege mentality. He’d say: “Look at this lot, they don’t want us in the league.” I remember when we used to play against Arsenal, you could almost sense them thinking: ‘What the hell are you doing on the same pitch as me?’ That was the impression you got and, as a group, we loved that.’
It sounds so simple that anyone could do it, but other managers trying to get teams to perform the role of snarling underdog rarely get this far. Neil Warnock twice failed in the Premier League; Aidy Boothroyd couldn’t keep Watford up and has been working his way down the divisions ever since. Success requires absolute commitment, because getting results this way is hard work. The players don’t get the ball much and have to work tirelessly when not in possession – if they don’t have absolute faith in the manager then their effort will drop and it won’t work. But, Pulis is the kind of manager you feel would do anything for his players providing they do as he asked – a bit like a junior team coach, you can imagine him organising packed lunches for the coach, making sure Cameron Jerome has got his special jam sandwiches because he doesn’t like anything else, and organising a team outing to the local bowling alley for Mile Jedinak’s birthday party.
In terms of inspiration, we should remember the time Pulis turned up for work following the death of his mother. Stoke were playing an evening fixture against Villa and Pulis was understandably absent, but he turned up at half time when Stoke were 1-0 down and promptly roused his team to a stirring comeback. Stoke won the game 2-1. Now, to throw words like ‘passion’ and ‘heart’ around is to invite ridicule. The thing is, intangible as they are, fans will convince themselves that these things are real. They will look for signs that players are committed to the cause. They will applaud players that have really ‘put in a shift’. We think these things are peculiar to British football, but fans in other countries express similar sentiments. It doesn’t render you immune to the allure of flair and skill to appreciate a bit of graft too.
Winning against the odds is a wonderful feeling for supporters as well as players. They can see the players working as a team, and feed off their commitment and effort to get results. It all sounds horrendously clichéd but given the poverty of success that most of us endure, it does matter. It’s great to see players employed by your club giving the impression that they actually care. That comes from the top, and it comes from the manager. Like him or not, Pulis is a master of this art. He doesn’t just create a siege mentality among the players, but he gets the crowd closer to the team, too.
Of course, the success that Pulis can bring has a shelf life. His team will over achieve and then face an increasingly difficult and ultimately futile battle to sustain that success. As expectations rise, the initial euphoria and spirit of togetherness is gradually eroded. And, that initial spirit of togetherness is always difficult to prolong or recreate with new players. Without the thrill of victory, performances go from inspired to turgid, defeats become more frequent, and change becomes increasingly desirable.
Palace fans should savour what they have now as it’s unlikely to get much better. The joy of winning ugly can be a relatively short-term pleasure, but given that most teams achieve nothing on a yearly basis, it cannot be undervalued, and until you’ve lived this experience, you won’t know how wonderful it can be.