As the business-end of the season draws in, back-to-back wins have put West Brom six points off a European spot, but more importantly, eleven points clear of relegation.
A team that this time last year was immersed in a relegation fight, is 12 months on, easing away from danger. For the first time in three seasons, Albion aren’t been talked of as relegation candidates. Clear progress is being made at a club in desperate need of stability and consistency.
Tony Pulis then, the mastermind behind Albion’s climb, is one of the last managers you’d expect to be under pressure right now. But under pressure he is.
That pressure isn’t coming from the chairman, Jeremy Peace, who remains a big fan of his employee. In fact I understand Pulis enjoys a uniquely close and at times even friendly relationship with the Baggies owner, that no West Brom boss has been afforded by the historically distant and icey Peace.
No pressure either from the players, who’ve shown no sign of dissent or a lack of effort. Pulis always works his players hard, demanding the highest level of obedience to the cause. Where recent performances have fallen way short, it hasn’t been through want of trying.
The pressure is instead coming from supporters. Not all, not even most, but a vocal minority, angry at what they see as a hostile takeover, and the imposition of his ungodly brand of football by the heathen Pulis.
Even with his notoriously thick-skin, the backing of his chairman, his players and most supporters, this week the minority got to him. The Albion boss dropped the first hint that he was prepared to walk away in the summer.
It came as a surprise.
The Welshman has hitherto spoken of his long-term plan for the club – getting through this season to better-build for the next. It appears though Pulis knows when he’s not wanted. We all know that the moron who attacked Chris Brunt at Reading was sending a message not to the midfielder but his manager, a message about as subtle as the coin he threw – “we want you out of ‘our’ club, and we’re willing to do anything, including assaulting our own players, to see it happen”.
The message was clearly received. There is, after all, only so much a manager can take, even one has determined and dogged as Tony Pulis.
“I don’t understand it,” he said at his weekly press conference, “but if they’re going on computers and telephones fine, what you can’t do and what you’ve got to be careful of is allowing the incidents to build over to what it was on Saturday.”
“We need the supporters, it’s their football club and we need them.”
But with these words, Pulis was also making it clear – “I don’t need them”. And he doesn’t. He doesn’t need West Brom, nor does he deserve the abuse he’s received on the “computers and on the telephones”.
A friend of mine, who was driving through the West Midlands one Saturday evening recently, switched on the local radio football phone-in. Expecting to hear furious Villa supporters or disheartened Wolves fans, he was astonished to hear the airwaves dominated by vitriolic Baggie’s, casting a thousand plagues on Pulis. “What did we do,” they cried, “to deserve this infidel at our club?”
When, weeks later, news of coin throwing at our own players filtered through from Reading, it was to my horror, but not my shock. It’s been coming. The anger spilt over, and it’s got a manager not long-ago talking about his vision for the club, looking elsewhere.
The treatment of Tony Pulis has been appalling.
The man inherited the most pathetically-assembled squad in recent Premier League history, yet somehow, miraculously sailed them to safety within a matter of weeks, and in the meantime transformed a shambles of scouting and coaching structure into what now is beginning to resemble a proper football club.
Sack him? Pulis already deserves to go down in folklore as one of our saviours. Only two managers in my lifetime have turned around this club in the same way – Gary Megson and Roy Hodgson. Both, incidentally, shared almost identical footballing philosophies to Pulis.
And let us never forget, or let them ever forget, those Albion followers who turned on Megson in his final days. These were the same blue-sky thinkers who dreamed of the illusive “next-level”, who wanted more than what Megson could offer, and ended up with Bryan Robson, and Ronnie Wallwork, and not long after, relegation.
Tony Pulis has worked miracles at this club. He’s bought two of the best players I’ve seen in an Albion shirt – first Darren Fletcher, and then, one better, in Jonny Evans. Some supporters prefer to judge Pulis by the purchases that haven’t come-off, the Rickie Lamberts and Callum McManamans, but you should judge a manager by all of his signings (how many Manchester United fans now judge Alex Ferguson’s tenure by Veron and Djemba-Djemba?), and no Baggies boss in living memory has bought in a captain like Fletcher or a defender like Evans.
And look at what he’s done with the players he inherited. Craig Dawson has played his best football under Pulis – progressing into an established, ever-improving full-back. Claudio Yacob couldn’t even get in the squad under Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine – Pulis put him straight back in the team, to great effect. Jonas Olsson meanwhile has enjoyed a second-wind (third, maybe even fourth?) in recent months.
Then there’s Saido Berahino. Compare how the club handled Peter Odemwingie to how it’s handled the Berahino saga. Pulis deserves immense praise for the way he’s dealt with the 22-year-old’s petulance – with patience, intelligence, and class. How many managers could get the kind of commitment and quality Berahino showed against Crystal Palace on Saturday after the way he’s behaved?
Don’t forget either, how few games Albion’s star-striker has played. Pulis has managed to get to 35 points almost entirely without a fit, focused, firing forward of Berahino’s ability. Few teams could achieve that feat.
For the first time in a long time, West Brom have a chance to become a stable, successful Premier League outfit. Tony Pulis has made mistakes, name a manager who hasn’t. At times he’s too negative, far too negative. Hodgson could be too, Megson certainly was.
Yet Pulis has never been as defensive as Mowbray was attacking, and look where that got us. We’ve won more games because of Pulis’s caution that we ever did because of Mowbray’s frivolity. Pulis knows our limits, he knows his own limits. Sometimes, we will lose some games because of that (Newcastle away being the perfect example) but we’ll get lots of points too.
There are those, of course, that say it’s not just about winning, but how you win them. These people will always be the most dangerous people at a football club.
There were plenty of those people at Charlton under Curbishley, and Bolton under Allardyce. Both suffered for it, and have never recovered. What they didn’t see then, like some Albion fans can’t see now, is that the success they want doesn’t exist, short of a billion-pound takeover.
Winning, however it happens, is always better than losing. So is drawing. Losing is boring. There is nothing more boring than losing.
And to those that want Pulis gone – who’s your alternative? Who’s this Guardiola-figure you have waiting in the wings? What evidence have you in our recent history, or in the recent history of clubs of our size, that sacking successful managers like Pulis leads to greater success? That we can reach the next level simply by changing the way we play?
Tony Pulis is right – a team needs its supporters, and right now, we need Tony Pulis.