Perhaps it was inevitable the first goal of the Tony Pulis era at Sheffield Wednesday would stem from a superbly executed set piece. Adam Reach racing from back post to penalty spot to sidefoot home Barry Bannan’s corner may do little to enhance Brand Pulis but, then again, a manager pigeonholed as a firefighter has long given up trying to alter perceptions.
Between departing Middlesbrough 18 months ago and returning to the game to again succeed Garry Monk, this time at Hillsborough, a fortnight ago Pulis spent time swotting up on the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – “I don’t like fiction, I like reading proper history,” he says – and went to Corsica (to celebrate Napoleon’s 250th birthday), California and visited Rorke’s Drift in South Africa.
Back in more familiar surroundings, he has shown his new players that practice makes perfect and, beyond the barbs and urban myths, there is no disgrace in scoring from a training-ground routine. “One of the first things he will look at when he goes into a club is set pieces: ‘How many have they scored from? How many have they conceded from?’” says Ryan Shotton, who played under Pulis at Stoke and Middlesbrough. “But he does have other strings to his bow – you don’t get to manage more than 1,000 games and be as successful as him and only have one way to play.”
Stoke, who visit Hillsborough on Saturday, soared under Pulis. He sees symmetry between what he has inherited in Sheffield and the Stoke he walked into in November 2002, when they were hovering above the second-tier relegation zone. Wednesday, whose points deduction for breaking spending rules was halved this month, are currently five points from safety. “We stayed up on the last day of the season but I just hope we can do this a little bit quicker because I’m not sure my heart will stand that sort of pressure any more,” Pulis says.
On Thursday Pulis talked with David Moyes, conceding they are in a different age from when they duelled on the touchline in the 90s. “We have become a lot more rounded, a lot more ‘new worldly’.” So is Pulis softer? “Oh I am, I am,” he says, cackling. “When you have seven grandchildren and you’ve been around them a while, they soften you up. But there’s still that little streak in me that if I need to make sure something has to be done, then it gets done.”
Pulis has never been relegated but, as he says, nobody talks about the other stuff. At Stoke, he returned them to the top flight after 23 years away, reached an FA Cup final, and got to the knockout stages of the Europa League, an adventure that saw them beat Besiktas, draw at Dynamo Kyiv and come unstuck in Valencia. These days Pulis reckons he is not so “single-minded” but that second-leg tie at Mestalla encapsulated such stubbornness.
They arrived trailing by a goal but he took only a 15-man squad and rested nine first-team players. In fairness, it was Stoke’s 42nd game of the season and they won their next two in the league to go eighth and, in effect, secure their top-flight status. “We had a good squad but not a big squad that could put two teams out, one to compete in Europe and the other in the league, so he was right to do that,” says Shotton. “We were allocated [3,500] away tickets but we turned up, walked out and there were spots of red and white all over the ground.”
Pulis, with the backing of the Coates family, put Stoke back on the map. “We had Michael Owen, Eidur Gudjohnsen, players who probably never considered Stoke,” says Shotton. He admits they played “risk-free football” but believes Pulis showed another side at Crystal Palace, where the wingers thrived, and detected another shift at Middlesbrough. “He wanted to play – in certain areas. He does adapt to what players he’s got and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t appreciate. But he’ll never have his centre-half getting the ball off the goalkeeper, no matter how good his team is because he doesn’t believe in that way. In that sense, you will never see a change in him.”
Many have criticised Pulis’s pragmatism but for Wednesday’s chairman, Dejphon Chansiri, spades of experience offered comfort. The 62-year-old Pulis has addressed the subject of discipline (four players have been sent off across the past seven games) and he acknowledges the dearth of goals is a cause for concern; Jordan Rhodes, who managed six touches in 56 minutes last weekend, has scored four in 16 months (including a hat-trick), Jack Marriott is rehabilitating at Derby after injury and Pulis is unconvinced Callum Paterson is a striker. “It’s certainly knocked the dust off me,” he says of his first fortnight.
One task was to re-register Keiren Westwood after the 36-year-old started without a squad number. Westwood, Pulis says, is “one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship” but will miss the next couple of weeks with a groin tear. Training has mainly revolved around staples of the Pulis diet: set pieces, shape and tactics. “I’ve been out there [before] doing shape for an hour, walking through stuff so each player understands what they have to do,” Shotton says. “But you can’t moan because he will eventually get your team to where they want to be.”