In an exclusive interview from issue 04, Jack Williams talks with the seasoned manager about how, and why, a Tony Pulis side never goes down.
When Eight by Eight’s Jack Williams sat down to chat with Tony Pulis midway through Crystal Palace’s summer tour of the United States, everything looked rosy. Just a few months earlier, the former Stoke boss had steered a troubled club away from the jaws of relegation; the upcoming campaign was now being greeted with a distinct sense of optimism among Eagles fans. But just a few weeks later, in a move that no one saw coming (let alone us), Pulis walked out on what many at the time would have considered one of the most secure jobs in football.
It was lucky for us, then, that the topic of discussion that day was less about Palace and more about an art form that Pulis himself has undeniably become a master of during 22 years of management: Houdini-esque escapes. In a record that still stands today, the Welsh-born boss has never been relegated, despite the small scale, low-budget sides he has overseen. Here’s how he does it.
When you come to a team, like you did with Crystal Palace—midseason, outside the transfer window—what’s the very first thing you do?
The most important thing is to see what’s there: what players you’ve got, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Then you have to put all that together and find a way of winning games—so you fit that into a system that will suit them best. And then it’s down to really getting them motivated and believing; mentally, especially in the Premier League, it’s tough, and you’ve got to make them confident enough to go out there and win games.
And is confidence built up through something as simple as, say, an arm around the shoulder?
No, it can be a kick up the backside, it can be an arm around the shoulder … it can be anything. Psychologically, you have to understand what the players are made of. It’s difficult going in when the season is running, because you don’t really know their makeup—their strengths and weaknesses. But the longer you stay at a football club, the better you understand them.
Louis van Gaal said recently that when he arrives at a club, the focus is purely on the first team for the first couple of seasons. How deeply do you assess when you arrive?
I try and keep in touch with what the academy is doing—I think as a manager, it’s important. Van Gaal’s right in a respect: If you don’t win games, you ain’t going to be a manager for long. So you have to win games, you have to focus on that—but I’ve always thought that it’s nice to know what’s happening below you.
Some managers prefer a complete overhaul of the likes of the backroom staff, whereas you have kept a lot of the previous regime in place. Is that something you have always done?[Laughs] Yeah, massive mistake. But don’t tell them that. No, it is important that I keep people there. First and foremost, because I don’t know the players that well, and if I get rid of everybody, I wouldn’t know about the players. They [the backroom staff who are already at a club] give me a great insight into the players’ characters.
When others are expecting you to struggle as you go into that first game, is the mind-set: “Just don’t lose?”
The first game you don’t want to lose. But I think that in the Premier League, the one great thing that I learned early on is that you have to deal with defeat. Take this season, for example: Our first game is Arsenal away. You’ve only got to go to the stadium and look at their set-up to realize that they are miles in front of us as a football club. It doesn’t mean that we can’t get results against them, but you do understand there are games that, irrespective of how well you play, if that team plays on top form, it will always be difficult for you to get results. (Editor’s note: Arsenal defeated Crystal Palace 2-1)
If results aren’t going your way during the season, have you found the barometer can swing from optimism to pessimism immediately, or does it take time?
Results, results, results. If you get results, then the confidence starts. We built up momentum last season, and the supporters were absolutely wonderful; they bought into the fact that we were the underdogs, as everybody had written us off. Everybody thought we were going to get relegated. I think we were 1-10 with the bookies to stay up. But they [the fans] bought into it and played an enormous part in us staying up.
Do you think the supporters are of bigger importance to a smaller or struggling team than, say, to the large clubs, where victory is almost expected week in, week out?
Having had the experience I had at Stoke, building that atmosphere and togetherness, set me in good stead, really, for what happened at Palace. I knew that the crowd had to play their part, so we kept going on about it.
Many would say that the signings you brought in last season played a huge part, too. Is there a certain type of player you are looking for in the transfer window when the emphasis is purely on survival?
All sorts. Making a team is not about making a team where everybody is the same. You need different strengths in different areas. But the one thing I have always done is try to bring good characters into my football clubs. It’s difficult enough trying to win games when you are up against it, but to win games when you have a few dodgy characters behind the scenes makes it even tougher. So I’ve always tried to avoid that, and if I’ve got them in, I’ve always tried to get rid of them quickly.
And how difficult is it to judge a player’s character before you sign them?
It’s a little bit like getting married: A short courtship and then you get married and you think, What have I done here? So until you bring them in, you don’t know what they are going to be like.
Once you have achieved safety, how soon can you start focusing on next season?
Straight away. Managers always sleep with one eye open, and you don’t know what’s around the corner. If you take your foot off the pedal, that’s when you have to start looking at your career, because football management won’t last long.
If survival is your main aim year-on-year, does that make it tricky to make long-term plans?
I think if you look at what we achieved at Stoke, I went into a football club there who were in the bottom half of the Championship, didn’t have a training ground … the place was run down. Within three or four years, we had a fantastic training ground, as good as anybody’s in the Premier League. We got to Europe. We got to an FA Cup final. We were buying players like Shawcross and Begović at young ages, for small money, and the investment that was put into the football club was turned over five or six times. So you can build. But the important thing is that everybody around the club has to accept what you [the manager] are trying to do and to let you manage.
I think that’s the big thing today: allowing the manager to manage. There’s such a variety of owners now, and people who want to interfere with what you are doing and trying to achieve, that it’s sometimes worrying how many managers get sacked so quickly, and the turnover of managers. So that’s a concern for football in general, but it’s something you have to deal with—it’s part of the industry.
And what about the management of expectations? In a league where, say, 12th would be a great finish for some teams, how specific can you be when those outside the club do not give you much chance of even survival in the upcoming season?
I’d love to work over here [in the U.S.] because no one ever gets relegated, and I wouldn’t have had to work as hard. The expectations part of management is difficult, because if you keep doing the same thing every year, they [the fans] will soon get fed up and they’ll want more. But that’s life: We all want it a little better, and we all want a little bit more.
Having been in the game for many years now, can you simplify that formula for, first, survival, and then growth?
There’s no substitute for hard work. And there’s no substitute for a team being a team. That’s not just the team on the pitch; that’s the supporters, chairman, directors, and everybody connected to that football club.
And, finally, Tony: Are you one of those managers who believes luck comes into it?
As the golfer Gary Player said, I think that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”