Growing up as a West Brom supporter it was never really that difficult to find a reason to dislike Stoke. For years, Stoke would always win against Albion, even prompting the words, “We always beat West Brom”, to be sung by Stoke fans at any game between the two clubs.
The first time I saw Albion beat Stoke was in 1998 in the FA Cup. One of those moments that I always remember. Prior to that, Albion hadn’t beat Stoke since 1988. When people talk of ‘bogey’ teams, Stoke were definitely that.
In the background of growing up as an Albion fan in the Nineties were the changes that were starting to happen within football. Arsene Wenger had taken over at Arsenal in 1996 and, with him, he bought change to the English game. From the scouting to the dieting to the way it was played. As a youngster, as a football fanatic, I loved it. I loved watching those teams play fluid football. As years went by, the Albion took their own style of fluid football under Tony Mowbray and my favourite era at the Albion had started.
40 miles down the road, however, Stoke were playing the complete opposite style of football. Far from fluid, they settled for sitting deep and playing long ball. They used Rory Delap for his long throw ins as if they were corners. It was effective. It made them hard to beat. It made them a comfortable Premier League team. However, this wasn’t just Stoke City. This was Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.
The football was largely terrible to watch. Stoke would grind out results and always create issues for teams. They were strong and weren’t scared to put in hard challenges. They played as though they were from a different era…and they were, in a way. Tony Pulis is an era defining manager. Stoke were in the Pulis era. Second time round, they seemed the perfect fit. The supporters were louder than most, if not all, and Stoke maintained a good Premier League position throughout.
From a football perspective, it gave another reason to dislike Stoke. Not only could Albion seemingly never get a result against them, they were now playing the most boring, difficult to watch football. I couldn’t imagine Albion ever playing that way. Eventually, Stoke fans wanted more. Patience began to wear thin with the playing style and what felt like a lack of ambition…and Pulis and Stoke went their separate ways.
As this was happening, Albion were just finishing their best ever Premier League season. Steve Clarke had seen the club to 8th in the league and it seemed as if Albion had cemented themselves somewhat as the ‘best of the rest’. The 8th place finish masked a run of poor form in the second half of the season, however, and the year following it saw the poor form continue. Clarke got sacked, Pepe Mel came in, Albion survived – just – but damage had been done.
At a time when Albion needed somebody strong, somebody who could take the club forward following Pepe Mel…the board hired Alan Irvine. To say it was badly received would be a huge understatement. The club seemed to be falling apart in the 2014/15 season. The famous blue and white stripes had been replaced with pinstripes, there were multiple issues behind the scenes…and it was ultimately no surprise at all when the Irvine experiment failed and he was dismissed halfway through the season. We were only going one way.
So, then, who to appoint as manager if you don’t want to be relegated? Easy. Pick one that’s never been relegated. Enter, Tony Pulis.
The appointment made sense, but it always felt like a deal with the devil for me. This manager that had helped produce football that I detested, for a team I detested – largely because of that style of play – was in charge of my team…and for as much as I couldn’t stand the man’s football I knew, deep down, he was the right man at that time.
The club had lost 10 games in the league during the first half of the 2014/15 season, only winning 4. The second half of the season, under Pulis, saw a turnaround. Albion won 7 games, lost 6, drew 6. Defensively Albion had improved, too. From looking like a team destined for relegation, Albion ended the season comfortably mid-table…even beating the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United at the end of the season. Results wise, the Pulis appointment was a success.
Despite this, the warning signs of discontent had already started to show. Albion’s style was changing. A soul destroying week where the club were beat twice in a week by Aston Villa didn’t help him win support. The Jeff Astle Day defeat was so disappointing. But they were, in the grand scheme, singular events. The fact that Albion were staying up was enough to please the majority of fans.
The following season saw the start of a Pulis trend at Albion. The team were solid. They’d made some good additions. Jonny Evans was a superb signing. Alongside Darren Fletcher, who joined in the February of the previous season, it gave an increased sense of quality within the spine of the team. Premier League winners…and it told. The experience of those players, the leadership, oozed throughout the team. Salomon Rondon signed for a then record £12m, adding a different strength up front. James Chester also signed for £8m – more expensive than Evans – with Serge Gnabry, a young talent from Arsenal, joining on loan.
The club were never in any danger of relegation. They were also never in any danger of challenging for anything else. Albion were just there. But the playing style had now changed completely. It had become Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. This was the Pulis era, definitively. This was also the season where it started to become too much for me. The frustrations were huge, and I could sense myself falling out of love with it all.
In the seasons that Pulis was at Albion, the team did well. Mid-table finishes, they were hard to break down…Albion were no fuss, defensive and hard to beat. But the Pulis theme was this. Albion got to 39/40 points, results then stopped. In the 2015/16 season, Albion got to 39 points after beating Manchester United on the 6th March. They didn’t win another game all season. The following season, Albion hit 40 points after beating Bournemouth on the 25th February. In the 12 games that followed, they won only once and lost nine times.
It was disheartening. As a fan, you felt that the target was always 40 points and nothing more. As soon as the club hit that target they switched off. In both of Pulis’ full seasons, you were left wondering what the point was in even going to the games from March onwards because it was clear the team you were watching was not playing with the same intent as the one a month or so prior. It was dull, it was boring…it was unbelievably difficult to feel passionate about.
I found myself so frustrated, also, at the use of the signings made during the Pulis reign. Salomon Rondon had the makings of a great powerhouse forward – we later saw that in full effect when he joined Newcastle United – but the style of play Pulis implemented didn’t benefit any striker. Robson-Kanu, flourishing this season, has never been known for his goals but his work rate…and he looked lost. The signings of Nacer Chadli, Ollie Burke, Matt Phillips all felt like signals of intent – but none fitted with how a Pulis team plays. (However, looking at how things have gone for Burke since, maybe Pulis was right on that one.) Callum McManaman was another that did nothing.
Defensively, the signings of Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry and Jake Livermore made sense and they all, for the most part, did well. Yet James Chester, a defender that cost £2m more than Evans, was played out of position and deemed too small by Pulis, who eventually sold him to Villa where he went on to do extremely well. The loan signings also made no sense. Serge Gnabry was a waste of time (though, to be fair to Pulis, that was more because of Gnabry than anyone else at the club). Alex Pritchard pointless. Brendon Galloway, too. Young players that would have never fitted in with the Pulis ideology.
We became an old team. Possession wise, we would often struggle to even reach 40% against any team. For fans of statistics, we must have left them completely confused. How could this team maintain security in the Premier League whilst going every game with only 35% of the ball and struggling to have any shots? Somehow, we did. But that in itself was an issue. Against the big clubs…Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool…you could forgive sitting back and hoping for a counter. Although that even went too far in one game against Manchester City when we failed to register a single shot. The biggest issue was that even against teams of a similar ilk, Albion did the same. Sit back, constantly.
There was no ambition. The club didn’t play to win, they played to avoid defeat. Because of that, there was no excitement. There was no enjoyment. For the first time in my life, I gave up on Albion. I lost interest. I couldn’t bring myself to attend games. I could no longer tell people who we had next in the league. I couldn’t tell people how many goals a striker had scored. I was bored of it. I couldn’t even put on Match Of The Day because I’d lost the passion for the game.
Growing up, I started supporting Albion during the Alan Buckley days. They were bleak. We were so much poorer than we’ve ever been since. Denis Smith wasn’t great but was infinitely better than Buckley. Brian Little was a disaster. None of them, however, drove me away from the club. Throughout all the poor seasons, narrowly avoiding relegation to Division Two (League One, as it’s called now)…I was still there. I still enjoyed going down the Hawthorns. Pulis and the football he made us play changed that. We were beyond boring. The atmosphere was, at times, toxic. Why would you spend money on it?
Not all of what Pulis did was bad, though. As I said earlier, after Irvine he was absolutely the right man for the job and I don’t think anybody else would have kept the club up. When Saido Berahino let his ego get the better of him, Pulis dealt with it well and managed to protect Saido and the club as well as he could. He developed Craig Dawson in to a Premier League player. I’ll even begrudgingly accept that he maybe prolonged Chris Brunt’s time at the club by moving him to full back. He gave the club security and, in the end, when results really did go downhill, I remember reading that it was actually the board that stopped him from leaving as he was prepared to let somebody else try to move the club forward. A rare selfless act.
Despite that, my memory of Pulis at Albion isn’t one I look back at fondly. Tony Pulis made me hate football. Tony Pulis made me stop going to watch the Albion…even when we were getting the results – and I wasn’t alone as average attendances dipped continuously. The Pulis era was uninspired, boring, frustrating, devoid of all ambition and not a lot else.
But, on the plus side, at least we can beat Stoke now.
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