Tony Pulis’ status as one of the most respected coaches in English football is based on his reputation for being a guarantee against relegation.
His record of never having been demoted in 25 years — and more than 1,000 league games — as a manager is what defines Pulis, and that’s why he is suddenly under so much pressure at West Bromwich Albion.
Heading into Saturday’s home match against Chelsea in the Premier League, West Brom is one point above the relegation zone — in 16th place in the 20-team division — and on a run of just two wins in its last 20 league games stretching back to last season.
The club’s fans have seemingly lost patience with Pulis and his pragmatic style of football, and a disgruntled section has called for his departure in recent games.
There are even reports of Pulis being two games from being fired, something which was put to him on Friday and wasn’t dismissed.
“No, not at all,” Pulis said when asked if it would be unfair if he lost his job. “If the club decide what they decide, I’ve got great respect for the football club, the supporters, the chairman, the board — it’s just life. It’s the way it is. If you don’t get results, you’re under pressure.
“I understand, the more you give, the more people want.”
That last remark may have been a message to the club’s Chinese owner, Guochuan Lai, about what he might be about to give up.
It’s a sign that Pulis believes he has taken the team forward since being hired in January 2015 — when, incidentally, West Brom was one point above the relegation zone. He steered the team to a 13th-place finish that year, and followed that up with 14th- and 10th-place finishes in the last two seasons.
West Brom’s form dipped last season after reaching the 40-point mark — widely regarded as enough to be sure of staying up — and lost seven of its last eight games. After winning its opening two games this season, West Brom is without a victory in the last nine — including defeats in the last three games.
Guochuan is flying in from China to watch the game against Chelsea, as he has usually done for fixtures against England’s so-called “Big 6” at The Hawthorns since becoming majority shareholder in August 2016. That will do little to quieten the conspiracy theorists, though, especially if West Brom loses again.
West Brom had a net spend of about 30 million pounds ($40 million) last summer and enriched the squad with some trumpeted arrivals like Poland midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak from Paris Saint-Germain, Kieran Gibbs from Arsenal, and winger Oliver Burke from Leipzig.
Pulis has better players and a deeper squad at his disposal, but is failing to get the most out of them and is clearly missing Darren Fletcher, the club captain who surprisingly left in the offseason to join Stoke. Dovetail that with continued criticism of his approach — direct, unspectacular, risk-averse — and it’s no surprise there are calls for change.
“People say the football’s been boring,” Pulis, on the defensive, said, “but the last two games at The Hawthorns have seen nine goals scored.”
The problem is, five of those were scored by visiting teams. West Brom has scored nine goals in 11 games this season, with only four teams having fewer. And Pulis prides himself on having hard-to-beat teams but West Brom isn’t that at the moment, even when playing an ultra-defensive central-midfield trio of Gareth Barry, Krychowiak and Jake Livermore.
The 1-0 losses at Southampton and Huddersfield featured desperately disappointing displays by West Brom and its fans responded.
They will abide Pulis if he gets results, by whatever means, like he did in his two spells at Stoke (2002-05, 2006-13). But he cannot even guarantee that at the moment.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80