Middlesbrough and Tony Pulis appear an odd fit

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 29, 2017

Steve Bruce was supposed to be a safe pair of hands at Aston Villa. He was supposed to be the promotion specialist that would turn their faltering campaign around and get them into the Premier League. He was supposed to be the high-profile, can’t fail manager to restore Villa to where their stature suggests they belong.

After arriving in October last year, he elevated Villa from 19th to 13th place. In a table comprised only of the 33 games when Bruce was in charge, Villa were 11th. This term has been better (at the time of writing they’re eighth, three points off the playoffs), but there’s still a strong sense of underachievement: given the resources at his disposal, able to field entire teams with plenty of Premier League experience, they should be strong contenders for automatic promotion, not with half an eye on the playoffs.

Of course the Championship is a curious old business, a place where logic goes to die. What works in the Premier League might not work there, and plenty have been flummoxed by the demands of trying to get out of it. Villa are still very much in the hunt and might turn things around, but Bruce hasn’t turned out to be the guarantee of rapid promotion that many thought.

But the relative struggles of Bruce serve as a cautionary tale for Middlesbrough, who this week sacked Garry Monk and replaced him with Tony Pulis. It was a bit of a surprise that Pulis dropped into the Championship: one would think that he could wait around and take a Premier League job when the next owner panicked, or maybe go for the Wales job.

Pulis has not managed in the Championship for ten years and now his task is getting out of the division rather than staying out of it. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the differences in scale and expectation.

Yet perhaps Pulis saw this as something new, or maybe a return to his roots: he initially made his name fashioning doughty but effective teams in the Football League, winning promotions with Stoke and Gillingham. Perhaps he fancied that this would represent something else, that after years of specialising in fixing broken Premier League teams, building something else at Middlesbrough would be a welcome change of pace.

It might also go some way to fixing what was Pulis’s major problem in the Premier League. By now everyone knows that his Stoke and West Brom teams would reach that mythical 40 point barrier, then seem to stop dead: to repeat a now familiar statistic, in seven full top flight seasons Pulis’s teams have never gained fewer than 42 points, but never notched more than 49. For whatever reason, his teams tend to reach their minimum goal, then check out.

That won’t be possible in the Championship. Middlesbrough’s sole aim is promotion, and promotion now: otherwise they would not have sacked a manager they appointed in the summer when they’re just outside the playoffs. There’s no wiggle room for Pulis’s Middlesbrough to slack, and for their performances to tail off as his previous sides have done.

“I’m not going to turn water into wine,” Pulis said after taking over. “I have to make sure that I have a good look at the place before I start making any predictions…if everything at the club was spot-on and working well I wouldn’t be here talking, Garry still would be. There are problems, and there have been problems here. It’s just about finding out what they are.”

In many respects this is one of the more fascinating managerial appointments that has been made this season, because it takes people out of their comfort zone. Middlesbrough’s operating procedure is usually not to make rapid decisions on managers: last season they almost certainly left dispensing with Aitor Karanka too long.

Monk was the third permanent manager in the club’s history to last under a year: the previous two were Terry Venables, who was only brought in to assist Bryan Robson on a short-term basis in 2000, and Andy Walker, who retired amid a bribery scandal in 1911. They’ve never before sacked a manager in such short order.

Pulis has not managed in the Championship for ten years and now his task is getting out of the division rather than staying out of it. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the differences in scale and expectation.

In his three Premier League jobs, he has been looking up, the legitimate underdogs scrapping against the odds. At Middlesbrough he is in charge of a side just down from the top-flight, one of the richest sides in the division who spent £30million on forwards over the summer.

Boro have taken a risk in appointing a manager who, like Bruce, is not the guarantee of promotion that he might first appear to be. Pulis has taken a risk in completely changing his usual MO. Watching how this pans out could be the story of the season.

Middlesbrough Tony Pulis
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