So, Tony Pulis is under pressure. With the third highest net spend in the league over the past 5 years, his Stoke are closer to the relegation places than they are to the top 8. They don’t score, they play horrible football, with one win in eleven. Fans are unhappy, journalists are smelling blood, and bookies have him at 14 to 1 for the next sack – unthinkable not so long ago.
And it’s all guff, though understandable. From the moment Stoke got promoted in 2008 the stated priority of the owner Peter Coates was always survival, and judging by publicly available information that aim has not changed. At the tail-end of the 2010-11 season, Stoke’s third in the top flight, Coates told The Guardian: ‘People are citing Stoke as a model club… but I’m not taken in by any of that… it is so easy for football to go wrong.’ As recently as last month, he reaffirmed that ‘(t)he ultimate objective is to remain in the Premier League.’ No other chairman is so remorselessly focused on avoiding relegation, and this more than anything else has dictated the way Pulis manages his team and plans his transfers.
While football is undoubtedly played for fans, the direction of any given club’s future, be it on-pitch performance, style of play, marketing or indeed winning honours, is best decided by those who run the club: owners, chairman, the board, and so on. In member-owned clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the chief executive would be chosen by the fans and therefore they have a direct input into how the club is run and what the expectations of the team’s placement in the table should be. Stoke are owned by Coates, and therefore it is he who should and does set the goal for how well Stoke must do in the league. That goal is survival, and so it doesn’t matter whether Pulis has spent £1 or £100m, because he has met that goal. Fans are right to be frustrated, but ultimately Pulis is answerable to his employer, and Coates is not – at least so far – demanding more than he can deliver.
Should Coates set his sights higher? Yes, in that other clubs are spending a lot less and achieving a lot more; no, because it takes a long time to establish yourself at the top but only one bad season to start free-falling into the nether regions of English football. Judging by that Guardian interview Coates is clearly scarred by past experiences of relegation, and so he’s been playing it safe ever since Pulis secured for him the holy grail of entry into the Premier League. For Pulis, unless Coates specifically tells him to make the top half his priority, Stoke’s current position does not constitute failure, regardless of the amount of investment. It might seem perverse that team performance should not be proportionate to the transfer outlay, but for Stoke the money was spent to bring in players who can keep Stoke up, not to compete for Europe or to bother the upper reaches of the table. Fans and pundits may find such a single-minded drive for mediocrity hard to stomach, but that’s the approach that Coates has chosen to take, and that’s precisely the result that Pulis is delivering for his boss.
Ultimately, Coates is the one who needs to make a decision on where Stoke should be next season, in five years’ time, and beyond. If the ambition is to continue to retain top flight status, then there’s no reason to question Pulis’s buys or to raise issue with his tactical philosophy. Put simply, he’s doing his job, no more and no less. If, as many surely hope, Coates decides to start turning his significant patronage into something more attractive, more glorious, he needs to establish a different plan accordingly and task his manager with it. Since he hasn’t done that yet, Pulis shouldn’t have to worry about losing his job.