Fly Me To The Moon fanzine v Sheffield Wednesday, 26 December 2018
“Because of the situation with the goals – us not scoring goals – I think the team is trying their damndest to score.”
Those were the reassuring words of ‘proper football man’ Tony Pulis – a man who properly understands football, not like us – after Boro were outclassed at QPR. A few days later we were outclassed by League One’s Burton Albion at home in a cup quarter final, in one of the most abject displays seen at the Riverside since the departure of that other proper football man Gordon Strachan. Against Burton the team tried their damndest to score so much that they failed to register a meaningful shot on target. Our attempts at attacks were predictable, difficult on the eye, and the players looked devoid of inspiration and confidence. In short, we witnessed the inevitable consequence of letting Tony Pulis run your club.
Tony Pulis was, is, and always will be a bad managerial appointment for Boro. His arrival was a hugely depressing change of direction from a chairman who seems to be increasingly out of ideas and out of touch. When Steve Gibson sacked Gareth Southgate in October 2009 with the team one point off the top of the league, he said he did it because he felt the team were in a “false” league position and performances didn’t reflect the results. You could very easily transpose that analysis to this season in terms of Boro somehow managing to hang around the top two between September and November, despite that being a period when performances were unfailingly mediocre and even the wins were unconvincing and ultimately joyless. Now we’ve fallen away, that false league position seems a distant memory, and anyone watching the team regularly can see things are going backwards. It’s unclear how long Pulis will be here, particularly given the length of his contract is a bizarrely kept secret, but in my view each day Gibson allows him to remain in post will be an exercise in saving face rather than objectivity.
You have to suspect many of the players will be counting down the days, too. Reduced to aimlessly lumping the ball forward for most of the second half against Burton, they looked uncomfortable, panicked, and bereft of any confidence a goal would come. Perhaps the manager’s fondness for talking down the quality of his squad and singling out individuals for criticism has, in many players’ minds, crossed the line from old school man management to borderline bullying. A case in point is Britt Assombalonga, by far the best finisher left on the books since Pulis inexplicably cleared out Patrick Bamford in the summer in order to bring in yet more pedestrian midfielders. Britt has repeatedly been singled out by Pulis for missed chances and his workrate, even in post-match comments after his wonderful equaliser rescued a point against Blackburn. It’s true that since Pulis arrived Britt has looked half the player he was when he first signed, but that’s perhaps not surprising given the roles he’s been asked to fill (left wing anyone?), the style of play being opposed to his strengths, and the manager’s regular and public undermining of him.
It’s also notable that things have taken a turn for the worse on the pitch since the November international break, when Pulis packed the players off to RAF Leeming for several days “to bring them out of the bubble they live in” but declined the invitation to join them and took himself off to Barbados for the week instead. I’m led to believe the irony of this was not lost on certain senior members of the squad, and there were no doubt raised eyebrows in the 12-man dorms the players were forced to share while the boss was topping up his tan on the other side of the world.
Pulis pictured in Barbados in November 2017, shortly before being sacked by West Bromwich Albion.
One of the strangest things about Tony Pulis is the free ride he gets from most in the media, especially for a man who left a trail of destruction and discontent at West Brom and had also been forced to pay £3.7m in damages to his previous club Crystal Palace after the High Court ruled that he had deceived them into paying him a loyalty bonus early (he resigned from Palace a day after the bonus was paid, and on the eve of the new season).
In this scenario you might expect Pulis taking his next job would arouse some degree of critical analysis of his management attributes, not to mention his personal integrity. Instead, his arrival at Boro was met with an unfathomable consensus across the national and local press that this was a good, solid appointment. Proper football man. I doubt a foreign manager with the same recent track record in England would have had it so easy.
I fear if Pulis is given too much more time to shape the club in his own image, he will cause lasting Strachanite damage which will take years to undo. I miss the romance. I miss having something to believe in. Merry Christmas.