The signs were ominous. The conspicuous presence of Guochuan Lai, West Bromwich Albion’s usually absent Chinese owner, for his team’s Premier League defeat at the hands of visiting Chelsea spoke volumes and the emphatic nature of the scoreline was enough to seal the fate of Tony Pulis. The Welshman, who took over in January 2015, had the air of a dead man walking in the wake of Saturday’s 4-0 gubbing. He was duly sacked on Monday and leaves the club a point and a place above the relegation zone.
Fans who have long been bored witlessby an unattractive brand of football that was no longer yielding the kind of results that led to finishes in 13th, 14th and 10th over the past three seasons have finally got what they wanted. The question now is whether they will regret the decision to sack the first man they would almost certainly approach with a view to extracting them from the current pickle if it was not he who had got them into it in the first place.
Pulis has famously never been relegated during a management career spanning nine clubs across 25 years. Arguably his greatest feat as a manager involved the unlikely rescue of Crystal Palace, who had four points in the Premier League when he took over four years ago this week but finished 11th, 12 points off the drop.
It was an escape act that earned Pulis the Premier League manager of the year accolade, even if his relationship with the chairman, Steve Parish, subsequently ended in the most bitter of acrimony at eye-wateringly huge personal expense and embarrassment to Pulis in the high court.
Pulis has been long renowned as a firefighter whose pragmatic, functional style of football was tolerated by fans as long as it yielded results, guaranteed top-flight survival and ensured the Premier League revenue kept rolling in. However, his touch appears to have deserted him in the past year.
With the air of a man who seemed well aware his latest jig would be up sooner rather than later, he was in relaxed but defensive mood before the Chelsea game. “If I left tomorrow, I’d put my record on the table and put it in front of anybody and see what they think of what I’ve done here in three years,” he said.
Examination shows that, when Pulis replaced Alan Irvine on 1 January 2015, West Bromwich were exactly where they are now: fourth from bottom of the table, one point above the relegation zone.
Irvine won four of his 19 league games in charge before he was sacked seven months after being appointed. He had secured 20 points and Pulis added 24 to secure a finish with 44 points and five places clear of trouble. The following season they finished 14th with 43 points but dramatically fell away once the safety associated with the 40-point mark had been secured. Last season they finished 10th with 45 points but failed to kick on after guaranteeing their top-flight status, drawing two and losing seven of their last nine matches.
More worryingly Albion, having won only four of their past 22 Premier League games, have not emerged victorious from a top-flight match since 19 August, have drawn only four of their past 10 and are on course for 31 or 32 points by mid-May. The end-of-season sluggishness with which many Pulis teams are associated, coupled with the fact that they have been beaten by sides such as Brighton, Southampton and Huddersfield already, suggest a sleepwalk towards relegation is – or certainly was – on the cards.
Furthermore, in 107 Premier League matches under Pulis, West Bromwich have scored three or more goals on only eight occasions and have beaten teams in the current top six in five of 33 attempts. What Pulis has done at The Hawthorns in three years appears to be little more than the bare minimum expected: survival through turgid football, not many goals and even fewer surprises. It is small wonder the fans turned on a manager who, despite his net spend of £40m during the summer, appears to have succeeded only in making a very mediocre squad considerably worse.
Despite the doom-merchants who insist West Bromwich fans should be careful what they wish for, all available evidence suggests that the time was right for the club and their manager to consciously uncouple. With players of the calibre of Jay Rodriguez, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Salomón Rondón and Nacer Chadli, among others, Albion have the makings of a team considerably better than the sum of the parts cobbled together in recent months.
Pulis, meanwhile, leaves with a golden handshake and no shortage of credit in the bank. In these days of increasingly twitchy, trigger-happy owners desperate to remain in the Premier League, a man of his specialist talents is unlikely to be out of work for long.
The Guardian Sport