In England, the manager’s role has traditionally had a very special significance. Pick a man, hand him the keys (and the checkbook), and let him do his job. If that takes you to the top, congratulations. You picked the right man. If you end up in the cellar, well, you should have done your homework.
Over time, parts of England have started moving away from that model. While Arsène Wenger is the be-all and end-all at Arsenal, clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham have instilled more collaborative models. The general feeling: The soccer world has become too competitive for one man to do the job by himself.
Still, consider how deeply you have to buy into the one man philosophy to condone what Tony Pulis did today. Walking away from Crystal Palace two days before the new season, the man who saved the Eagles from relegation appears to be standing on principle. If co-chairman Steve Parish and the rest of Palace’s board won’t pour more money into the club, Pulis was willing to walk.
How can Pulis justify this decision to Palace’s players, some of whom chose South London based on the manager? None of them have the luxury of walking away because reinforcements aren’t coming. What kind of loyalty has Pulis shown by throwing their fall into chaos?
How can he justify this decision to the rest of the club? The staff whose allegiance goes beyond what happens in Steve Parish’s office? Rather than accept the reality of the life he chose (Pulis did only join the club in November), Pulis has made a power play, one that threatens the team’s first division survival.
And how can Pulis justify this decision to the supporters, whose presence helped make Selhurst Park so imposing at the end of last season? With hopes this year can be more stable than the last, fans have seen the man who fostered spring’s stability exit after a game of chicken. Without more money to improve his squad, Pulis followed through on his threat and walked out the door.
In light of Palace’s circumstances, Pulis’s principles are ill-placed. He knew what he was getting into when he signed on: A small club; one that would have to use guile like Pulis’s to transcend its modest situation. As we saw in the last two transfer windows, there are no big checks to cash. Crystal Palace can’t throw away money, the way their manager did at Stoke.
We mentioned it earlier today: Pulis’s net spending over his last five years at Stoke was negative £80 million. What did the Potters get for that investment? Stability, yes. And they got an FA Cup final. They also got a dour brand of soccer that left supporters defending the most unromantic of virtues: Pragmatism. And in time, fans got a team that failed to improve, one that reached new heights after one season under Mark Hughes.
Crystal Palace can’t afford those pursuits, a reality Pulis must have known when he signed on. It was only three years earlier that Palace was in administration – pushed to the brink of the third division by its financial woe. Newly stabilized, newly successful, Palace has shown they need not return to their reckless ways, yet Pulis was demanding they do so.
It all adds up to one sneaking suspicion: Pulis just wanted to go. Either that, or he’s the most short-sighted of old school bosses. If the 58-year-old really was dense enough to overlook Palace’s recent history, last year’s success, and the realities of life at Selhurst Park, it was best he left now. There’s no dramatic change coming in South London.
I refuse to believe Pulis is that dumb. Instead, I buy into his guile. Coming off a stellar showing last season, and knowing jobs will open up over the next five months, Pulis engineered a scenario that would allow him to move to greener pastures – to a club without the limitations of Crystal Palace. And as an easy escape route, Pulis relied on an outdated truism: You have to back your manager.
Some will buy that tale, particularly in light of last season’s success. And there’s a little part of me that sees that point of view. But how to explain that to the players, who are two days away from facing Arsenal? How to explain that to a club whose life in the Premier League is under new threat? How to explain that to a fan base that should abhor this kind of selfishness from their now former boss?
There’s only one explanation: Tony Pulis was acting in the best interest of Tony Pulis. While that’s understandable, managers should be able to transcend that base instinct. In the long term, showing a broader perspective is in a manager’s best interest.
For as tough as life may be for Palace this season, the club was right to let him walk. And for anybody willing to bring back Tony Pulis, they know what they’re getting into.