Life Without Tony Pulis
After a somewhat disappointing 1-0 defeat at Carrow Road on Saturday, Stoke City’s slightly listless start to 2012-13 has continued with many neutral observers wondering whether the zenith of what the club can achieve – symbolised by last year’s creditable foray into European competition – is now behind them. Still, the mood at the Britannia today bears little relation to an occasion in the past when a certain Welshman was absent. Here’s Rob Doolan of the wondrous blog, The 90s Football Party:
This week, Tony Pulis celebrated the 10th anniversary of his first game in charge of Stoke City. Few could have predicted, as Stoke were convincingly defeated at the Bescot Stadium on that wet October Saturday in 2002, that he would be the man to bring the good times back to the world’s second oldest league club. For all that his cautious, percentages-based approach can frustrate supporters, there is no denying that overall he has done a magnificent job in the Potteries. However, it’s sometimes forgotten that Pulis and Stoke spent a season apart during the last eventful decade. That brief separation, in 2005-6, would turn out to be the strangest campaign in the club’s recent history.
It’s fair to say that a sizeable section of the Stoke support was not sorry to see the back of Pulis when he was sacked in 2005 for the dubious reason that he had “failed to exploit the foreign market”. In truth, the relationship between Pulis and the club’s increasingly disillusioned Icelandic owners had long grown fractious, stemming from disagreements over the transfer budget, and as both sides played politics, the action on the pitch suffered. Supposedly in the name of ensuring the club’s survival in the Championship, Pulis oversaw a succession of truly horrendous, unambitious, dire spectacles between 23rd October 2004 and 22nd February 2005, in which 17 consecutive league games ended either 1-0, 0-0, or 0-1. It has become known among Potters fans as ‘the binary season’.
Stoke finished a comfortable but mediocre 12th that season, but match attendance had become a joyless experience. Nevertheless, the news that Pulis had been dismissed in June that year came as a shock – not least to the manager himself, who reportedly learned about it on the radio as he was driving to the ground.
Another bombshell was dropped the following day when the board announced the appointment of one Johan Boskamp as the new Stoke City manager. Suffice to say, it was a name that rang few bells in Stoke-On-Trent. A multiple time winner of the Belgian Jupiler League as a manager with Anderlecht, he had been a member of the fine Dutch squad that reached the final of the 1978 world cup finals in Argentina. That was a long time ago however, and the Boskamp who showed up at the Britannia Stadium was 57-years-old and roughly the size of a Bungalow.
Boskamp quickly set about establishing himself as the anti-Pulis. He promised goals where his predecessor had prioritised defending at all costs. Where Pulis carried himself with an air of cold competence, Boskamp came across as an affable buffoon. Media interviews further underlined the differences between the two: Pulis had raised the ire of a number of supporters with his repetitive, mildly patronising patter. Boskamp brought a touch of the surreal to proceedings. He dismissed one transfer target to reject the club, Polish striker Marcin Żewłakow, as “a shit guy” live on air. He talked of his (abundantly evident) love of chip shops. Asked by Radio Stoke’s Nigel Johnson to reveal a secret about himself, he answered: “I’m not really a man”.
Boskamp had been left with just nine senior professionals on taking the reigns, and so, in a desperate attempt to stave off relegation, the owners gave him a decent amount of backing. Boskamp set about exploiting the hell out of the foreign market. In came Czech winger Martin Kolář, Brazilian midfielder Junior, defender and ‘Beckham of Belgium’ Carl Hoefkens (who arrived with voluptuous model WAG in tow). These signings were bolstered on the home front by Luke Chadwick, who knew Boskamp from his own time in Belgium as part of Manchester United’s arrangement with Royal Antwerp, and young Blackburn forward Paul Gallagher on a season-long loan.
Unsurprisingly, early results and performances were somewhat schizophrenic. The depressing predictability and negativity of the previous season was happily gone, but the organisation and heart that the team had been built on went with them. It was akin to being in a Formula 1 car without a seatbelt. Exhilarating, but asking for trouble. Stoke fans were startled on the opening day to see their new centre back, Hoefkens, pop up in the opposing penalty area to win a penalty with a Cruyff turn – not something they ever saw Clint Hill or Gerry Taggart pull off. Midfield plodder Dave Brammer meanwhile, who had spent the previous season trundling about in midfield with all the grace of a milkfloat, very briefly morphed into Steven Gerrard, pinging in an absolute screamer to beat Luton in injury time before orchestrating a 3-1 demolition of newly-relegated Norwich. These encouraging signs, however, were tempered by humiliating home defeats to Watford, Wolves and Cardiff.
Consistency did arrive in the flamboyant form of Guinean striker Sambegou Bangoura. Another capture from the Jupiler League, signed from Standard Liège on deadline day for a club record £950,000, fans were made to wait to see him in action after some typical farce – the player was arrested at the airport on suspicion of assisting illegal entry into the UK with “visa problems” delaying his debut. It would be October, at home to local rivals Crewe, than he’d start his first game. He was an instant sensation. Fast, skilful, direct and lethal in the air and on the ground, Bangoura appeared to be the complete striker at that level. Tormenting the railway men on that full debut and scoring a peach of a goal, he went on an electric scoring run of eight in nine games, attracting Premier League attention and hauling Stoke towards an unlikely play off push.
Off the pitch however, Stoke were as unstable as ever. During a game away at Coventry, with the Potters a goal down, Director of Football John Rudge came down from the stands to pass a note to the bench suggesting switching the wingers – a tactical move that ultimately helped Stoke win the game. When he learned of this, though, Boskamp was apoplectic and, feeling undermined, went to Chairman Gunnar Gíslason with an ultimatum – either Rudge and Assistant Manager Jan de Koning (who had helped to get Boskamp the job in the first place) went, or he did. While one might question whether it fell under Rudge’s remit to offer tactical advice, it was at best a huge overreaction from Boskamp, and it has been suggested that he used the incident to try and engineer his own exit as he began to struggle with the pressure of English football. Calling his bluff, Gíslason put Rudge and de Koning on gardening leave.
Despite this playground drama, results remained good. Though prone to being petulant and idle, Gallagher was proving a talented source of goals from the left wing, with an eye for the spectacular, scoring vital winners at Hull and high-flying Preston. Bangoura’s run continued, culminating in scoring the winner in a thrilling come-from-behind televised win over Leicester in December than took Stoke to 5th. As the festive season approached, hopes were high that Stoke could go far.
Unfortunately, they then proceeded to have a worse Christmas than John McClane in Die Hard. Losing Bangoura to the African Cup of Nations in January, they struggled badly in his absence. The comedy Boskamp was renowned for in his interviews began to seep onto the pitch, but this time it wasn’t funny. Stoke needed a replay and penalties to beat non-league Tamworth in the FA Cup. Struggling Hull were allowed to win 3-0 at the Britannia Stadium as the home side missed two penalties in quick succession. Defeats against Watford, Cardiff and Crystal Palace followed that were all, in their own way, as bad as anything seen during Pulis’ binary run. Stoke were having more of the ball and keeping it on the deck, yes, but they were toothless going forward and lurched from disaster to disaster at the back.
To make matters worse, Bangoura failed to return from the ACON, going missing again, this time for weeks on end, with Boskamp declaring that he’d like to “kick him in the balls”. As their freefall continued, the Potters began to look like outside contenders for the drop, with only Gallagher’s goals keeping them a safe distance away from the dogfight.
For the second season in succession, disillusionment set in at the Britannia. Results did pick up towards the end of the campaign as Boskamp gave youth a chance, with the likes of Carl Dickinson and Adam Rooney starring in away hammerings of Ipswich and Brighton, 4-1 and 5-1 respectively. Stoke eventually finished 13th, just a place and a point below where they’d ended up the year before. But despite talk of a new contract for Boskamp, there was very much the sense of everyone having had enough. The Dutchman was gone after that game at the Withdean. The Icelanders sold the club back to the previous chairman, Peter Coates, weeks later. One of his first moves was to restore Pulis to the hot seat.
After what felt like an exotic adventure holiday that went wrong, Stoke fans now found themselves stuck once again with the chairman who’d taken the club towards financial implosion and the manager who’d bored them into submission. This could only end one way, surely?
As it happened, it would – two seasons later, big spenders Stoke were the Championship’s highest scorers – and back in the top flight for the first time in 23 years. The following year, Johan Boskamp left Belgian side FC Dender – after falling out with his assistant…