Jim White

Remarkable Pulis can wreck Liverpool and City’s title dreams

Jim White

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When he took over at Crystal Palace back in November, nobody expected Tony Pulis to be in a position five months later to influence the destination of the Premier League title. Back then, with Ian Holloway floundering at the helm, Palace looked doomed to relegation, their ejection from the top flight apparently the most certain thing in sport this side of Ronnie O’Sullivan announcing his retirement at some point during the World Snooker tournament in Sheffield. By now, we all expected the tames of surrenders to have been concluded.

Pulis has done a remarkable job in steering his club to safety, one which many observers insist should land him the manager of the season title. 40 points, the generally accepted safety mark (though this season it is possible a club might escape with as few as 35) was reached with a wholly unexpected victory at Everton on Wednesday. With four games to go Palace are in a position of such comfort, what Pulis has delivered is not so much a great escape as a luxury cruise, a stress-free saunter through what remains of the season. The Palace fans, surely anticipating their fifth immediate relegation from the Premier League when Holloway resigned, can instead enjoy the luxury of being able to mess up others’ ambitions without any fear of the consequences.

When the fixture list was drawn up and their team found themselves facing Manchester City and Liverpool in their last two home games, most Palace fans would have feared the worst. Now they can simply enjoy the possibility of inflicting pain on the two clubs’ title hopes. What fun.

And there is nothing that gets Pulis’s creative juices flowing like the opportunity to rain on someone else’s parade. That’s what he did for years at Stoke, made it hard work for the big clubs, getting under the skin of Arsene Wenger, being the division’s irritant in chief. At Palace he has added a touch of counter-attacking pace to the organisational skills he brought to the Britannia, but ultimately it is the same old Pulis, a manager who thrives on disrupting the expected flow of events.

It is said that he is on a personal bonus of £1million for keeping Palace in the division. In the history of English football, there cannot have been money better spent than that. There were plenty, even among his now worshipful supporters at Selhurst, who despaired when he was appointed to succeed Holloway. Even he wasn’t sure he was right for the job and only took it when prompted to do so by Alex Ferguson and his former chairman at Stoke, Peter Coates. In an era of the progressive coach, of Brendan and Mauricio and Roberto, it seemed such an act of regression for the south London club to bring in the angry shouter in the peaked cap. There was never going to be too much tika or taka in Selhurst with him in charge.

But what Pulis has that Gus Poyet, Felix Magath, Neil Adams, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Garry Monk and Pepe Mel don’t have is experience of keeping a club in the Premier League. All the other teams competing with Palace for survival have changed their managers this season (that is unless you include Villa in the scramble). Only Palace have brought in someone who has done it before, someone well aware of the course, someone who unequivocally knows what he is doing.

And in these circumstances, as Pulis has proved, that is a huge advantage. His first words when he walked into the dressing room at the Palace training ground and addressed the players were along the lines of here’s what you need to do to get out of this mess, do this and you will be all right. The Palace squad has done what he suggested and the result has been evident. More than that, in the rapid advance in the form of Jason Puncheon, for one, he has improved the players beyond recognition. Largely the same bunch who secured promotion last season now find themselves comfortably surviving in the Premier League: in terms of building morale that is an unbeatable result.

Now comes the fun part. With the noisy backing of their black-clad self-defined Ultras, Palace will relish their assault on Liverpool and Manchester City’s title credentials. Pulis has never lost a home league game against Liverpool and his record against City is almost as good. As Jose Mourinho will tell his championship-chasing rivals, going to Selhurst to face the man in the tracksuit is about the last thing you would wish for at the season’s end. City’s mental exhaustion is about to be tested to its limits.

In any other circumstance, you might think that, with Palace now safe, the players would relax, already planning their stretch on the beach. After all they have their 40 points, what more is there to play for? But this is Tony Pulis we are talking about. You only have to take one look at him on the touchline, howling his instructions, tearing around his technical area, throwing his arms around as he endlessly chivvies his team, to understand this about the Welshman: he doesn’t do relaxed. He will have his team snarling and snapping in determination. For both Liverpool and City there could well be trouble ahead. And Jose Mourinho might be about to get a timely assist from the most unlikely source.

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