“As a young lad, leaving South Wales at 16, sitting on a train, thinking: I’ve got to make something of this. I don’t want to go back to that. As a player: just stay in it, stay in it. It’s survival, I suppose. As Cloughie said, it’s all about survival.”
Tony Pulis, 2016
“We need to get to 40 points as quickly as we can, and then we can relax again.”
Tony Pulis is two managers in one. The first is very good: he will steer your modest-sized club to safety, perhaps even into the top half of the table. Pulis has always spoken of the 40-point mark widely regarded as the benchmark for survival, and in his eight seasons in the Premier League has never failed to reach it. Indeed, Pulis is yet to be relegated in his four decades as a player, coach or manager.
Once your team hits 40 points, however, Pulis No 2 kicks in. Though it has long been suspected that Pulis teams downed tools after they were safe from relegation, when you crunch the numbers, the disparity is startling. To date, Pulis has taken charge of 36 Premier League games – almost an entire season – after his team has 40 points or more. He has only won five times.
Or, to put it another way: Pulis until he reaches 40 points is a top-half – perhaps even a top-eight – manager. Pulis after he reaches 40 points is getting you relegated; the catch being that you’re already safe from relegation. There’s a sort of genius to it.
Why this might be is a matter for conjecture. Perhaps it is the mental and emotional effort of getting to that magic number, and the inevitable slackening in intensity that follows. What is clear is that once Pulis gets to 40 points, he rarely gets much further. In his Premier League career to date, spanning three clubs, his final points tallies have been 45, 47, 46, 45, 42, 45, 44 and 43: not so much a managerial record as the approximate current ages of S Club 7.
It is a remarkable record of consistency, and there are two ways of interpreting it. You could conclude that Pulis is one of the marvels of the Premier League era, a manager who offers that rarest of commodities in the brutal churn and moneyed caprice of elite football: guaranteed survival. Brian Clough was relegated. Jürgen Klopp was relegated. Antonio Conte was relegated. But Tony Richard Pulis, of Newport in south Wales: never.
Or you might be one of those people who deride Pulis as one of those managers content with their easy plateau, whose painfully limited ambition will forever prevent him managing at a higher level. Despite being given plenty of money to spend - over £70 million in just over two years at West Brom, for example - Pulis has never finished in the top half. For these people, Pulis will always be the manager who took Stoke to Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium for a must-win Europa League game, put out a weakened team, and only named four substitutes.
Why is Pulis so obsessed with survival? Perhaps his background offers a clue. The 16-year-old kid on the train out of south Wales, petrified of the thought of having to return. “I knew the day I left Newport that if I came back, I’d failed,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Sunday Times. “The fear of losing the game, of having to go home and tell my family, ‘I tried but it didn't work out’, has haunted me. It is still there, and it is a strength and a weakness. When things aren’t right, I can overreact because of the fear of losing everything. The insecurity drives me, and helps keep my feet on the ground.”
When Pulis was at Gillingham in the late 1990s, his father Angelo died. He passed suddenly, a massive brain haemorrhage, before Pulis could see him. A decade later, his mother died on the day of Stoke’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa. Two years after that, he lost his first granddaughter Olivia, who contracted a virus at just two months old.
Pulis is a devout Catholic and it is possible to identify a common fatalism in his football, his family and his faith: a sense that all good things must eventually pass. “Let’s be honest, none of us are getting out of this place alive,” he said in a 2011 interview. “It’s going to happen one day to all of us.”
This is the mindset that has accompanied Pulis throughout his career: always looking over his shoulder, always sensing danger, always acutely aware of his own basic mortality, always scrambling to get to 40 points.
This season, however, something is different. This season, Pulis’s West Brom - one of the surprise packages of the season - hit 40 points before the end of February. A top-eight finish, perhaps even Europe, is not out of the question. And you sense that if Pulis is ever going to shed his reputation as a 40-point wonder, this is the season to do it.
The early signs are not good. Since reaching 40 points, West Brom have lost 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace and 3-0 at Everton. They have 10 games remaining, beginning with Arsenal at The Hawthorns on Saturday. Should Pulis maintain his dismal average of 0.8 points per game after reaching 40, West Brom would finish with 48 points: top 10 perhaps, or maybe not even that.
Pulis rejects the idea that his teams down tools after reaching 40 points. “If you come and watch us train, I’m not doing anything different to what I did in the previous 24 or 25 games,” he said earlier this week. But it is a milestone that is not so much physical, you suspect, as mental. When you make your entire coaching ethos about getting to 40 points - when you talk about it incessantly, to the point where your players see it as their sole objective - it is impossible to summon the same resolve for the next target.
“It’s annoying and disappointing that people think I just keep clubs up,” Pulis said in an interview with this newspaper in 2015. If he ever wants to shift that reputation, the next 10 games would be an ideal place to start.