When Tony Pulis arrives at your club in November it usually means you are in a bit of trouble and in need of the footballing equivalent of Red Adair to come to the rescue. Sheffield Wednesday are the latest club to enlist the services of a manager who has famously never been relegated. Considering Wednesday will be Pulis’ tenth club, the majority of which were facing the threat of going down, that is some record and one he will be absolutely determined and well-equipped to preserve.
There is an extra dimension to this particular challenge, and one which the Welshman has yet to face in a managerial career that began in 1992 at Bournemouth, namely a points deduction. The Owls began the Championship season with the considerable handicap of minus 12 points for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules. Pulis’ task has been made a tad easier after that deduction was halved on appeal in early November and the Owls moved off the foot of the table after a goalless draw with Millwall on 7th November. Pulis was unfazed that he arrived on Friday the 13th and was nothing if not bullish in his press conferences immediately following his appointment.
Rather than contemplating the threat of relegation he was already talking of becoming the “biggest club in Sheffield again” which would be news to United. To be fair the 62-year-old did pay due respect to Chris Wilder’s achievements at Bramall Lane, who led them to 9th in the Premier League from League One in the space of three seasons, before adding that he was looking forward to a Steel City derby in the Premier League. Considering the last one was 26 years ago it has been quite a while, but Pulis is clearly in a hurry to end that wait.
A brief look at how teams have fared after points deductions also gives Pulis a fair dollop of hope. In the last fifteen years around twenty of the 92 league clubs have suffered points deductions across all four divisions. In fact the survival rate is quite encouraging with a handful of clubs avoiding relegation and even a few such as Leeds and Southampton getting within a few points of the Play-Offs and a shot at an unlikely promotion.
The majority of these deductions have been 10 points but have been as high as the 30 points that condemned Luton Town to non-league football in 2008/09. Luton’s double whammy came about because they were found guilty of misconduct regarding third party payments to agents, which led to the standard 10-point deduction, swiftly followed by a further 20 because they broke insolvency rules. Alongside the Hatters, three other League Two club had points deducted that season with both Darlington (-10) and Rotherham (-17) ending up comfortably mid-table proving that points deductions are not insurmountable.
Pulis does not have to look any further than to his very first club as manager for encouragement. In 2008 Bournemouth were punished twice after entering administration. While the first penalty of ten points in February led to their relegation from League One, after continuing financial problems they were faced with a second successive deduction of 17 points in League Two in the 2008/09 season. On New Year’s Eve the Cherries were heading for a second successive relegation and this time it would mean losing their Football League status. They were seven points adrift of safety and only being kept off the bottom of the table by Luton who were still in negative points territory. A bold managerial appointment turned the club’s fortunes around.
At the tender age of 31 years-old (exactly half Pulis’ age on his appointment at Wednesday), former player Eddie Howe became the youngest manager in the English game. Not only did Howe save the club from what had seemed an inevitable relegation when he took charge, but over the following seven years (including a brief spell at Burnley) he oversaw a heady rise all the way to the Premier League and secured top flight football for Bournemouth for the first time in their history.
Bournemouth are not the only former club that Pulis can refer to for precedence. On the negative side, both Middlesbrough in 1996/97 and Portsmouth in 2009/10 were relegated from the Premier League after having three and nine points deducted respectively. But another of his previous clubs, did save themselves despite a 10-point deduction in the middle of the season. In January 2010 Crystal Palace were jettisoned from the verge of the Play-Offs to the brink of relegation, but managed to stave off relegation in a do or die match on the final day of the season by drawing with their relegation rivals who consequently went down. That club just happened to be Sheffield Wednesday.
Pulis will undoubtedly bring his own brand of pragmatism to Hillsborough, instilling the need for defensive solidity before any licence for free-flowing football. It may not be aesthetically pleasing but it brings results as he has proved from the outset of his managerial career. Club after club improved under Pulis and he invariably left them in a better position than when he took over. He steered Bournemouth to the relative safety of 17th twice when they looked doomed in the early nineties.
He took Gillingham from the bottom of Division Four to the brink of Division Two in the space of four years, only to be denied by those ridiculously late Manchester City goals in the 1999 Division Three Play-Offs Final. Under his stewardship, Portsmouth and Plymouth both achieved mid-table security after being mired in relegation trouble. Palace were odds on to return to the Championship after eight games of the 2013/14 season but they ended up in 11th – the first time in five attempts that the Eagles had survived their first Premier League season.
His most impressive achievement came in his two spells at Stoke City. In 2002/03 the Potters survived on the last day of the First Division season with a win against Reading and one of the clubs that were relegated were, almost inevitably, Wednesday. After steadying the ship with a couple of mid-table finishes Pulis departed briefly for a year at Plymouth but he returned in 2006, leading them to the Premier League in 2007/08, their first top-flight season in 23 years. He then proceeded to preserve their hard-earned status with a remarkable consistency, finishing between 11th and 14th over the next five years.
So the man who moulded his reputation in the Potteries, is now setting his sights on cutting it in the Steel City. Don’t bet against him doing so, starting with his first game in charge of Wednesday at Deepdale, where Preston have been the most accommodating of hosts this season losing all six of their games so far. A win for the visitors could see them climb out of the relegation places and begin to look upwards.