The Roundhead’s Paradox
Tony Pulis and the strangely conflicted character of British Puritanism
It is a Monday morning in late November 2013. Tony Pulis is being asked why he chose to become the new manager of Crystal Palace. He shrugs: “Why not?” It is not the most elegant answer. He blinks and begins to put together a less confrontational response. Crystal Palace is a Premier League side. They have achieved a great deal in getting this far. He believes the club has a future. Pulis is a poor speaker who grabs hold of clichés as someone else might “hum” or “ah”, but everyone at the press conference knows why Pulis is being prickly. It is a month since his oldest and closest friend, Ian Holloway, resigned as manager. Why did it take so long to reach a deal? Pulis sits next to Steve Parish, the chief executive of Crystal Palace. Pulis is compact and bullet-headed, combative yet awkward. Parish can seem hesitant, but he has a languid, unassuming confidence. The two men barely seem to belong on the same planet, let alone the same stage. Nine months later, when Pulis walks out on Palace without any real explanation, this first press conference contains all the clues to the mystery. It is in the body language, the clothes, the haircuts. Parish is a cavalier, Pulis a roundhead; together they represent the two halves of British football – and all of the other, lesser aspects of national life.
Pulis performed a miracle at Palace, overseeing a run of results that might be the greatest managerial achievement of all time. He inherited a side with only seven points from twelve matches and ended the season mid-table on forty-five points. Some even credit him with winning the three points against Hull on the weekend before he was officially appointed. Pulis was in the stands at Selhurst Park speaking to acting manager, Keith Millen, by telephone. In another inelegant moment at that first press conference, Pulis cannot resist drawing attention to the mid-game phone call.
Pulis resigned fewer than forty-eight hours before the opening weekend of the 2014-15 season, when Palace met Arsenal. Whenever Parish and Pulis are questioned in the weeks that follow, both men appear shell-shocked. In a Match of the Day interview, Gary Lineker leads Parish to speculate whether Pulis was approached by a bigger club. A clearly hurt Pulis quickly pops up to deny the suggestion. As the weeks pass, it becomes clear he is telling the truth: no one was waiting in the wings. Neither Pulis nor Parish are entirely impossible men. They are widely respected for their honesty, their work rate and intelligence. No doubt both find it difficult to give quarter, yet they wanted to make their relationship work. They failed. In the words of 1066 and All That, the Cavalier is ‘Wrong but Wromantic’, the Roundhead is ‘Right but Repulsive’.
Pulis is a strange kind of English Puritan. For a start, he is not English at all. He is Welsh, born in Pill, the old dockland area of Newport. The family name is Maltese. Pulis’s grandfather was born in Zabbar, famous for the half dozen churches in the city devoted to the Virgin, who is revered, among other reasons, for being the patron saint of cyclists. An annual pilgrimage in Zabbar takes place on bicycles, a fact which may have played a role in Pulis’s life-long love of the sport. He inherited his passion for football from his father, Angelo, a man he describes as “a football nut”. Angelo had six children, four boys, two girls. Pulis and his brothers would play on the filled-in dock at the edge of the terraced streets, he says, “We would put our coats down and have a game of football for a few hours... We would smash the ball over the wood yard, climb in there and get chased out. We only had one ball.”
Pill has been a noisy, often vibrant, multicultural town-within-a-town for over a century, and at the heart of Newport’s sporting life for even longer, thanks to a piece of drained swamp known as Medalgief where locals played baseball (Newport has an established baseball tradition), football and rugby. In the 1960s and 70s, Pulis would watch Newport FC or travel the twelve miles to see Cardiff City. Neither was in the first division. Pulis has said that good football was something you only saw on TV. The local YMCA had a team, though. Angelo was a steel worker and Whiteheads, the local foundry, sponsored the Pill YMCA. Pulis says, “When I was a player at Bristol Rovers, at 16 or 17 years old, if there was a game called off at Bristol, I would get on the train and try to get down the YMCA for 1pm to pay my subs and play. I couldn’t get in the first team though... they kept telling me I wasn’t good enough… The YMCA thought it had the best football team in Wales.”
Pulis remained at Bristol Rovers for almost 10 years, 1975-1984, with a season-long interlude in Hong Kong. He soon began taking his coaching badges, making him among the youngest professional football players to pursue a coaching career. His interest in teaching may reflect the fact that he has younger brothers (his brother Ray was a professional football player), but also that his experience in football came through a social club, where it was the responsibility of members to run their own affairs and bring out the talent of the younger players.
Pulis was a defender. He played 326 professional games in a career that lasted 17 years and he scored nine goals. Pulis is a slight and lean figure – not the kind of player who might occasionally pick out the goal from set pieces. But the lack of goals also speaks of a particular mentality, an understanding of defending as a relentless and never-ending business. You hold the line, you are never out of position. His training sessions at Stoke City were once described as “a thing of beauty” by a visiting sports journalist, though some young players found them stifling. One apprentice recalls running with the ball and being frozen out afterwards without any explanation as to what he had done that was so wrong. The entire point of the training sessions is the drill: you do not improvise, you do not try to show you have flair. You repeat, until the repetition hardens into habit. The Stoke defender, Danny Higginbotham, captured the ethos: “Nobody hid on the pitch because you couldn’t in the system that he believed in; it required honest players.” An embarrassed player could never claim that he was unlucky when a moment of inspiration didn’t come off. Inspiration is never the point, maintaining shape is everything. In this world, an honest man is one who is exactly where he is supposed to be: where his teammates expect him to be. He refuses to indulge in wishful thinking or speculative runs. In some ways, it sounds like a solid working-class philosophy. You don’t get ideas above your station. You keep a clean front step. However, one could easily argue for a working-class pull in the other direction, towards exuberance and generosity. A Pulis team is not only a marvel of organised defence, it speaks of a defensive mentality – a mentality often derided as ‘negative’ by football players and professionals alike. It is the philosophy of the puritanical roundhead who fears judgment, rather than the carefree cavalier who looks forward to goodwill and cheers.
There is a puritanical streak running through Wales, forming the spine of a culture based on non-conformist Protestantism, trade-unionism and the tightly-knit communities of the valleys where geography conspires to keep everyone in small villages. The Pulis family was never part of this narrow Protestant world, however. They lived in a sprawling city, part of a Maltese Catholic community within a larger and diverse immigrant society. Tony Pulis’s defensiveness is the reaction of an ostracised outsider, a man determined to show he is as good as the people who look down on him. Higginbotham says, “Pulis was unbelievable at uniting the players and supporters as one... [He] created a siege mentality. He’d say: ‘Look at this lot, they don’t want us in the league.’ I remember when we used to play against Arsenal, you could almost sense them thinking, ‘What the hell are you doing on the same pitch as me?’ That was the impression you got.” At Stoke, Pulis did not simply build a defensive team, he encouraged a painfully thin-skinned, defensive world view.
Malta is a small Mediterranean island with a history of blockades and sieges. Their language, although it now has many Italian loan words, is descended from Siculo-Arabic, a fact Anthony Burgess makes great play of in his novel Earthly Powers: Malta is the only self-styled Christian nation that prays to Allah. The Maltese are conservative in the sense that they are staunchly Roman Catholic, but also because they are opposed to the idea of revolution, which they associate with atheism and French revolutionary imperialism. Zabbar unites these two strands: it is a city devoted to the Madonna and a bastion of resistance to the French occupation of 1798-1800. The Maltese are world-wise, independent and tough, however, like Sardinians, Corsicans and Sicilians. In the 20th century, Maltese immigrants to Wales gained a reputation as pimps because the dockland shebeens and brothels were often run by Maltese families. In 1936, when Angelo was a child, the sociologist Kenneth Little made a study of a shebeen owned by a Maltese man named Louis Fenech in the nearby port of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. Fenech’s place was on Bute Street, one of many operations that posed as cafés in order to stay open later than the pubs. At this time, according to Little’s figures, Tiger Bay held 10,000 people of whom 6,000 were classified as ‘non-white’, including Somalians, West Africans and West Indians, with the majority being Arab. The remaining population was also predominantly immigrant, including Maltese, Irish and Sicilian. Alcohol was served in back rooms to visiting sailors and locals, with piano music and local Welsh ‘café girls’ who could be taken to the rooms above. Little’s study is quoted in a biography of Shirley Bassey by the Welsh writer, John Williams, and Williams says that Pill was a very similar kind of place. Tiger Bay has long since been demolished, but the geography and culture of Pill remains intact, though the area may be more deprived today than in Pulis’s childhood. Recent police raids have discovered amphetamine factories and wholesale quantities of heroin and cocaine as well as firearms.
The siege mentality that Higginbotham talks about may reflect a Maltese islander’s world view or the experience of being the child of second generation immigrants at a time when Maltese immigrants would be pre-judged by ‘respectable’ society. For Pulis, the essence of team spirit lies in working together to put one over on the snobs from better addresses. The team is a place of selflessness, loyalty and, above all, a family spirit. Family is a prime virtue for Pulis, but it is coloured by pain and sacrifice. Pulis famously left his mother’s deathbed to drive to Stoke, reaching the grounds at half-time to rally the side to a hard-won victory and receiving an ovation from the home fans. His last days at Stoke were overshadowed by the death of an infant grandchild and, after leaving Palace, he has said that unemployment has offered the chance to play an active role in the care of another grandchild. Pulis draws his friends into his family. Ian Holloway, a fellow apprentice at Bristol Rovers, is godfather to Pulis’s son. Pulis bought a home in Poole to be close to Harry Redknapp, who encouraged Pulis’s coaching ambitions at Bournemouth. When Redknapp left Bournemouth in 1990, Pulis stepped up to manager from his role as player/coach.
Pulis joined Stoke in 2002 where, he says, he came to see Peter Coates, a board member and one-time owner of Stoke, as a surrogate father. Angelo died in the late nineties, at a time when Pulis was specialising in bad career choices. He became embroiled in a court case with Gillingham and endured rocky times at Bristol City and Portsmouth before spending two years out of work. His task at Stoke was to avoid relegation from the second flight. Pulis turned the club into a solid second-tier side but left after falling out with the club’s Icelandic owners. When the Icelandic financial crisis gave Peter Coates an opportunity to take back control of Stoke, Pulis was asked to return. It proved a successful partnership. Stoke were promoted, rebuilt and turned into a Premier League side that came close to winning the FA Cup and had a respectable run in Europe in 2011-12. It is odd for a man in his forties to talk of surrogate fathers, but Pulis and Coates were extremely close. It was painful when Coates asked Pulis to move on in May 2013, although Pulis refuses to voice any criticism. When asked about the breakdown of the relationship, Pulis would only say, characteristically, that Coates was invited to his daughter’s wedding. To Pulis, that said everything.
In retrospect, the season in Europe was Pulis’s downfall. He needed a larger squad, but created one filled with more or less similar players, intended to double up positions rather than introduce flexibility and variety. These factors became critical almost immediately. The 2012-13 season was a time of failed bids and tight budgets as older players could not easily be moved on. Stoke skirted relegation and divisions opened in the boardroom as Pulis clashed with the CEO, Tony Scholes, over transfer budgets. Pulis tried to regain the initiative by producing a report on how European clubs built effective youth academies. The sight of Pulis at Athletic of Bilbao and Bayer Leverkusen led to rumours that he intended to work abroad. The report came too late: Peter Coates and his son John sacked Pulis before he finished writing his study. His account of how he delivered the final copies reveals much about Pulis’s connection to the Coates family. He said, “I’ve done my report, Peter Coates will look at it, and I’m sure John Coates will look at it, too.” Pulis may have seen Coates as a father-figure, but he had a more distant relation with the Coates children. By this point, the ear of the father was no longer enough. The wealth of the Coates family did not flow downwards from the catering company owned by Peter, but upwards from the online betting site, Bet365, created by his daughter, Denise Coates. The Coates family wealth is now underwritten by the business genius of Denise, who owns a large majority of Bet365 stock. It is Bet365 that owns Stoke and although Denise does not sit on the board, John (her closest business associate) and her husband, Richard Smith, do.
The Stoke board felt that Pulis was not the man to see through the restructuring of the club and the bloated, bottle-necked squad that had emerged through the run in Europe. Perhaps, too, a family business saw no need for a prickly and thin-skinned adoptive son. However, the perception outside of the club was that Pulis had been sacked because Stoke wanted to play a new kind of football. Pulis was negative and ugly; perhaps it was time for romance and beauty.
Pulis left Stoke on 21 May 2013. When Holloway resigned from Palace on October 23, Pulis was the natural choice. Yet the perception that Pulis was ‘negative’ unsettled the Palace supporters. Palace is a relatively new club, but the fans feel strongly that it has a ‘south London’ identity. A little cheeky, youthful and bright – perhaps as far from a dour northern English club as one could imagine. The fact that Pulis is neither northern nor English was not relevant. He had managed Stoke for so long, the sense was that he and Stoke were indivisible and the supposed shortcomings of his game came under renewed scrutiny. It is easy enough to find videos of Pulis screaming, ‘Get it up!’ from the touchline, a reminder that Stoke favoured a long-ball game. He was criticised by the Fulham midfielder Danny Murphy for fostering a brutal spirit in his team talks, which Murphy argued led directly to reckless and savage tackles. In response, Pulis released a six-minute scripted defence that began, as Pulis statements often do, with a combative and facetious cliché about ‘not letting the facts get in the way of a good story’. He produced a few cherry-picked facts of his own that, he felt, showed Stoke were no more responsible for bad tackles than other teams. The bottom line for Pulis, however, was that football is a contact sport. This is debatable. It is impossible to imagine a football match without physical contact, but no one believes that football is essentially a contact sport: the point is to play the ball. Pulis ended his statement with an ad hominem attack on Murphy, claiming that he was too aware of his career to attack the big clubs and preferred to lash out at easy targets like Stoke. It was a reprise of the Pulis team talk: they look down on us, they think we shouldn’t be here.
If Stoke City was a family, it could be an unhappy one. The striker James Beattie forced an internal inquiry after Pulis burst out of a shower to remonstrate with him: a naked Pulis is said to have head-butted Beattie. When Pulis came into conflict with his players, he would plant his version of events in local papers while insisting the secrecy of the dressing-room remained inviolable, or so one-time Stoke player Dave Kitson claimed. However, the key charge against Pulis was always his style of play: a determination never to lose rather than a desire to win. Higginbotham gives a succinct account of Pulis’s strategy at Stoke. The four defenders are extremely narrow, ‘holding hands’ in Higginbotham’s words. This unit is augmented by two sitting midfield players, which leaves the wingers to cover the space vacated by the narrow defence: “They had to be the fittest people in the team,” Higginbotham says. Pulis drilled his narrow six-man defence in passing to the side if they had one-touch, and crossing diagonally if they had two.
Steve Parish was a fan of Crystal Palace long before he became one of its owners, which makes him unusually sensitive to the club’s sense of identity. Born in 1965, he saw the club achieve highs and lows under the inspirational managers Terry Venables and Steve Coppell. He took control of the club in 2010 by taking them out of administration, the third time Palace had faced oblivion in 20 years. In many ways, the south London-born businessman embodies the Palace ethos: he is direct, open and more than a little flash. His company, Tag, became a market leader in high-end printing at a time at a time when technology was changing the industry in unpredictable ways. Parish kept ahead of the innovations and, more crucially, built up trust with his clients. Tag works across London’s advertising agencies, which means anything that happens in the industry passes through Tag’s offices: every new pitch and every new campaign. Parish made sure the agencies trusted him by making himself as transparent and as available as they needed him to be.
Parish and his three fellow directors took control of Palace by buying the ground from one set of administrators and the club from another. Like Parish, Steve Browett of Farr Vintners bought out a company that he had joined at low-level position: Browett was once a van driver. Martin Long is the founder of both Direct Line and Churchill insurance brands. Jeremy Hosking is a financier, owner of the investment fund Marathon. His main hobby is running steam trains. It is unusual, today, for an owner to double up as CEO, but Parish’s inexperienced partners have placed their trust in him. Parish sold Tag around the time he took over Palace and so had time to devote to football. In an interview with the stock market tipster Nick Batsford he spoke about wanting the fans to have high expectations, because that would challenge him to do better. It is a philosophy based on the power of positive thinking.
At his first meeting with his new Palace players, the Telegraph reported that Pulis said he was proud of never being relegated. Yet at the press conference, just a few hours later, Pulis is trying to put a different spin on his career. It is others who speak of him as a fire fighter, he claims. They say he is the man who has never been relegated, but he has also been promoted from every league he has worked in: “I’ve been pretty successful, given the opportunity and given the chance.” A journalist points out that, true as that may be, the job at Palace is not to get relegated. Pulis accepts this, and begins talking about getting past Christmas in order to “wheel and deal” in the transfer window. To many Palace fans, it appeared the club had already traded in their ideals. They hoped the team would stay up, but anticipated a year of tetchy defensive football, punctuated by long balls from both crosses and throw-ins.
Then the miracle happened.
Crystal Palace won three of the next six matches. The position began to stabilise. Pulis endeared himself to fans through simple measures like introducing modern diets, yoga and a longer day that included an afternoon training session run by Pulis. When he was required to give interviews, he began to schedule them over breakfast at the club, as early as six and seven in the morning. He had learnt to play to his strengths, as he already did in training. It was all about show not tell. Why get snarled up with language? It was enough to show he worked harder, longer and stayed fitter than any other Premier League manager. Palace fans noted the way he gave press conferences standing up. It implied energy and direction.
In a season in which so many teams were facing relegation troubles, Crystal Palace began to look like they might edge to safety. They reached 31 points in style, beating Chelsea at the end of March 2014. A week before, it had seemed likely that Chelsea’s José Mourinho would sneak the Premier League title but that day, the so-called Special One was undone by the Other One, the dark horse, Tony Pulis. It is worth noting that Mourinho and Pulis share a staunchly Catholic, conservative background and a commitment to a counter-attacking game. Crystal Palace was built around defence and, like his old Stoke side, there was a strong tall target man in Marouane Chamakh. But the goalkeeper Julian Speroni was in the form of his life, Mile Jedinak, the midfielder and captain, was emerging as a great leader and Palace had a truly fit and fast winger in Jason Puncheon. The other players grew in confidence as the season went on, which allowed Pulis to play a more mobile game. It is a very similar set-up to Mourinho’s Chelsea and, with weaker players, Pulis could claim to be the real master of the style. Happily, the Palace fans saw it as a quintessentially English way of playing the game, rather than conservative and Mediterranean. Moreover, they saw it as a south London style, a sturdy back four with great wingers who could carry out ‘smash-and-grab’ raids on the ‘mugs’ they came up against. As the victories began to pile up, the Palace fans rejoiced in criminal slang. In their way, of course, Palace were just as honest as the Stoke side described by Higginbotham. But now they were honestly larcenous. At times they were winning matches with only 26% of possession. They passed the traditional safety mark of 40 points on April 16 when they beat Everton at Goodison Park but their greatest game was the draw against Liverpool on 5 May 2014. Crystal Palace spent the last 10 minutes repeatedly mugging Liverpool, overturning the three-goal lead that Liverpool had painfully built. Palace fans were not celebrating the goals as they went in – they were laughing.
Pulis seemed to have transcended his old negative ways and found a positive style that the fans believed represented the real Crystal Palace. Football lovers everywhere were talking about Palace as exciting and cutting-edge in a way they hadn’t for more than 20 years. In football, the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are used in the same way as self-help books or, for that matter, management guides. The aim of positive thinking is to create and build upon success. In the interview Steve Parish gave to Nick Batsford for the online channel Tip TV, Parish spoke about the importance of aspirations and said his golden rule was to find a business with potential to grow. If an industry puts limits on your ambitions, you can only stagnate once you hit them. On screen, Parish was as warm and straightforward as ever. He knew the names of everyone at Palace, staff and players alike, and spoke with the excitement of a fan. He and Batsford gushed, reminisced and swapped stats, by which they meant favourite results and unusual facts. As the name Tip TV implied, it was an interview addressed to punters, which served as a reminder that Pulis had flourished on the other side of the counter, among bookmakers. Denise Coates turned around a small local Potteries’ bookmakers chain owned by her father, doubled it in size, then mortgaged it to build Bet365. She is a trained mathematician. In her world, stats means data: not stand-alone facts but reams of figures that can be crunched, compared and analysed. To a bookmaker, taking a positive approach means hard-headed analysis, not dreaming about the future, crossing one’s fingers or rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot.
The paradox is that what we call positive and negative thinking in everyday conversation is the opposite to the way these terms are used in the philosophy of science. Positivism is a strategy focused upon whatever can be known and controlled, while reducing the risks in areas that are opaque or speculative. In this sense, the defensive, counter-attacking football that Pulis brought to Palace is positive. A team can always prepare a defence and plan strategies that are likely to harry or upset an opponent, forcing players to make mistakes. In contrast, a strategy based upon free-flowing attack will always depend upon a measure of wishful thinking. A romantic game deals with hopes and aspirations; in philosophy, this is the work of the negative, which is to say, of things that do not yet exist. The cavalier, like the punter, is a day-dreamer. Roundheads, like bookmakers, have the edge because they have minimised risk.
Pulis is tense, uncomfortable in his own skin, inarticulate, combative. No one would say that he doesn’t have baggage. Sitting beside Steve Parish, who supplied an upbeat and open response to every question, Pulis looked his worst: thin-skinned, dour, prickly. A roundhead. But as the idiom goes, the roundheads are the ones who are right.