Yesterday afternoon, the Premier League’s managerial merry-go-round took another swing, it’s most brutal and cruel to date, with the sacking of Tony Pulis as Stoke City boss, making him the tenth coaching casualty of the 2012/2013 in the season. It’s a shocking indictment on the current state of affairs in the English game that Alan Pardew has somehow emerged as the top flight’s second longest-serving manager behind Arsene Wenger – and the axe could have easily been wielded at the Frenchman had Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League.
It appears, in the case of Stoke at least but not necessarily exclusively to the Potters, that a phenomena I like to call ‘the Curbishley complex’ has crept in amongst the fans. Being a Charlton fan myself, I come with a stark warning to any middle-order Premier League club that you should always be careful what you wish for when there is a demand from the stands to change things up in the manager department.
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Let me take you back to the 2003/2004 season; the Addicks finished up 7th in the Premier League, just a matter of points off European qualification. The small club from South London, still with a stadium that had a maximum capacity of 27,000, had one man to thank for getting them to the dizziest heights in their history since the 1940’s – Alan Curbishley. It took the former West Ham boss 13 years to get the Red Robins to such a level, a tenure mixed with successes, failure, false starts and stalling seasons, in addition to a continual defiance of a lack of resources and financial backing.
Everyone at the Valley owed everything to Curbishley, yet it took just two simple seasons of sliding back into mid-table mediocrity, finishing up in 11th and 13th consecutively, hardly a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, for the former Birmingham midfielder’s fan base to quickly turn sour. Curbishley’s final words to the fans upon deciding to terminate his contract a year early – ” I’d rather be clapped out of the front door than booed out the back” – were poignantly telling of how the supporters he’d worked so hard for were beginning to turn against him.
Choruses of “curbishley out” had not been ringing around the stadium, at least not on a regular basis, however, theories over new management, new players and a new approach were rife. The Charlton faithful had taken safety from relegation as granted, and grown bored with the lack of excitement in continually finishing up in the gap between the European contenders and those battling to maintain their Premier League status.
The parallels with Stoke City are plain to see. Since their promotion from the Championship under Tony Pulis in 2008, the Potters have continually finished up in mid-table, with their highest standing being 11th from their inaugural Premier League season, and their lowest being 14th from the campaign previous. Furthermore throughout their progress into the top flight, Stoke have had a single manager at the helm, carrying with him a distinct style, and there are further comparisons to be made in terms of finance and fan base in regards to Charlton.
Despite starting the 2012/2013 season strongly, losing just three times in their first twenty league fixtures, the Potters suddenly found themselves in ‘free-fall’, plummeting quickly towards the relegation zone and still a handful of points shy from the all-important 40 point benchmark.
Suddenly, everything at the Britannia Liberty stadium was being scrutinised, and every ameliorative annotation of Pulis’ reign had morphed overnight into negative descriptions – Stoke’s defensive long-ball style had changed from being boring but neccessary into becoming ineffective and morally subversive, the players had transformed from cult heroes into a cast of Championship quality footballers and over 30s hasbeens, and the manager himself was no longer praised for his crucial eye for detail and obsessive organisation, but rather criticised for being overly cautious and lacking in imagination.
It’s amazing how a matter of games can entirely change the perspective of a chairman, the fans and the outside world. The dip in form, starting with hefty defeats to Man City and Chelsea, have essentially cost Tony Pulis his job, despite leading Stoke to finish a place higher in the table than they did last season, and having never been relegated throughout his seven year tenure at the Britannia Stadium. Just like Curbishley seven years previous, it seems the Welshman’s only crime is not pushing the club beyond its means; playing it safe and resisting the urge for progress.
The question now is where will Stoke go from here? The fact their squad is geared towards a single methodology and that many of the players are now reaching veteran age is nothing new, yet the club have now axed the only man who has been making the difficult situation work over the past five years.
The fans are calling for change on an institutional proportion, but considering Stoke as a location, as a club in terms of their resources, supporter base and how much more they can actually achieve, in addition to the current situation in the Premier League, with a host of vacancies needing to be filled in the summer, including Everton, Chelsea, Manchester City, not to mention potential openings at Swansea City, Newcastle and Fulham depending on the twists and turns of the off-season, you feel it will be slim pickings in terms of managers Chairman Peter Coates can actually attract to the Britannia Stadium. Furthermore, instead of being in a position to take advantage of the stability and consistency Pulis could have provided next season amid a campaign set to be the most unpredictable yet due to significant changes at the summit of the Premier League, the Potters will now be caught up in the mix.
Always be careful what you wish for; 13th place is much closer to the relegation zone than it is European qualification, and more likely that a new managerial appointment will veer towards the former rather than the latter in their first season, especially if they are to administer wholesale changes to the club in terms of structure, philosophy and personnel. It was a risk that did not pay off for Charlton – the hiring of Ian Dowie backfired, with the former Crystal Palace boss wasting the club’s funds on an excessive number of new recruits, all with limited quality, plummeting the Addicks into debt, and triggering two relegations in the space of three years.
I’m not suggesting Stoke will be playing League One football any time soon, although it is worth mentioning that Wolves have shared a similar fate since Mick McCarthy was relieved of his duties back in 2012. Yet the club have axed the one man to thank for their successes in Tony Pulis, a man who did nothing wrong except for having half a season of unacceptable form, and he has now been swept aside for the sake of change, despite change in this case easily representing more risk than reward.
Peter Coates has a tough task ahead of him in finding an adequate replacement for his outgoing manager, and will have to take lessons from the demise of Charlton Athletic. Whether he appoints the right man or the wrong man will spell boom or bust for Stoke City next season, however firing Pulis in my opinion was always a risk not worth taking.