At times it was difficult to know whether Tony Pulis was mounting a robust defence of his record, or just determined to get in a few pre-emptive strikes in the event he loses his job at West Bromwich Albion and is restricted to a carefully-worded statement that denies him the chance to say what he really thinks about his achievements at the club.
Either way, Pulis clearly recognises the end of his near three-year reign could be close after a wretched run that has delivered only two victories from the past 20 league games, leaving West Brom one place above the teams in the relegation zone and prompting supporters to turn on him during the 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town before the international break.
The feeling within The Hawthorns is that Pulis could be on the brink if there is more of the same disquiet – in particular in the stands – at home against Chelsea on Saturday, when Guochuan Lai, the club’s owner, will be looking on from the directors’ box after arriving from China for a visit that was scheduled six weeks ago but now feels rather timely.
Lai will lean heavily on John Williams, West Brom’s experienced chairman, when it comes to any decision, with Pulis honest enough to admit that sacking him would not be unfair on the back of his worst run of results for 13 years. From Pulis’s perspective, however, there is a broader picture and, armed with a few facts and figures, the 59-year-old set about dealing with the criticism that has come his way.
“If I left tomorrow I’d put my record on the table and put it in front of anybody and see what they think of what I’ve done here in three years,” Pulis said. “Yes, we’re on a bad run and everything is determined by the next game – no one ever looks back and sees there was Samaras, Varela, Pocognoli, Gamboa – 11 players were bought that summer [before he took over mid-season] and not one made a profit. I inherited those players and we finished 13th that year.”
There was plenty more where that came from. “Last season was only the third time in history this club has finished 10th in the Premier League. It’s only the second time since 1967 this club has finished the top Midlands club.
“We’ve played kids in this group since I’ve come in. They’ve made 89 appearances, the youngsters, and again no one else has done that. The record goes on and on and on.
“I understand. The more you give, the more people want. We brought in a lot of good players, players we hoped would gel straight away, and we’ve been unfortunate. [Nacer] Chadli, [James] Morrison and [Oliver] Burke are all players who can create and score, and we’ve not had them. Like every team, if you don’t have your best players, especially at the top end of the pitch, you’re going to struggle.
“People say the football’s been boring. The last two games at The Hawthorns have seen nine goals scored. Look at the league, there are four or five teams who have scored fewer goals than us. And one of those is my hometown club Bournemouth, and everyone tells me what great football Bournemouth play and Eddie’s done a fantastic job down there.”
Pulis went on to claim “expectations have gone through the roof” as he rowed back as far as 2005, when Bryan Robson pulled off what became known as the great escape, to make another point. “This club has fought relegation battles to the last days. They’ve had supporters carrying managers round the pitch on the last game of the season because of results going for them and kept them up. In the three years I’ve been here this club has been nowhere near getting relegated.”
It was a passionate and defiant response to questions about his future, and fair in some respects yet dubious in others, starting with the notion Chadli’s unavailability through injury has been a factor in the malaise – Pulis has been reluctant to play the Belgian when fit. Reporters were also left scratching their heads at the idea that youngsters had made 89 appearances under his watch, before eventually coming to the conclusion that the games played by Saido Berahino, an academy graduate who had already been called up to the England squad when Pulis was appointed, must be included in that number.
As for the theory that seeing nine goals flying in at The Hawthorns in the last two games provides some sort of counterargument to criticism of his style of football, Pulis neglected to mention five were scored by the opposition. Not only that but it will take much more than 180 minutes of football to persuade disgruntled fans entertainment is suddenly high on Pulis’s agenda, especially as in the first of those two matches, against Watford, West Brom were time-wasting from the start of the second half.
The past decade provides a more reliable barometer of Pulis’s approach. Over the course of 10 seasons with Stoke City, Crystal Palace and West Brom, Pulis has been manager for 321 Premier League games and seen his team score only 319 times – 157 of them via set pieces. In all but one of those seasons, the team that Pulis was in charge of registered the fewest number of passes in the division.
West Brom knew what they were getting in that respect – the statistics barely change season to season – but the board at the time, and to an extent the supporters, were willing to tolerate Pulis’s defensive and prosaic brand of football in order to keep them in the Premier League in the 2014-15 season. Beyond that it always felt like a question of when, not if, an uneasy alliance would come to an end. The big problem with Pulis’s football – as Stoke discovered towards the end of his reign there – is that everything is dependent on results, so when the narrow victories become draws and the draws become defeats, it is a fairly joyless experience.
The frustration this season is compounded because of a feeling Pulis is working with the best squad West Brom have assembled in the Premier League era, after more than £40m was spent in the summer to bring in Burke, Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs and Gareth Barry among others as well as Grzegorz Krychowiak on loan.
The bottom line is that something has to change, either on the pitch or in the dugout, to lift the mood. The dilemma for the board is Pulis has never been relegated during 25 years in management, which is why he got the job in the first place. Whether that is a good enough reason to stick with him now is another matter.
“I know the game, I know the score,” Pulis said. “I will speak to the Chinese, I’ll speak to John. I’ll get a feeling from them. It’s not about Tony Pulis, it’s about the club and the team and everything that surrounds it.”