As 2018 draws to its conclusion, it’s not exactly been the happiest of ways to end a year that started with promise, if not excitement.
Tony Pulis has been, and always will be a divisive figure. His arrival was met with a mixture of applause and the fan reacting equivalent of rotten tomatoes being thrown. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and will often rub you up the wrong way with his football, and sometimes his words too, but what he does give you is a no nonsense, honest approach to football management.
What you see is most definitely what you get. No smoke and mirrors, no dull management handbook clichés often trotted out by Garry Monk in his time with us (anyone remember that?).
His style of football at times leaves a lot to be desired, although I do think that depends on the personnel he has to hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the introduction of Lionel Messi or Neymar would have him playing Samba style football, but he’s a boss who gets what he can from the players he has at his disposal (for the most part).
A well shared stat was put out yesterday that stated Boro had picked up more Championship points than any other team in the division over the last 12 months. Of course, the three promoted teams from last time out are hindered a little given they’ve now gone up a division (although Wolves do continue to impress in the Premier League), however the figures prove that under Pulis Boro generally get the job done when coming up against their league rivals.
That all being said though, recent weeks have shown that when his football isn’t effective, there’s little left to cheer.
When Boro took all three points away at Brentford in late November, they were sat inside the top two. At this point, Pulis and his side were digging out results and being very effective in how they went about their business, yet this would soon start to unravel.
Following the home debacle to Aston Villa and the equally depressing away defeat to QPR a couple of weeks later, the mood had changed. The knives were being sharpened; his critics were out in force. Slipping further away from the top two, eight points in fact, Boro were in the midst of a worrying run of form, and performances on the pitch did little to encourage.
But that was ok; we still had the small matter of a Quarter Final tie in the Carabao Cup to look forward to. Plucky Burton Albion were our opponents, League One minnows, surely the absolute ideal opposition for a safe passage to the prestige of a Semi-Final?
You would think so anyway, except we didn’t bank on being defeated, that was unthinkable.
Yet it happened.
The magnitude of such a defeat, coupled with the poor league form brought things into sharp focus – was Pulis the right man for the job?
Crazy really given the position we’d been only weeks previous, yet as proved, when the results aren’t coming there’s not much to write home about under a Pulis side, albeit one severely lacking in vital areas (of which he has made clear on a number of occasions).
Even the win away at Reading a few days later did little to temper frustrations. A less than convincing performance against the Championship strugglers hardly whet the appetite, but did show a return to the effective, if not exciting nature to Pulis’ teams.
But that only staved off the critics for a few days. They were back in full force, and understandably so as Boro went down at home on Boxing Day, in front of the biggest crowd likely to be seen all season at The Riverside, losing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday.
The cacophony boos on the final whistle left The Welshman under no illusions (not that he was already) that he had a job on his hands to turn the mood around, to win back fans who at this point were totally disengaged with him and his management style.
Saturday’s victory at home to Ipswich has repaired some damage, but for others the damage is irreparable.
We all know that Steve Gibson has reacted badly in the past to fan unrest, often choosing times where crowds are dipping alarmingly and dissenting voices are aplenty to dispense of his managers, and it’s not totally inconceivable to think he could do the same again.
After all, there’s a clear divide amongst the Boro support right now, and recent losses, coupled with the lack of ambition in tactics won’t have done much to curry favour with those who make the decisions.
Yes, there are a fair few fans out there who would probably still be moaning if we were sat comfortably inside the top two, there’s no getting away from that, however we’re not and there’s a few, like myself, who are starting to empathise (if not totally agree) with those who are of a ‘Pulis Out’ persuasion.
The huge opportunity missed against Burton, in a cup competition that means a lot to us as fans and the Club, was real big blow. I can’t imagine the outcome of that game went down particularly well with Gibson; neither will the defeat on Boxing Day have done too.
A big, expectant, Christmas crowd will have been hoping to see a fully committed, purposeful team performance, but what they were presented and subjected to was an insipid, uninspiring and quite frankly awful display if you discount the first ten minutes or so.
These two instances were massive opportunities for Pulis to try and turn the tide somewhat, yet they were passed up in the most wasteful of fashions.
Given the stakes on offer against Burton, and the morale to be gained from a positive result against Wednesday, the lack of ambition was bordering on criminal, especially against the managerless South Yorkshire outfit.
Results such as those can bring on a tidal wave of criticism even at the best of times, such is the symbolic nature of them, but when you’re in the midst of what feels like a bit of a rut these are the sorts of occasions where you can quickly change the mood.
Worryingly, Pulis opted to play it safe, watching his tactics backfire.
And yet we still find ourselves 5th, nestled relatively comfortably four points ahead of Birmingham in 7th – funny old game, eh?
Whilst I wouldn’t say Pulis is living a charmed life right now, he’s hardly sitting pretty either.
As we all predicted early doors, January is a big, big month for Boro, and for Pulis. It’s almost become too pivotal; to the point that no matter what business is conducted there’ll always be some who feel we’re still too short.
Those who are calling for Pulis’ head – I hear you and to some extent I agree with the sentiment of your arguments, although my outcome to those isn’t to sack the manager.
Yes the football has been less than impressive of late, it’s been dire actually. Ok, we’ve lost a quarter final rather embarrassingly as well as disappointed at home more often than not of late. Team selection has seen ambition passed over in favour of guarded and overly cautious football; it’s not been good, not by a long chalk.
However, if we’re being fair (which I’d like to think we are), Pulis did kind of predict that this is where we’d be at this point. He told us that he felt the squad he’d got at the end of the summer window(s) wasn’t strong enough, and perhaps at some stage we’d start to see that- and we have.
We’re lacking in behind the front men, we’re lacking out wide. We’ve lost the pace of Adama Traore, that ability to turn defence into attack within a matter of seconds. There’s nobody to unpick the locks, and that includes Martin Braithwaite who has shown recently all the hallmarks of someone who feels the only lock they wish to unpick is the one that gets him away from Teesside.
The Boro boss has insisted time after time that he needs reinforcements in these areas. I feel it’s right that he ought to have the chance to bring in what he needs, because for whatever reason in the summer he was denied the opportunity to bring in the players to fit the bill.
Should he bring them in over the next month or so and we still fail to see any progression in league position, performance and tactics, then at the season’s end I think we’d all agree he’ll have had ample opportunity. The consensus would rightly be that he’s had his chance, had the tools yet failed to get the best from them.
Nobody would have any grievance if he was shown the door, not even the man himself you’d feel.
But what about if we do see progression in league position, performance and tactics? What if we do challenge the top two, our home form improving with the Pulis machine starting to churn out result after result?
All big ‘ifs’ I understand, but it’s as much of a possibility as anything else.
So I say let’s give Pulis the width and creativity he craves this January, let’s see what he can do with it. It already seems like we’ve made headway with Rajiv Van La Parra almost over the line and we haven’t entered 2019 yet.
I honestly feel if he doesn’t get the players then the Club needs to look at itself and its recruitment process (if it isn’t already), but if he does get the players, then I feel only then can we truly judge Tony Pulis and his time on Teesside, and that judgement should be made in May, not now.
There half a season left, Pulis rescued us last season and there’s no reason why he can’t reignite us this time round.
Keep the faith.
Up The Boro and a Happy New Year to All.