We are sitting in what is called the classroom at Crystal Palace’s training ground and Tony Pulis smiles as I remind him that Arsene Wenger has suggested he should become Manager of the Year.
“Yeah, it’s very nice for Wenger, Jose Mourinho and people of that ilk to mention my name,” he says. “But it’s not for me to decide.”
The facts speak for themselves. Palace had just seven points when Pulis took charge of his first game on November 30. They were 33-1 against staying up and no club bottom of the Premier League at the end of November had previously finished higher than 17th. Palace are destined to end the season in 11th.
Last night’s incredible comeback to draw 3-3 with Liverpool was one of a number of stunning results in recent weeks, including a 1-0 win against Chelsea and a 3-2 victory over an Everton side who had won seven on the trot.
While Palace have clearly profited from Pulis, he has benefited too.
In seven years at Stoke he made them an established Premier League club and led them to their first FA Cup Final but the team’s very direct style of play meant praise was in short supply.
Palace’s resurgence has changed that. “[Coming to Palace] has given me an opportunity to show I’m not just a one-dimensional coach or person,” he says. “When we looked at the players we had at Palace and the system that we felt would suit the players, we came to realise that, if we were going to do it, we had to play very different to Stoke in lots of respects.
“We didn’t have a target man, we didn’t have someone we could play off. So, yeah we had to change it round to suit the players. Looking at it now, it’s most probably the best thing that happened.
“We never got the plaudits we deserved at Stoke. But I go to bed every night quite happy with what we achieved at that club and coming to Palace has most probably washed all that negativity away and opened me up to something different.”
Pulis succeeded Ian Holloway, a friend of nearly 40 years going back to their playing days at Bristol Rovers and godfather to his son. Despite that, Pulis says there was no issue in taking the job and his friend even helped him.
“It was not difficult at all. Ollie had spoken to me a couple of times and said he expected Steve Parish to try and convince me to come there. He went through the club, went through the players, went through the system.”
Helped by this unusual tutorial from his predecessor, it did not take long for Pulis to work out the strengths and weaknesses of the group.
“The squad was far, far too big. So we moved quite a few players out. In the first month we moved something like 15 players out. The bonus was there were good characters in the dressing room: Paddy McCarthy, Mile Jedinak, Glenn Murray, Daniel Gabbidon, Julian Speroni, really good pros. So there was a base to work on.
But it is getting the best out of Marouane Chamakh, who Holloway had brought on a one-year deal from Arsenal last August, that gives Pulis real satisfaction. He says: “There was a lot of negativity with Chamakh when I came. There were a lot of players, a lot of staff who, for whatever reason, weren’t convinced that he was the right person. I thought he was brilliant and could play in the system that we wanted; play behind the centre forward, lock into midfield and give us that quality you need in the Premier League. I knew Cameron Jerome anyway from Stoke, so the two of them have linked in and played very, very well together.”
And while Tom Ince, one of his January signings has not had much of a look in, he is convinced the midfielder will thrive. “Ince will be a top Premier League player. He’s been unfortunate really because Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon have played so well, they’ve kept him out of the team. He’s got great ability and he’s a smashing lad as well.”
Palace will enter uncharted territory next term as this is the first time the club have survived more than a season in the Premier League.
Pulis has worked miracles at Selhurst Park but, despite this season’s success, he knows the club are at a crossroads.
“When you have a look at the conurbation of this area, 950,000 people live here,” he says. “It’s the most densely populated area in London and it should have a successful Premier League club. And it hasn’t. So what we’ve got to do is make sure that we put that right over the next four or five years. For Palace to be a permanent fixture of the Premier League, the club have to decide which way they’re going to go. They have to invest in the infrastructure. It is well behind what is necessary for a top Premier League club.Decisions: Pulis will meet Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish this week for talks
“Every department you look at is not geared for what Premier League football is about at the moment. But it takes time. You can’t do it overnight. The important thing is that they stay in the Premier League for the next two or three years and reinvest the money wisely in the infrastructure to build a proper football club that the supporters can hang on to for the rest of their lives.”
But can Palace hang on to their manager? There has been talk that Pulis might leave if he does not get a £30 million summer transfer kitty.
“Don’t believe the press,” says Pulis with a laugh, “That is not enough.”
However, when I ask him about his contract, there is a hint co-chairman Parish will have to come up with concrete long-term plans about the club’s future if he wants to keep Pulis.
The two men are set to meet either tomorrow or on Thursday for talks. He says: “I have two years left now but you have to have a plan in place. That’s most probably the biggest thing that me and Steve will talk about when we sit down.”
Following Holloway’s resignation in October, Parish spent nearly a month wooing Pulis, met him three times and even visited him at his home in Bournemouth.
Pulis, who was enjoying working for Five Live, consulted widely before deciding to follow Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice not Harry Redknapp’s.
“Sir Alex felt the club had potential with a good catchment area for young players and needed someone like myself to get my teeth into it,” says Pulis. “Harry thought that I’d have to be a bit careful. He mentioned the fact he’d taken over at Queens Park Rangers where there was chaos. The players he’d been left with were on massive money and big, long contracts.
“He was stuck at QPR with a lot of players he didn’t want. He said, ‘If you’re going into Palace, can you move players out? Or will you be stuck with those players?’”
When Pulis took charge, Palace were six points behind Cardiff but it was the Welsh club who were relegated on Saturday. Cardiff chairman Vincent Tan fell out with his manager Malky Mackay in the autumn — when Pulis was still on the market — before sacking him in December.
I ask the 56-year-old, born and brought up in South Wales, would he not have preferred to rescue Cardiff?
“If Cardiff had been available and if you’re saying would you have spoken to Cardiff, I would have spoken to them.”
But Tan never rang and their loss was Palace’s gain.