Are times a-changing down at Stoke City?
With very, very sincere apologies to Charles Dickens and Professor Hutcherson at the University of Georgia
In Hard Times, Charles Dickens’s great novel about utilitarian football in Victorian Stoke-on-Trent, the character who best encompasses personal asceticism, utilitarianism, and the dry, factual approach to football is Mr. Anthony Pulis.
In fact such is his adherence to utilitarianism in football that he has a style of play, Pulisball, named after him and invents ‘The Cage’ in which two of his players are condemned to live out a tedious existence in perpetuity. Indeed, Pulis himself is thought to believe the apogee of his footballing philosophy was the season that has since become known as ‘The Binary Season’ such was his strict adherence to scores involving only 1s and 0s. Although those supporters of his methods could equally point to Mr Peter Crouch’s splendidly volleyed goal against Manchester City last season as arguably the perfect example of Pulis’s utilitarian methods in that not once did the ball touch the ground on its very direct journey from Mr Begovic’s hand to the back of Mr Hart’s net.
In the opening section of the book Anthony Pulis is described as a no-nonsense, practical and pragmatic person with a personal mantra of ‘aaaaard work’, something in which his pupils at the Stoke-on-Trent Utilitarian academy were well versed. In physical appearance he is described as having an "obstinate carriage, tracksuit, baseball hat, square shoulders" (p.47). His practical, no-frills approach to life and football was conveyed to his players by his method of dispensing only hard, cold facts & statistics derived from his assistant, Mr Opta, who constantly monitored his players’ performances. His severe, regimented method neglected the need for improvisation, spontaneity and concepts involving art, beauty, and imagination. In Anthony Pulis’s world, Jon Walters’ ability to cover every single blade of grass at least twice in the course of a Premier League match is infinitely more important and thus worthy of selection than another player who passes the ball and scores goals.
His sparse, no-frills coaching style excluded such extravagances as ball skills, passing or shooting, all of which he considered frivolous and superfluous. He considered himself as saving Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington, both of whom he rescued from what he considered was the decadence of modern top flight football life and trained them in the proper, factual ways of Stoke.
To Pulis, entertainment such as passing the ball out from the back, backheels, step-overs, playing through the midfield are all non- utilitarian and are therefore superfluous and are to be excluded from every football match
The regimented, militaristic mentality of his training techniques in which he demands rote memorization of previously established training drills, produces, or attempts to produce, the football equivalent of mechanical robots; emotionless and mechanical, trained footballers who never question or wonder about the mysteries of ‘movement off the ball’ or ‘keeping possession’:
In other words, in direct contrast to the philosophy of Mr Brendan Rogers and the New Romantics; accept, don't question and never pass up an opportunity to take the most direct route to goal. Of course, all ‘aaard facts and data attained are a result of questioning the processes of football by other, more imaginative coaches. As any Barcelona player would tell you, football science is not a collection of facts, it is instead an interpretation of data derived from and based on the results of endless experimentation with a football at your feet.
Anthony Pulis as the embodiment of the philosophy of footballing utilitarianism is evident in his essentially noble belief that, as stated in utilitarianism, all actions should promote the general good-- all else is frivolous. Anything other than the necessary is to be excluded. "Would you paper a room with representations of horses?" (p.51) he asks during one half-time team talk. The answer he expects to hear is negative since horses are not seen on walls in actuality.
His democratic belief is in the greatest good for the greatest number and that an object or activity is valued only for its usefulness to survival. Hence the reason so many Stoke fans find so little joy in watching their team beyond the winning. To Pulis, entertainment such as passing the ball out from the back, backheels, step-overs, playing through the midfield are all non- utilitarian and are therefore superfluous and are to be excluded from every football match.
There are signs he is softening his beliefs and may evolve from strict adherence to ‘working ‘aaaard’ to the acceptance and realization of the necessity for imagination and experimentation
This dry, colorless and mechanically technical and sterile footballing world void of freshness and imagination was not the intention of the previous proponents of footballing utilitarianism at the Stoke-on-Trent academy, such as Sir Tony Waddington and Sir Lou Macari.
However, as the seasons and character of Pulis develop, there are signs he is softening his beliefs and may evolve from strict adherence to ‘working ‘aaaard’ to the acceptance and realization of the necessity for imagination and experimentation to be allowed to flourish in harmony with ‘aaaaaard work’.
The very first evidence of this is seen at 11pm on August 31st, as the Premier League summer transfer window closes, at the end of which Anthony Pulis has bought six midfielders all of whom have a reputation for being able to pass a football accurately, and some of whom have also been known to use skill and imagination to beat players, fashion chances and score goals.
It remains to be seen whether the sequel to Hard Times is Good Times or merely More Hard Times. We’ll have to wait to find out just how dramatic Anthony Pulis’s conversion to a more imaginative and sophisticated brand of football is, and whether he will trust his players to improvise, use their imagination, keep possession and even, whisper it quietly, play in their preferred position.
There is no doubt though that in the meantime we should celebrate and support Antony Pulis’s intent and be patient with the evolution of his philosophy.
However if the sequel is More Hard Times, then we will have at least learned one cold, hard, irrefutable fact: the manager cannot evolve his thinking and his tactics.
At which point there will be no other option than for the Chairman of the Board of Governors and Principal benefactor at Stoke-on-Trent Utilitarian Academy, The Venerable (and one hopes, romantically inclined) Mr Peter Coates to reward Anthony Pulis handsomely for all he has done for our beloved club and encourage him to retire with his record of having never been relegated registered in the record books as the kind of indisputable fact Anthony loves so dearly.
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