Long Read: Tony Pulis deserved more credit for the job he did at Middlesbrough despite negative approach
At the end of last season, the chances of Tony Pulis staying at Middlesbrough seemed slim.
The backlash towards the 61-year-old Welshman had hit an unsustainable level and patience had reached breaking point.
Boro finished just a point outside the play-off places yet it never felt like a promotion-chasing campaign. Supporters had become stick and tired of Pulis’ ‘negative tactics’ – but was it really all that bad?
Pulis advocates, not West Brom fans, used the phase ‘be careful what you wish for’ when his Boro predecessor Jonathan Woodgate made a sluggish start.
That statement looks even more apt now, with the Teessiders sitting 22nd in the Championship and winless in eight games.
Many Boro fans would agree the football last season was a mundane spectacle – only four teams in the Championship scored less goals than Pulis’ side and two of them, Ipswich and Bolton, were relegated.
There were groans and murmurs when the team sheet was released on matchday and showed a back five with four central midfielders in front of them.
It was hardly inspiring, yet Boro remained in the play-off mix throughout, and only dropped out after a six-game winless run in March.
Following his appointment in June Woodgate spoke about playing an ‘exciting, attacking’ style of football, but has since reverted to more defensive approach.
It begs the question, do Boro really have the players to play that way?
The squad has been unbalanced ever since that frantic summer spending spree following relegation from the Premier League in 2017 – a window Pulis has recently labelled ‘disastrous’.
Boro spent a reported £50million under Garry Monk, and while the former defender wasn’t solely to blame, the talk since then has been about cutting costs and abiding by Financial Fair Play regulations.
It was a regular topic of conversation for Pulis who repeatedly spoke about clubs like Nottingham Forest and Stoke City spending heavily.
There was some substance behind that – even if Pulis overhyped things by saying there was a '£100million deficit' between Boro and Forest.
Still, in the Welshman’s only summer transfer window at the Riverside, Adama Traore and Patrick Bamford, the club’s best attacking assets, as well as Ben Gibson, were all sold for sizeable fees.
The argument Pulis didn’t have any money to spend isn’t entirely true. Boro forked out a reported £6million on Aden Flint, who has since moved to Cardiff and £7million on George Saville, who has flattered to deceive since arriving from Millwall.
Then there was the £5million fee which Boro supposedly spent on Paddy McNair, a talented central midfielder, as shown this season, yet Pulis never elected to play him there.
Still, there's no question that Boro’s recruitment policy has been a major disappointment for some time.
Going back to the Aitor Karanka days, the Spaniard was vocal when it came to missing out on transfer targets, and while Pulis was more reserved, it was clear something wasn’t right.
In January, it was clear Boro needed more pace and power to bolster their attacking output, yet, aside from a crocked Rajiv van La Parra, no one came.
A similar tale unfolded in the summer when the club failed to address key areas and left the inexperienced Woodgate on the back foot.
The last few weeks of Pulis’ reign were a tough watch, especially at the Riverside when defeats to Brentford and Bristol City caused many fans to snap.
His reputation and baggage from other clubs didn’t help either, and it was easy for fans to jump on the ‘dinosaur’ bandwagon when tensions increased.
It’s true Pulis’ approach was difficult to engage with – yet he would argue it was getting the best from the players at his disposal. Besides, the club won promotion under Karanka by being defensively stable.
After missing out on the play-offs, it seemed clear Pulis’ tenure had reached a natural end, yet the club’s recent struggles suggest he deserved more credit.