Thursday 18 January 2018

Stoke's three wise men bear welcome gifts

Tony Pulis's Britannia Stadium backroom team is one of the most experienced in the Premier League, writes Louise Taylor

At first glance Tony Pulis, Peter Reid and Gerry Francis can appear a shade old-fashioned.

As Stoke City's manager marches around in a shellsuit, his assistant indulges in a spot of sharp scouse banter and the first-team coach switches the conversation from defensive lines to pigeon fancying, the Britannia Stadium briefly seems stuck in the 1970s.

Not that Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal players should be remotely fooled today. Le Professeur is about to encounter a formidable brains trust responsible for Stoke consistently punching well above their apparent weight.

With Reid as his assistant and Francis the joint first-team coach, Pulis boasts one of the strongest back-rooms in English football. Granted, that trio might make wonderful stars of football-based versions of television's Ashes To Ashes or even New Tricks -- (although the three fiftysomethings are all younger than Wenger) -- but their at times unashamedly old-school approach masks sharp tactical acumen and a man-management style based on constant, if sometimes uncomfortably honest, communication.

Equally importantly, Pulis's brave decision to employ two former England midfielders who, as managers, guided Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City to fifth-place finishes in the top flight before subsequently taking Tottenham and Sunderland up to seventh, suggests a refreshing humility on the Stoke manager's part.

"Tony's very strong and always has the ultimate say," Francis explains. "But we are certainly not afraid to disagree with him."

He and Reid are helping Pulis mastermind Stoke's gradual evolution from a strictly choreographed, heavily set-piece dependent side to a more three-dimensional ensemble, and Pulis is suitably delighted with their input.

"Peter and Gerry are chalk and cheese, a bit like the funny guy and the straight guy in a comedy double act," he says. "While Peter's the joker in the pack, Gerry goes about his business quietly but they complement each other really well. Ultimately, the manager takes decisions but managers should never be afraid to listen. The job is easier if you can sound out the opinions of people like Peter and Gerry who've played and managed at the highest level."

Mark O'Connor, who shares first-team coaching duties with Francis and helps his colleagues out with DVD analysis and laptop downloads, is similarly enthusiastic. "It's brilliant just listening to Gerry and Peter," he says. "Peter's played in World Cups and Gerry's been England captain, they're very good for our players."

Francis could easily have been in charge of a Premier League club today had he not stepped away from management in 2001. "We'd had two family bereavements, I had three children under eight and it just felt the right thing to do," he explains. "I realised football was not the be all and end all."

It is hard to imagine Wenger saying anything similar but Francis, like Reid and Pulis, has an intriguing, renaissance-man style hinterland. His eclectic array of interests and investments include antiques, pigeon fancying, overseas property development, and theatre and film production.

The latter sphere led to his involvement with Magic Movies, producers of the 2004 Bafta-nominated Road to Damascus in which he played a Los Angeles postman complete with Californian accent before wiping off the greasepaint and returning to tend the treasured pigeons occupying a luxury loft at his Surrey home.

Pulis, meanwhile, makes weekly escapes to Dorset and the twin sanctuaries of his magnificent family home and local Catholic church, where Stoke's manager -- who recently had an old-fashioned fight with his striker James Beattie in Arsenal's away dressing room -- is a regular at confession.

After joining Stoke last September following a stint managing Thailand, Reid serves as a welcome rebuke to a sometimes rather bland soulless, increasingly commercially packaged, Premier League product. "The culture and climate made Thailand a great place to live," he says. "But Tony and I just clicked. I'm here to help Tony improve Stoke, to try and make the club stronger."

Reid possesses the sort of common touch that once saw him console his erstwhile Sunderland left-back Michael Gray for missing a decisive play-off final penalty by having him to stay at his house for several days. On another occasion he whipped off his Armani shirt and swapped it for a journalist's Marks and Spencer number during a lively dinner.

Such humanity is unlikely to cut much ice with Wenger. No stranger to crossing swords with Reid, the Frenchman sniffily regards Stoke as a personal, long-throw propelled bete noire.

"We've got better technically," Francis says. "We're developing a Plan B but you have to make changes gradually. We're exploring different avenues of playing but we're not stupid -- it won't stop us continuing doing what we're good at."

Tuncay Sanli, the Turkey forward, looms large in this evolutionary alternative and is arguably likely to pose Arsenal more problems than Rory Delap's throws. "Our system is quite organised and regimented while Tunny is a free spirit who needs to play off the cuff," says Francis. "But he and Stoke are enjoying learning how to get along with each other. We're all having fun."

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