There’s not much middle ground with Tony Pulis.
Depending upon your shirt colours, he’s either a cult hero or the cap-wearing Anti-Christ of association football.
This summer the rumblings have already started. There are murmurs of discontent from our friends in the Midlands.
At the Hawthorns Pulis has done what Pulis does best: transform a disjointed bunch haunted by the spectre of relegation into a band of brothers, laughing in the ghoul’s face, safe in the knowledge that they’ll catch him offside should ever he try to breach their defences.
A year ago Pulis was lauded by the good people of West Brom for keeping the horrors of the Championship at bay. He brought discipline, organisation and sheer bloody-mindedness to a team that was consistently bloody awful under Alan Irvine.
Now, after finishing two seasons safely mired in the mid-table of the Premier League, King Tony’s crown is slipping a little.
You see, there’s a small problem with discipline, organisation and sheer bloody-mindedness. Admittedly it gets results and, yes, it does establish you as a Premier League mainstay.
But it’s all a bit boring isn’t it?
Pulis is the type of man who scoffs at this sort of frivolity. He’s always been more chicken tikka than tiki-taka. He knows English football inside and out. And, like the scourge of Terry Venables’ Christmas tree formations, he recognises a fad when he sees it.
He shakes his head dismissively at those looking for fairytales in football . There’s no magic potion around here, lads.
Except there is. One that he’s been brewing in the dark confines of his basement where grainy photos of Glenn Whelan and Mamady Sidibe adorn the walls. And it works.
The origins of that formula can be traced back to the summer of 1995 and a club in crisis.
Cash-strapped Gillingham had made a habit of escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth over the past few seasons. They’d spent six months in administration and were within 48 hours of following their rivals, Maidstone United, out of existence altogether.
New owner Paul Scally strode into the decrepit Priestfield Stadium flashing a smile and promising a better, brighter future. There was talk of a new stadium and the Premier League. First and foremost, the two thousand hardy souls who had suffered regularly on Saturday afternoons in Medway wanted more simple pleasures: to see a winning football team.
So Scally consulted his manual for all new custodians of football clubs. He’d mastered the first chapter, Make grand promises about a fairytale future, quite nicely. Now it was on to the next: Bring back a club legend.
Enter Tony Pulis.
This was where it could have gone awry. Pulis had made sixteen fairly non-descript appearances for Gillingham in 1989-90 and that was the extent of his affiliation to the club. Even in a team where talent was in desperately short supply, it was hardly legendary status.
Nonetheless, the fans put aside their misgivings and let Tony get on with his work.
Pulis wasted no time in ripping the weak belly from Gillingham’s carcass and replacing it with a stronger core. He raided the free transfer market for experienced league campaigners, bringing in “Big” Jim Stannard, a 17st goalkeeper from Fulham, rugged centre half Mark Harris and workmanlike midfielder Simon Ratcliffe.
He also ventured into non-league. Kevin Rattray added more endeavour to the middle of the park and the wonderfully-named Leo Fortune-West, a 6ft 3in striker, arrived from Stevenage courtesy of a £5k donation from the Supporters Club.
The team barely had time to shake hands and learn each other’s names before the season kicked off at home to Wigan Athletic. The Latics had made headlines by signing three Spaniards, dubbed “The Three Amigos” by the media. Amongst them was a fleet-footed young whippersnapper called Roberto Martinez, who would have been forgiven for grabbing his passport and running for the coast when the coach arrived at Casa del Priestfield.
Pulis took one look at the team sheet and smiled. His new team was built proudly on fight, not flair. His henchmen would show the visitors where to shove their sombreros. A late Adrian Foster winner gave the hardworking Gills a 2-1 win.
The next league game saw the debut of Dennis Bailey. The new chairman had promised investment. Handing over £50,000 to QPR for the man who had once scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford was a signal of his intentions. The diminutive striker immediately proved a nice foil for Fortune-West. Lincoln were dispatched 3-0.
A pattern was emerging. Clean sheets were preserved at all costs, tackles were fierce and frequent, whilst percentage balls were launched forward at the earliest opportunity. Four straight wins – and four clean sheets - put Gillingham top of the table. The fans were in dreamland.
Word spread around the league of the Miracle of Medway. The Pulis Army marched from Exeter to Scarborough, scenes of regular misery in the past, and emerged with few friends but plenty of precious points.
New Year’s Day 1996 saw a performance that was, in hindsight, peak Pulis. The Gills put in a filthy performance at Leyton Orient. Whatever hope the East End faithful had for the new calendar year evaporated within minutes of a game littered with petty fouls, offside flags and aimless long balls. The visitors managed one effort on target, a looping header from Big Leo that nestled into the top corner. Another rotten win had Pulis smiling on the road to promotion.
There was little love for the man outside of Medway. Opposition managers decried the style of football in post-match interviews. Soccer AM’s Helen Chamberlain labelled the team the “Robo-Gills” after her beloved Torquay were bullied to a 2-0 defeat in February.
And when one man stumbled, exhausted after the efforts of battle, another took his place. Six months of flick-ons and far-post headers had seen Big Leo grow weary. Step forward John “Bruno” Gayle, a colossus with a physique that would have Harry Carpenter drooling, on loan from Stoke. His goals-to-games ratio was dismal for a forward and there were large portions of his career where his feet seemed redundant. He was a brute, a battering ram that Pulis would use to smash through the last few obstacles between his team and the third tier. “Bruno” scored the game’s only goal on his debut at Mansfield. The Gills marched on.
A 1-0 win over Scarborough was a fitting end to a season which saw Pulis pipped to the title by David Moyes at Preston. “Big Fat Jim” conceded just twenty goals all season, the lowest-ever total for a 46-game campaign, and kept a staggering 29 clean sheets.
The sweet smell of victory was enough to mask the stench of the football that had engulfed Division Three. Tony Pulis had succeeded in producing his own brand of winning ugly.
And, by God, it was beautiful.
Sid is on Twitter @sid_lambert