Over the next few days Fred Stanley Sport will take a look at some of the leading candidates for the 2013/14 Premier League Manager of the Season award, putting a case forward for each candidate. The series starts with Tony Pulis, the Crystal Palace manager who was hired 12 games into the current campaign after the shock resignation of Ian Holloway.
When former Stoke manager Tony Pulis agreed to take over Crystal Palace after some lengthy negotiations last November few people gave the Eagles any chance of staying in the Premier League beyond this season. A meager haul of just seven points from the club’s first 12 games back in the top flight of English football saw them joint last in the table with the equally hapless Sunderland, who themselves had changed manager in the season’s infancy when they sacked the controversial Paulo Di Canio and hired former Brighton and Hove Albion boss Gus Poyet. However while Sunderland remain deep in relegation trouble, bottom of the table and six points from safety, Pulis’s Crystal Palace have reached the magical 40 point mark and are certain to enjoy at least one more season in the top flight.
When Palace got off to such a slow start talk wasn’t of survival. In fact many observers thought that the south London club would be better off simply aiming to overhaul Derby County’s record low Premier League points total of 11, which was “achieved” in the 2007/8 season. With all due respect to the Crystal Palace players such low expectations were reasonable; their top scorer from their promotion campaign, Glenn Murray, was still recovering from cruciate ligament damage and wouldn’t be fit until February at the earliest, while star player and talisman Wilfried Zaha had been sold to Manchester United. Even Kevin Phillips, Premier League veteran and scorer of Palace’s winning goal in the play-off final, was allowed to join Championship side Leicester and in the process left Pulis’s squad woefully short of Premier League experience.
Yet Pulis has still been able to manufacture some incredible results against more experienced, and undoubtedly wealthier opposition. Mega-bucks Chelsea were put to the sword 1-0 at Selhurst Park, while top-four challenging Everton saw their bid for Champions League football derailed when Palace came away from Merseyside with a shock 3-2 victory earlier this week. Jason Puncheon, brought in by Pulis in January, has provided Miles Jedinak with an able central midfield partner while loanee Thomas Ince has replaced some of the pace lost when Zaha departed for Old Trafford.
The basis of these results has by and large been a rock solid defence. Pulis’s Stoke sides were famed for their grit and defensive resilience, something replicated at Palace as they’ve conceded just 1.21 goals per game over the duration of this campaign, good for fifth in the division. Wins against Chelsea, Stoke, West Ham, Hull City (twice) and Aston Villa (twice) have all come by a solitary goal to nil, while Cardiff have also been defeated 2-0 and 3-0 by the Eagles this year. Julian Speroni has been almost unbeatable at times in the Palace goal, forming the backbone of a mid-table Premier League side and perhaps representing Pulis’s finest achievement in football to date.
You’d have got long odds last August on Palace staying off the bottom of the table let alone out of the bottom three this season. Yet here we are with four games to go and Palace are just eight points behind the much heralded Southampton, they of the four England internationals and acclaimed manager Mauricio Pochettino. It wasn’t a decision they themselves made, but Ian Holloway walking away from Crystal Palace might just have been the best thing that’s happened to the Londoners in a long, long time.