Semi-final success sees Pulis put Wembley woes behind him
Stoke City boss Tony Pulis laid to rest most of his Wembley ghosts in some style by putting Bolton to the sword in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final, and victory over Manchester City when he returns for next month's final would be a fitting way for him to finish the job.
It was a famous comeback from the Mancunians that saw Pulis's previous visit to the national stadium, as Gillingham boss for the 1999 League One play-off final, end so traumatically that he did not step foot inside it again - in its old or new incarnation - until last week.
Twelve years ago the Gills led Manchester City 2-0 until the 89th minute, but ended up being beaten on penalties, a defeat that Pulis admits not only haunted him to the extent he had not attended a Wembley game since, but also helped make him into the manager he is today.
Pulis' Gillingham team threw away a two-goal advantage against Man City in 1999 - photo: AFP.
When the subject of THAT defeat was broached in Pulis's post-match media conference after his much happier return visit on Sunday, he replied, and only half in jest, "Why have you got to bring that up?
"Gillingham played really well on that day and didn't deserve to lose. But I tell you what that game did do, it made me a much stronger person. You get things out of defeat, as well as victory, and you have to pick yourself up after it."
It is telling that Bolton boss Owen Coyle had uttered the same sentiment about how he would recover from his own Wembley nightmare when he put on a brave face for the media minutes earlier, although the big difference was that the Scot admitted his side's display was not worthy of anything but a heavy defeat.
Stoke led 3-0 after just 30 minutes of a one-sided semi-final and two more goals after the break by Jon Walters meant, this time, Pulis was in no danger of being on the wrong end of a fantastic late fightback.
If his side play as well as that against Manchester City in just under a month's time, it would not be rash to suggest Stoke's long wait for a second piece of major silverware - to go with their 1972 League Cup triumph - could finally be over.
Not that Pulis is getting carried away with that sort of talk, despite a decent record against City that has seen Stoke remain undefeated against Roberto Mancini's men in four meetings since December 2009 and knock them out of last season's FA Cup in the fifth round.
"The players embraced coming to Wembley like nothing else and they will look forward to coming back," said the 53-year-old Welshman. "This win will give them the confidence on 14 May to give it a good go but we know we will be playing against some great players because City are a club that has had a lot of money thrown at it. It will be tough for us, but we will give it our best shot like we did today."
There were plenty of reasons beyond the actual win to give Stoke's players encouragement. Their free-flowing football and rapid counter-attacks against Bolton made a nonsense of their reputation for being a one-dimensional side that is reliant on set-pieces and long throw-ins to get their goals - none of the five they managed against Wanderers came via that route.
Jon Walters scored twice against his old club - photo: AP.
Pulis does not think that will pacify the purists and change public perception of him or his side, but then he does not care too much what other people think. One of the things that he has developed since that play-off final defeat is a thick skin.
He has also picked up the fine art of psychology, with his players and also with Stoke's vocal fans, who lived up to their billing as their side's '12th man' at Wembley.
With the squad, the approach is often subtle - it was noticeable before kick-off on Sunday the Potters players loitered on pitch in tracksuits, while Bolton sported suits that are usually saved for the final. Apart from giving his squad a tour of the stadium last week, Pulis was keen to treat the tie like any other game, talking about bringing his players down to earth and saying: "We only came down to London on Saturday and we just did our normal routine beforehand."
The supporters have been played with a heavier hand since the club's promotion to the Premier League three seasons ago, and responded in kind, something Pulis is proud of.
"One of the things we have done at this club, which is pretty unique, is that we have actually made them part of us," Pulis explained. "We have made Stoke into a community club and they have bought into that from day one.
"From our first game in the Premier League in August 2008, when we lost to Bolton and a national betting company paid out on us getting relegated, we have worked very hard to instil the mentality in our fans that we are the underdogs and that nobody likes us, but we don't care."
Lifting the Cup and taking Stoke into the Europa League should bring recognition of Pulis's qualities but he says he has more pressing concerns first.
Despite being without a trophy to show for his 19 years as a manager, Pulis has always said it is more important to him to protect his more desirable record of never having been relegated either.
That looks unlikely this season but Stoke's away form in the league means they are only five points above the drop zone, and with Wolves, Blackpool and Wigan amongst their opponents in the run-in, not to mention Arsenal and City, taking their foot off the gas now could be fatal.
Not that Pulis will let that happen if he can help it, and his response to a question about his side's focus in the next few weeks shows his priorities still haven't changed, even with the Cup within touching distance.
"It will mean a lot to me to lead the team out for the Cup final," he said. "But if we get relegated I will be devastated."
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