Points are the prizes for Stoke boss Tony Pulis
Britannia Stadium, Stoke
I have to admit that my encounter with Tony Pulis does not exactly start well. "You're late, where have you been?" demands the Stoke City manager after I introduce myself. Given that he is a renowned disciplinarian with a reputation for being a man you do not want to upset, I am glad the club's press officer is on hand to set the record straight on my timekeeping and explain it is me who has been waiting.
Pulis is only joking in any case - and things go a lot smoother from that point onwards. His team tactics may have been denounced by some as little more than an up and at 'em approach with an 'in yer face' attitude but in contrast to that, and perhaps his public image too, Pulis in person is affable, engaging and even partial to some good-humoured banter.
Not that there has been much of the latter hurled in his direction recently. Stoke's style is as effective at winding up the purists as it was in securing Premier League survival last season, with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger a particularly vocal critic while some Potters supporters have registered their disapproval too, despite their side being unbeaten in 2010.
Wenger and Pulis have been sniping at each other since Stoke beat the Gunners in November 2008 so it's probably not surprising that the 52-year-old Welshman exclaims in jest "don't tell Arsene that!" when I put it to him that the Potters were deserved winners when the two sides met in the FA Cup fourth round last month.
Pulis proved many people wrong by keeping Stoke in the Premier League last season
But, while they might populate opposing poles in terms of footballing principals, Wenger and Pulis agree on at least one thing. In terms of priorities, the Premier League is all that matters in the current campaign - success in domestic cups just doesn't come close.
Wenger said this week that finishing third is a better achievement than winning the FA Cup, while Pulis told me he feels the same way about staying up again. It's an outlook that Arsenal and Stoke fans don't all share. The two clubs have dramatically different histories and expectations when it comes to honours but it is fair to say they are both due a trophy even if the Gunners' wait for silverware has been relatively short compared to the 38 years that have passed since the Potters beat Chelsea to win the 1972 League Cup.
For me, that actually makes Pulis's perspective the hardest to understand, as we speak ahead of Stoke's trip to Manchester City for Saturday's FA Cup fifth-round tie.
After all, Wenger has won no shortage of pots in the recent past, including four FA Cups. Pulis, on the other hand, has been in football since he was 15 and a manager since he was 34 yet, save for reaching the last eight of last season's Carling Cup, has never been within touching distance of a major prize - understandable given he has spent the majority of that time in the lower divisions.
The Potters have not reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup since 1973 so, given the teams left in the draw - three of the so-called 'big four' are already out - this year's competition probably represents Stoke's - and his - best chance of some long-awaited glory. The pragmatic Pulis, however, is having none of it - the only thing he is dreaming of is victory over Roberto Mancini's side when they meet again at the Britannia Stadium in the league three days later.
"Which of those games with City would I rather win? Both!" says Pulis with a smile. "But City away was not one of the best draws we could have got and I look at the bottom of the league table and we are still involved. So I just want to get to 40 points as quickly as possible."
Stoke are 10 points off that total after Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Wigan. They are currently 12th - seven points above the relegation zone - and his players can forget about lifting the Cup; as far as Pulis is concerned, mid-table mediocrity come May will do just fine.
That's because for Pulis, formerly in charge of Bournemouth, Gillingham, Bristol City, Portsmouth and Plymouth, being a successful manager is about more than just what you win, although he does have two promotions to his name with Stoke and the Gills. He is fiercely proud of his record of never having been relegated during his 18-year managerial career, so would he swap that achievement to get his hands on a trophy? The answer is a resounding "no".
Harry Redknapp gave Pulis his first coaching job, at Bournemouth in the late 1980s
"When you are working as a manager, your bread and butter is the league and what you do in the league," he said. "I think cup games are just the icing on the cake. If we were to have a great Cup run there would be no-one more pleased than me, but the league is the most important thing to the long-term future of the club."
There are plenty of other current Premier League managers who are trophyless too, like Everton's David Moyes, who has won nothing in the 10 years since he took Preston up from League One. But then his achievements at Goodison show how unwise it can be to use silverware alone as a gauge of ability.
As for Pulis, he feels the game has changed so much in the past few decades that he, and others, have to have alternative ambitions.
"If you go back 20 or 30 years, you could pick a lower-division team up and take it through to the top leagues and challenge for trophies," he said. "But I don't think you will see that again. Now the top four or five clubs are so far in front of everybody else because of what finance dictates, so for anyone outside that group to win a trophy is a great achievement. I know Harry Redknapp did it at Portsmouth, and that was unbelievable."
The mention of how his old Bournemouth mentor Redknapp, who gave Pulis his first coaching job while he was still a player in the late 1980s, steered Pompey to their 2008 FA Cup triumph is especially relevant in Pulis's argument of why knockout competitions have to take second billing, if you consider what has happened to Pompey since.
That will never happen to Stoke as long as Pulis is at the Britannia Stadium as, to him, his long-term legacy matters far more than any one-off success - he can see little point in going for broke in the Cup (literally in Portsmouth's case).
Pulis was sacked by Gillingham soon after taking them to the League One play-off final in 1999 and saw his first spell at Stoke, which lasted from 2002 until 2005, end when he was dismissed by the club's then-Icelandic owners for 'failing to exploit the foreign transfer market'.
He knows as well as anyone how futile planning can be when you are a manager. But after returning to Stoke in 2006 and, two years later, leading the club into the top flight for the first time since 1985, he feels secure enough to do just that. "It's very important for me to put a sound footing down here," he said. "So, even if I left tomorrow, people would come in and think, well, this club is well run and everything is done properly.
"Whether it's travel, training facilities or the players' diet, everything is in place now. We have come on a bomb in the last couple of years in respect of technology and when we finish upgrading our facilities at our training ground (scheduled to be completed in April) then we will push on again.
"The last thing I would ever want to do is to walk away from a football club and think 'I've left them in the mire. I don't ever, ever want to be associated with that. I'd rather work 10 times harder if it means leaving the club in a better position than when I first took over."
Tuncay cost Stoke £5m in August 2009 but has started only nine league games for the Potters
Not that Pulis is contemplating leaving. He describes his relationship with chairman Peter Coates and his family as "an absolute dream", adding "they have been rock solid in everything I've done. They've backed me and been very, very good to me".
The manager's rapport with the Stoke fans is a little more strained, however. If they were happy to just be in the Premier League last season, they already want more this time around - and we are not talking trophies here.
There is far more to the Potters than the long-ball label they have been given but a section of the Potters support are still unhappy with their team's approach and what they perceive as negative tactics and poor team selection, citing Pulis's reluctance to use skilful Turkish striker Tuncay, a £5m capture in the summer but who has started only nine league games this season and had to wait until December for his full debut, as an example of the latter.
Does that bother the man who got them into the top flight in the first place? It's difficult to tell. Blackpool boss Ian Holloway used to babysit for Pulis and his wife Debs when they were young players at Bristol Rovers and the Stoke manager's response contains more than a hint of the 'Ollyisms' that Holloway is famous for.
"It's been harder to manage this football club this year than it was last year," says Pulis. "The first year in the Premier League, everything is so new and exciting for the fans. It's really like taking a new girlfriend out - for the first couple of times it is so fresh but then over a period of time that fades. I'm not saying you don't still love her but it does die down a little bit."
To prolong that analogy, a few trinkets might help fan the flames of romance but it's clear Pulis has his own ideas about how the future will pan out.
"I think we have a little way to go before we are in a position where we can say we are capable of winning a cup competition," Pulis added. "We need three years to catch up with everybody else. If we get those three years in the Premier League - and it is an 'if', although I really hope we do - then I think you will see this club move forward.
"It's a difficult club to manage but it's a great club and I am enjoying my time here. Every day is different but it's nice to be somewhere where you can say you have put foundations down for the club to push on."
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