I have a special relationship with Stoke City Football Club.
No, not that kind of special relationship! Quite the opposite in fact.
Every time we face the Stokies, my column tends to be more than a touch critical of their ideals and principles, and we always get an influx of traffic from my favourite Stoke blog: the Oatcake fanzine.
In some ways, they’re like my own little groupies.
But my ‘special’ relationship isn’t just with Stoke; it is also with Ryan Shawcross and Tony Pulis. For me the events of February 2010, when the former broke Aaron Ramsey’s leg, are indelibly linked not just with Stoke or Shawcross himself but with the baseball-cap-wearing Pulis.
Following that horrific injury, I have always personally felt particularly strongly about everyone involved with Stoke City at that time, following their defence of Shawcross as a victim. My next Arsenal shirt was emblazoned with Ramsey’s name and number in my own small gesture of solidarity.
Nothing in football (apart from Arsene it seems) lasts forever these days, but this is a feeling that continues to this day in spite of the break up of the unholy Stoke-Shawcross-Pulis triumvirate.
But why is this column about Stoke when we’re playing West Brom?
In the run up to this weekend’s game, I’ve been asking myself: should my special relationship now extend to West Bromwich Albion?
It’s worth mentioning that, historically, I’ve had something of a soft spot for the Baggies. They’re not quite up to Hull City standards when it comes to being a dumping ground where ex-Tottenham players’ careers go to die, but there’s definitely some synergies there.
One of my most memorable experiences in an Arsenal replica kit came in the away stand of the Hawthorns back on the final day of the 2011/12 season. Former Spurs man, the (tragically) late Martin Fulop, handed us Champions League qualification at our neighbours’ expense, denying them the same in the process, and Kieran Gibbs made *that tackle* – one of the most important tackles of his – and my – life.
Other than that, it feels like we’ve also had something of a difficult time when facing them. Not so much in terms of losing games, but more than a few times we’ve been held to draws, and usually boring ones at that.
The real issue
I’ve come to the conclusion that “yes, yes, a million times yes” is the answer to whether my dislike for Pulis has now contaminated the Albion too. He’s just such a thoroughly dislikeable individual.
Stoke, under Mark Hughes, have become a better footballing side but have also shown the slightly softer underbelly for which we have oft been criticised. Meanwhile, Pulis’s new team have become more negative and more aggressive, and ultimately more dangerous to the health, safety and wellbeing of our players.
I penned a piece earlier this season following Luke Shaw’s awful injury detailing how players need to be held more responsible for their actions, but also how managers need to be reprimanded when they send those same players out for a match so psyched up and out of touch with reality that they pose a danger to their fellow professionals.
Tony Pulis is the classic example of such a manager.
Of course Shawcross has no leg to stand on for the challenge itself, but in many ways I hold Pulis just as accountable as he pulled the strings to regularly send his teams out to play in such an aggressive and reckless manner.
Making his mark
He’s not been in the job that long, but Pulis is already showing his trademark at the Hawthorns.
The press are fawning over his disciplined and aggressive approach which has ‘stiffened’ the team.
James McLean was guilty of a fairly shocking challenge earlier this season in a clash against Swindon. One of Pulis’s first buys after taking over at West Brom was Callum McManaman, of Haidara-assaulting fame.
Some people simply don’t change.
Sam Allardyce spoke earlier this season of the extra pleasure he feels after getting a result against Arsene because it vindicates his style. To a certain extent I feel the same but in reverse about Allardyce. But ‘Big Sam’ pales into insignificance beside the man occupying the number one spot in my hall of horror: Pulis.
Arsenal need to win on Saturday for so many reasons – to keep in touch at the top, to continue to prove that Arsene’s methods are not madness, and to secure the victory of football over foolhardiness.
But most of all, it just feels karmically right that Tony Pulis should never win a game of football while he persists with such an anti-football style. Frankly maybe not even if he changed it.
It may well be that we have to win the fight to be able to play our football come three o’clock on Saturday, but by goodness I hope we show Pulis, as we did back in May, the error of his ways.