From Pillgwenlly docks to the Europa League: the making of Sheffield Wednesday boss Tony Pulis

Hanging over the sloping Pillgwenlly football fields that shaped his childhood, the spirit of industry enveloped Tony Pulis’ formative years and flooded his DNA.

By Alex Miller
Friday, 20th November 2020, 5:30 pm

Now so famed for a tough, uncompromising character that many paint as a disadvantage in this glittery modern football world, a young Pulis slept four-to-a-bed with his brothers until his mid-teens. The son of a steelworker, he is a product of a solid, hard-working working class upbringing that has seen him hard-wired to succeed at all costs.

Now 62 years old, Pulis has had to work hard for everything he has ever achieved.

“I like winners,” he said at his unveiling as Sheffield Wednesday manager some 46 years after he left his hometown to sign youth terms with Bristol Rovers. “It is about putting in place basic principles. Discipline, honesty and respect.”

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It’s a philosophy on life born on the sweat-stained streets of Pill, as it is more commonly known.

Speaking ahead of his return to nearby Newport as Middlesbrough boss last year he explained: “Where I lived, at the bottom of the road was the railway that took all the coal down from the Valleys to the steelworks and to the docks. Everything was built around those industries.

“Everything revolved about what happened down the docks, everything revolved around what was happening in the steelworks and that was the life.

“Dad would come in, he’d have something to eat, he’d have a wash and a shave and go out and have a couple of pints and Mum would look after the family.

Tony Pulis showed a penchant for coaching from an early age.

“We had nothing but we had everything. I think people know there was eight of us living in a three-bedroom terraced house.

“Up until I was 15 there was four of us sleeping in one bed. So it was four boys in one room, my two sisters slept in the other room and my mum and dad slept in the box room so that’s the way we were brought up.”

In Wales, it’s rugby in the valleys, football in the south. And while it would not have irked him to have lead an honest life following his father into the steelworks as so many young Pill boys did in the 1960s, it was football that chose a young Tony Pulis.

A whirlwind graduation through the Newport YMCA boys’ side saw him graduate through Rovers’ School of Football Excellence. He was 17 when ahead of a typically fierce Bristol derby none other than Don Megson threw him into first team football for his senior debut.

Tough Tony Pulis; not strong, not quick, not particularly skilful, was a professional footballer.

“He was very quiet in the early days,” said former Wales manager Bobby Gould, speaking to The Star on a lifelong friend he first met in 1974 while Pulis was still cleaning boots.

Gould, then a superstar West Ham striker living in Bristol, had been granted permission to train with the Pirates after an agreement was struck between Ron Greenwood and Megson to allow him to cut down on his travel commitments to and from London.

“He was very respectful and he seemed to listen,” Gould went on. “He was brought up that way. The senior pros put you in your place in those days and Tony appreciated that, the discipline you learn in a changing room. He seemed to respond to that.

“There were some good players and good lads at Bristol Rovers. As an older player it was great to see them all grow up, you follow all their careers around.”

Among the other successful football characters to have come through the Rovers ranks in those days were future Spurs and England defender and Gary Mabbutt and Pulis confidant Ian Holloway.

Years later he would comment that it was the ‘old-fashioned values’ of Bristol Rovers that spurred so many of their youngsters onto success.

Aware of his somewhat limited ability and always with an eye on longevity, at 19 Pulis set about starting his coaching badges. By 21 he was fully qualified, becoming the youngest ever UEFA A-Licence pro in the process.

At 23, desperate to marry his beloved Debs but on wages a fringe player at an unfashionable 1980s football club could command, he took up a rare opportunity to earn some money playing for Happy Valley in Hong Kong.

They married three weeks after he returned, but while he was there a phonecall from his old mate Gould, by now retired and manager at Bristol Rovers, allowed him to step aboard a coaching journey that has taken him to Hillsborough via Wembley and the Europa League.

“I brought him back from Hong Kong to be my youth team coach at Bristol Rovers,” Gould said proudly.

“The love and the passion he had was infectious and it still is. He wasn't the greatest of players, but he always had a great football brain.

“He was a natural coach. He was so committed and determined in what he did, even at that tender age. It was a gut feeling that he was going to be a brilliant football coach.”

Pulis continued his playing career but kept coaching a constant throughout before, at the age of 34, he stepped into the role of assistant manager for Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth.

Gould says it was long before that, in Pulis’ twenties, that glimmers of an effective, direct style of play began to develop.

“He used to take some sessions with me in the first team,” he remembered. “He worked out that the ball didn't have to be stationary to take advantage of that sort of thing, that players could set up as if it was a set play while we were in open play.

“We'd work on things like that and he had an eye for it. Eventually I used to say to him 'that's all yours'.

“He was brilliant. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

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