"Tony Pulis can get Sheffield Wednesday's forwards firing - he did it for me,” former striker on arguments and ‘not waking the lion’
Striding off the Stoke City training ground one cold afternoon, Tony Pulis called over one of his main men for what most of those present assumed would be a famous dressing-down.
Gifton Noel-Williams, a bustling forward who enjoyed the most prolific two seasons of his career under the new Sheffield Wednesday boss back in the mid-00s, had let his temper get the better of him after his manager had questioned his work rate during a training exercise.
The run he took behind Ade Akinbiyi was not the run Pulis wanted from him, apparently. And against his better judgement, the six-foot-three forward fired back.
The two were big personalities, Noel-Williams said, and the intake of breath across the training ground could have been heard for miles.
“We’d had a few arguments on the training pitch and we had it out,” he told The Star, looking back on what he described as some of the best times of his 20-year career. “He was never disrespectful or talked down to you manager to player. It was two men arguing about the game that they love and want to achieve in.
“When training finished all I heard was ‘Big Man, come here!’, and I thought I was for it!
“We had a proper conversation about what happened in the session, not heated, an intelligent conversation. We shook hands, I smiled, he patted me on the back and told me he loves me, everything is good. That’s the way he does things.”
Noel-Williams, now 40 and a coach educator for the PFA, recalled that sort of man management as one of Pulis’ main skills. The Welshman builds confidence, takes pressure off forwards in lean spells and builds them up when required.
Hearing his admission that Wednesday require more quality in the final third come January can be taken in plenty of ways, but one is that he is taking pressure of those already at the club.
Pulis made no apology in taking off Jordan Rhodes earlier this week after he’d only brought the forward on at half-time, promising the sort of open and honest man-to-man discussion with Rhodes to ‘sort it out’ in the days after.
“I remember the times he dropped me,” said Noel-Williams, laughing. “Those conversations I talk about now all the time because he made me feel a million dollars, even though he literally telling me he was dropping me. To this day I don’t know how he did that.
“He cares about his players, that’s genuine. Some managers will try to make you feel that but you always felt he had you at heart.
“He’ll give the boys who live further away an extra day off, the senior boys. But he makes everyone feel comfortable in that, he makes you feel ten-feet high and he looks after you. Weirdly, the guys who weren’t in the team were probably the gaffer’s best friends. He made everyone feel comfortable no matter their role.”
Josh Windass, sent off in the Welshman’s first game at Preston and therefore suspended since, will return to the Sheffield Wednesday side for Saturday’s trip to Norwich, with Pulis having made it fairly clear he sees the 26-year-old as the Owls’ main man up top.
And Pulis can get a tune out of his marksmen if they are willing and able to put in the work and follow fairly specific instructions, both defensively and offensively.
Noel-Williams, a former England youth international who went on to play for Burnley and Brighton before injury problems curtailed his progress, remembers: “Everyone thinks he’s about hard work and hard work only, but there’s so much more to what he wants to do and there’s so much sense around what he wants to do.
“At Stoke there was myself, Ade Akinbiyi and Carl Asaba. We had our rules, but there was freedom as well. I always had to mark the holding midfielder, but on the ball I was told to express myself and do what I wanted to do, he wanted me to get in the box and for me to be me.
“You have to be robust, you have to work hard and be able to take a knock.
“One thing that really sticks with me is that he loves the sort of forward that is able to turn a bad ball into a good ball and help the team out that way. It’s about running a bad ball down and making a defender boot it out for a throw-in. That’s a turnover in possession in their half.
“What he’ll embed at Sheffield Wednesday is a spirit and a fight and if a team is going to beat them, they’re going to have to work harder, out-run, tackle harder. They’ll have to be an excellent team. We beat a lot of good teams with the squad that we had. It was all the gaffer, really. He made us believe we were good players.”
Pulis has had his patience tested by what he has described as ‘stupid’ red cards in the first half of two of his four matches in charge of the Owls so far.
His is a temper you don’t want to cross, Noel-Williams said, before making clear that he feels any image of the manager as a hard-nosed taskmaster is way overblown.
“He’s a relaxed man, he wants people to be relaxed around him,” he said. “But if you take that kindness for weakness, you will know about it.
“It might be that some people see more of that side of him, but my experience of the gaffer is of a nice, soft, kind-hearted man who cares about the club, his team and all of his players.
“If you’re not giving everything, if you’re turning up late or whatever, he will come down on you like a sack of spuds. You don’t wake up the lion.”