“I’m delighted for everybody at the football club – supporters, chairman, all the staff and the players. It has been a tough and very unusual season this year.”
One would be forgiven for viewing the quote above and thinking it was delivered at the end of the season by a manager who had guided his team to Premier League safety. Not so. Tony Pulis was speaking after a 0-0 draw with Sunderland on April 2 pushed West Brom past one of football’s greatest milestones last year.
Of the many disciples to buy into the mythical and fabled power of ‘the 40-point mark’, Pulis is the most devout. At Stoke, Crystal Palace and now West Brom, that has been his holy grail from the start of each season.
But never before had Pulis crossed the line so convincingly, so soon than in this season. Twelve games remained after that Bournemouth victory – 12 games to secure West Brom’s first 50-point Premier League season; 12 games to close a four-point gap to Everton and an eight-point gap to Manchester United; 12 games for a manager to prove he was more than a survivalist.
An uninspiring, insipid 1-0 defeat to Liverpool means the Baggies have now accrued four points from eight games since reaching Pulis’ barrier. A 3-1 victory over Arsenal and a 0-0 draw with Manchester United have been the tentative checks of the work e-mail while on holiday; James McClean has been building sandcastles for the past two months, while Pulis ensures that Jonny Evans has his goggles on properly.
It was Evans who described accusations that West Brom were “on the beach” as “nonsense” last month, but the shift in both performances and results has been marked. The four and eight-point gaps to Everton and United are now 13 points each, while Leicester and West Ham – two clubs who have battled relegation throughout the season – are just seven points behind.
This is no coincidence. In his time in the Premier League, Pulis has now managed 43 games over nine seasons after guiding his side to 40 points. He has won six of them – never more than once in a season after reaching 40 points – and lost 21.
Yet Pulis cannot really blame his players. In each of those nine seasons he has spoken of the importance of reaching 40 points as soon as possible. As Stoke manager in December 2012 he explained that passing the milestone was “all that matters to us at the moment”. Immediately after beating Crystal Palace with West Brom in April 2015 he told his players that the milestone “would be a good tally for us”. Reaching 40 points has become not only his speciality, but his curse.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pulis reiterates throughout the season that reaching 40 points is the objective. That is the finishing line, and once the players cross it they know the race is run. Whether they cross it with 12 games to go or one game remaining is inconsequential: the manager’s target has been met, and the season is effectively over.
Pulis has attempted to address the issue countless times. “Complacency is the most annoying word in the dictionary,” he said after losing to Palace in March in the club’s first game since reaching 40 points, but complacency is only natural. This is West Brom’s lazy Friday afternoon spent watching the clock after a week of hard work in the office.
It is difficult to motivate and refocus a workforce that knows it has already achieved its set goal. The question is whether the fans or the owner Guochuan Lai are accepting of that. They will surely never go down with Pulis in charge, but few are more adept at fitting their own glass ceiling.