How much will Tony Pulis’ exit from Crystal Palace end up costing them? Only time will tell, but with the club now tipped for relegation in many more quarters, the price the Eagles pay for losing their manager on the eve of the new season could yet include Premier League survival—and the many millions of pounds that come with it.
The news of the reigning Premier League Manager of the Year’s departure from Selhurst Park on Thursday evening was greeted with expressions of shock among football fans, although perhaps it should not have been such a surprise.
Pulis and Palace co-chairman Steve Parish have long had an awkward relationship, with the relative lack of transfer activity at Selhurst Park over the summer a clear warning sign that things were bubbling to a head once more.
In the end, per reports in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, as manager and chairman continued to have differing views on how the club should operate they both agreed to showdown talks on Thursday afternoon, with the two eventually deciding to part company after failing to reach a workable compromise from their respective positions.
Afterwards, it was suggested that Pulis wanted greater control over transfer activity, with Parish—along with his sporting director, Iain Moody—instead determined to keep a tight rein on spending, a stance that had seen the club miss out on preferred Pulis targets Gylfi Sigurdsson and Steven Caulker already this summer.
The final straw was believed to be Parish’s continued pursuit of a loan deal for Manchester United forward (and former Palace academy product) Wilfried Zaha.
Pulis, on the other hand, was adamant a £3 million deal for Southampton midfielder Jack Cork needed to be the priority over a temporary move for a player who, while idolised by fans, would not solve the glaring need for another body in the middle of the park.
Ironically the news came just hours after Palace confirmed the signing of Martin Kelly from Liverpool, a £1.5 million outlay that was their most expensive of the summer to date.
Daniel Taylor, writing in The Guardian, quoted a source close to Pulis as saying:
Tony is a traditional manager who wants to run things on the football side.
[The relationship with Parish has] become an irritant … It’s a festering wound that has been there for a long time.
After the season we had, the manager hoped the chairman would have thought: ‘Right I’ve got myself a good manager and now I need to back him’. It’s actually got worse not better. And now it’s been brought to a head.
Of course, the nature of the departure leads one to wonder how happy Tony Pulis ever was to be Crystal Palace manager.
It should not be forgotten that he took weeks before finally agreeing to succeed Ian Holloway at Selhurst Park last November, seemingly feeling that being presented with a job offer at the foot of the Premier League was a further indignity after being dismissed from his role at Stoke City earlier that year.
Perhaps even then he anticipated that a working relationship with Parish would prove difficult (Moody was also appointed just before he arrived, leaving issues over the chain of command that were perhaps never adequately resolved). But, equally likely, he was concerned about the effect it would have on his reputation if—having never been relegated before in his managerial career—he was unable to keep a Palace side that had looked little short of hopeless under Holloway in the top flight.
Having taken the job and then started the turnaround, in January there were further reports that he might leave the club, over issues arising from transfers.
In the end Pulis and Parish reached a temporary agreement, the likes of Joe Ledley and Scott Dann were signed and Palace finished the season strongly to clinch a remarkable 11th place.
The problem with such success, of course, is that there is immediately an expectation that it will be repeated, or even improved upon, the next time around. But, when transfer business proved slow, Pulis perhaps sensed that the squad had not been improved enough and that relegation was once again a genuine concern.
Perhaps he did walk out over transfer business—it can be untenable for any manager if the board is blocking him from signing the players he wants.
At its core, though, Pulis’ departure seems to be one motivated by self-interest; of all the parties involved, Pulis arguably loses least from the whole sorry situation.
Palace have lost the manager most likely to keep them up once again, whereas Pulis now finds himself in as strong a negotiating position as he has ever been in his career. With his reputation never better, and unencumbered by an existing contract, he will be the first name mentioned in conjunction with any available Premier League job.
Looked at as a gun for hire capable of guaranteeing survival if West Ham or Southampton (to pick two possible examples) sack their managers after faltering starts to the season, Pulis—available right now, for no compensation—is almost certain to be the man they call.
What is more, he will likely command a salary far in excess of anything he was previously earning.
It will depend on which jobs become available, but in terms of Pulis’ career prospects, leaving Palace now could hardly be better timed.
If that suggests the initial instinct to always back the manager in disputes with a board is wrong in this instance, that is not to say Parish is entirely without blame. Barely 48 hours before Pulis’ departure was announced, Parish was seen on Sky Sports News HQ, talking about the club’s plans for the season.
Considering what was to come, surely he had more important things to do than attend to his burgeoning media career (it is worth remembering that he is actually one of two Palace chairmen and four co-owners; it is perhaps no accident that he is far-and-away the most visible)?
During his time on television, he was adamant that transfer business would be done before the window closed—echoing the prevailing Twitter sentiment that the club was waiting until later in the window because that was when deals were easier to do.
“Obviously we’ve got the right manager,” Parish told Sky Sports’ Jim White. “We haven’t yet got all the players we want in, so there will be some new additions.
“There are too many clubs chasing too few players of ‘known’ quality. It’s tough, but we’re confident we’ll be where we want to be when the window closes.”
While that is all undoubtedly a fair and valid assessment, Parish had perhaps given a clearer insight into his modus operandi moments earlier when, while responding to reports of a row with players over this season’s bonus pot, he revealed just how long is spent sorting seemingly the most minor of potential expenditures.
“We had a healthy discussion on it,” Parish said of the bonus talks. “A healthy discussion. We are trying to get everyone’s interests aligned.
“We were looking at other club’s bonus schedules, seeing where we fit in, trying to get it right.”
Clearly, this is a co-owner with a particular focus on the balance sheet. A successful businessman, Parish has shown himself to be a man reluctant to sanction unnecessary spending—wanting to ensure in this instance that the club’s bonus plans were not out of step with anyone else in the division.
This trait might actually come from his years as a Palace fan as much as his time at the helm of marketing and communications agency TAG.
Having seen the club twice languish in administration in the last 15 years due to the over-spending of two undisciplined owners (being one of the men who rescued the club from the most recent experience), he is among a fanbase that knows better than most the desperate path that clubs can go down if owners get carried away when it comes to signing cheques.
That is the sort of history—twice in recent memory, Palace won games on the final day of the season to avoid relegation from the Championship and possible extinction as an entity—that Pulis was positioning himself in contrast to.
For all the great work he undoubtedly did last season, that is perhaps why so many fans can sympathise with the club's decision not to bow to his demands.
At Stoke, after all, he spent lavishly—yet what did the club really have to show for it? Yes, they stayed up every season, but Palace also managed that last term on a far more meagre budget.
For Parish, the immediate focus must now turn to finding Pulis’ replacement. Tim Sherwood and Neil Lennon have already been mentioned as likely candidates, although Sherwood in particular surely will not fit the bill if Palace are looking for a man with similar characteristics to his predecessor (as they should be).
That being the case, Malky Mackay becomes the obvious front-runner, even if he lacks for Premier League experience. But Parish will know that Mackay can work alongside Moody (they had a successful relationship at Cardiff), and the Scot has a similar no-nonsense approach to Pulis.
There will not be the same rows over spending and finance, albeit with the trade-off that there will be less Premier League know-how in the dugout each weekend.
For Saturday’s Premier League opener against Arsenal it will be Pulis’ assistant Dave Kemp in charge, with Keith Millen assuming temporary control after that.
“I was at the manager’s meeting on Monday with Tony Pulis, and there was no indication he would not be here,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told reporters on Friday.
“It’s very difficult to know what consequence it will have on Crystal Palace.”
Parish will be hoping the consequence will not be too severe. Having lost his manager over spending, it remains to be seen if the bill for sticking to his guns proves far more exorbitant.