Why Tony Pulis to Athletic Bilbao must happen


Even though The Guardian’s ‘Fiver’ mail-out repeated the story twice, just in case anyone thought it was a joke, I’m still not convinced that it’s true. Oh, I want it to be true. There is very little in football that would make me happier than this being true. But do we dare to dream? Has Tony Pulis REALLY applied for the Athletic Bilbao job?

It’s hard to imagine anything quite as wonderful as the Bilbao players, drilled to within an inch of their lives for two years by Argentine Hipster-in-Chief Marcelo Bielsa, turning up to training to find Pulis waiting for them with a clipboard, a mallet and a dark look in his eyes.

Two whole seasons of micro-management by a man who used to draw on his wellies with marker pen to teach his players about their feet, and then suddenly there’s a psychopath in a tracksuit and baseball cap roaring at them to get it up to the big man. You couldn’t deliver a more intense culture shock without building a mile high television on the border to North Korea and blasting the baffled and emaciated locals with back-to-back episodes of ‘The Only Way Is Essex.’

Poor Pulis. Promotion, consolidation, an FA Cup Final and a run in Europe with Stoke City and all anyone can remember is the rumour that he burst naked from the shower and headbutted James Beattie. It’s an enduring image and one that no amount of counselling will erase.

But are Pulis’ apparent ambitions so far beyond the realms of possibility? After all, Athletic Bilbao do have British connections that stretch all the way back to the start of their history. It was British dockyard workers and sailors who formed the club, the distinctive red and white striped shirts were brought back from Southampton in 1909, many of their early managers were British and, lest we forget, Howard Kendall was in charge for two years in the late 80s.

And from the outside, Pulis might actually seem an appealing choice. Bilbao is a club, and indeed a city, that values tenacity, bravery and a willingness to fight the established order without fear of the consequences. Pulis dragged Stoke up and kept them up in spite of fierce criticism and he certainly never worried if the pundits liked the way he went about his business.

In fact, the more you think about it, the more you wonder if you should feel guilty for mocking the man. We are quick to accuse our compatriots of being too insular and too resistant to new ideas. And what happens when one of them reveals a desire to go abroad and stretch themselves? We laugh at him.

Too few Brits, players or managers, are brave enough to leave their comfort zone and maybe that’s one of the reasons that the home nations have stagnated in recent years. Most would rather strap themselves to the gravy train and ride it all the way round and round and round again. Pulis should be applauded for his courage.

But wouldn’t it be amazing? Wouldn’t it just be the greatest idea ever to put Pulis on a boat and send him to Bilbao? In a league where the slightest contact, where even the whisper of a hint that someone has considered making the slightest contact, is enough to bring grown men crashing to the ground, Pulis’ football would be the ultimate in shock and awe. Never mind your ‘tiki-taka’. Have some ‘take-lots-of-prisoners-but-only-so-you-can-torture-and-execute-them-at-your-leisure taka.’

Dear Lord, I don’t ask you for much, but please, please, please can you make this happen?

Read Iain's previous columns here.