Tony Pulis possibly first suspected his time at Stoke City was running out last December. As Christmas approached, Peter Coates, the club's owner, appointed Mark Cartwright, a former Wrexham and Shrewsbury Town goalkeeper and football agent, to the newly created post of technical director – and two worlds collided.
Civil as relations between Pulis and Cartwright might have appeared to casual observers, there were understood to be underlying tensions between an "old-school manager" instinctivelysuspicious of delegation and a 40-year-old tasked with identifying and recruiting competitively priced talent from far-flung corners of the world.
Although Pulis had the final say on transfers, Cartwright's appointment represented a loss of control and, perhaps, an implicit criticism on Coates's part of a transfer policy that saw Stoke's net spend on players during the past five seasons reach almost £80m. Only Chelsea and Manchester City invested more during the same period.
While it would be wrong to say Pulis did not get a return for his money – after leading Stoke into the Premier League five years ago his team not only stayed there but also reached the 2011 FA Cup final and qualified for Europe – Coates is believed to have begun to develop reservations about paying top-dollar for largely British and Irish players.
The deal that arguably provoked Cartwright's arrival was the £10m acquisition of Peter Crouch from Tottenham Hotspur in 2011. Coates was unsure about Crouch before Pulis eventually convinced him, but the former England centre-forward neglected to bring his shooting boots to the Potteries, scoring a modest seven goals in 34 Premier League appearances during the season that has just ended.
Back in 2010 Stoke had splashed out £8m on another centre–forward, Kenwyne Jones from Sunderland, but he, too, has largely disappointed in recent months, scoring only three times in 26 Premier League appearances.
Statistics have not really been Pulis's friend, with recent Opta figures highlighting the fact that the team complete fewer passes than almost any other Premier League side while invariably unleashing a higher percentage of long balls. They regularly record the fewest shots on target of any top division team.
An attendant dependence on securing points from set-pieces rather than open play contrasted unfavourably with the much more fluid, inventive football practised by lower-budget teams such as Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion, and Norwich City. It was not so much that Stoke's style did not evolve under Pulis – back in 2008-09 they averaged 250 passes a game but managed a median 326 this time round – just that it did not develop fast enough to properly catch up in a division in which accomplished coaches such as Swansea's Michael Laudrup were constantly raising the bar.
Cartwright has made some rather loaded comments about the importance of recruiting players capable of transporting the club "to that next level, technically and ability wise", and with Coates keen to invest time and resources in Stoke's academy, it was presumably noted that Pulis rarely fielded players aged under 24. It will also have been observed that, in a large first-team squad, well-paid individuals such as Cameron Jerome, Wilson Palacios, Jermaine Pennant, Matthew Upson, Maurice Edu, Michael Owen and Thomas Sorensen barely managed a handful of appearances between them all season. As Owen recently put it: "It is either the manager's opinion that I'm not good enough to get into the team or I don't fit into the system we adopt."
In some ways the Britannia Stadium became a bit of a Bermuda Triangle for footballers. Among those to have seen once promising careers go off track at Stoke has been Tuncay Sanli, a wonderfully creative, improvisational talent at Fenerbahce and Middlesbrough but the sort of "between the lines" forward Pulis simply could not fit into his, at best, two-dimensional system. Charlie Adam, acquired from Liverpool for £4m last summer, has similarly struggled to make his ability count.
As they watched Adam and company huff and puff their way through another mediocre season, featuring a gentle skirmish against relegation before a 13th-place finish, Stoke fans became increasingly militant, expressing dissatisfaction with their manager's modus operandi. Pulis's oft reiterated riposte was that they had been spoilt. "If you're given steak and chips every day, steak and chips become the norm," he retorted. While many Stoke supporters may argue that the side's football was often more akin to undercooked pasta without sauce, no one could dispute that he presided over a period of rare stability and consistency. Since returning to the top flight Stoke have not finished below 14th.
At 55 Pulis is almost certainly too young to retire, but as he retreats to lick his wounds at his Dorset home and re-acquaints himself with old friends at his local church, the Welshman will be much missed by the wider community in the Potteries. Popular in many circles, including the media, Pulis did much unsung charity work, most notably running a marathon and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for a children's hospice a mile down from the road from the Britannia Stadium where he proved a frequent visitor, always generous with his time. While his successor strives to implement longed-for stylistic change on the pitch, off it he has much to live up to.
The men in contention to replace Tony Pulis
Rafael Benítez 3-1
Looking for work after his successful interim spell with Chelsea and has a house just up the M6 in Merseyside. But he will be in high demand following Chelsea's Europa League success and Stoke would represent a step down for a man who boasts a managerial CV featuring Valencia, Liverpool, Internazionale and some of the biggest prizes in football. Already linked with Napoli, though has enjoyed his time in the Premier League more than his six months in Seria A.
Roberto Di Matteo 9-2
Impressed when in charge of West Bromwich Albion, where he won promotion to the Premier League before being somewhat surprisingly sacked in 2011. Re-entered the dug-out as assistant to André Villas-Boas and was appointed caretaker following the manager's sacking. Although he won the Champions League in May 2012 he lasted only until November the same year at Stamford Bridge, before being replaced by Benítez. Would bring a change of style.
Gus Poyet 8-1
Currently suspended by Brighton following the club's defeat in the Championship play-offs, but until his somewhat sticky – in more ways than one – end with Albion had forged a reputation as one of the brightest managerial talents in English football. Turned down Reading earlier this year in favour of remaining on the south coast but a more established club may prove tempting and provide a solution to his ongoing standoff with the Seagulls.
Mark Hughes 9-1
His near-decade in club management has brought mixed results but the bulk of the Welshman's success has been with mid-ranking Premier League teams. The finger of blame for QPR's relegation this season has often been pointed in his direction but that should not overshadow solid work with Blackburn, Fulham and, at times, Manchester City. An unglamorous, but fairly safe, option. Would his style be too similar to that of the outgoing Pulis?
Phil Neville 10-1
Looking for his first break in management and due to assist Stuart Pearce at the European Under-21 championships this summer. The new Manchester United manager, David Moyes, has given him his seal of approval and reports have suggested that the former Everton manager wants him to join the new regime at Old Trafford. An early chance to take full control, though, could be tempting. John Ashdown