Tony Pulis' surprise departure has made life very uncomfortable for Crystal Palace, as well as a number of his managerial colleagues.
So the Premier League sack race is over before the season has begun. Tony Pulis, named manager of the year last season for the remarkable assurance with which he steered a tanking Crystal Palace away from the relegation zone, has left Selhurst Park. "Mutual consent" is the official reason; a mutual contretemps perhaps closer to the truth. It emerged yesterday that Pulis was "locked in" to "crisis talks" with Palace chairman Steve Parish over the size and state of his transfer budget; a few short hours later, the locks had been been sprung and the crisis was very much on.
Palace's summer business so far comprises veteran defender Brede Hangeland, picked up on a free from relegated Fulham; Frazier Campbell, £900,000 from relegated Cardiff City; and just yesterday former Liverpool defender Martin Kelly, at an undisclosed-but-not-too-high price. Kelly, poor lad, is presumably standing around somewhere in South London looking more than a little confused and trying not to blame himself.
It's a modest list, and it's certainly lacking at least one signing, a replacement for South African midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi, who was virtually ever-present last season but was allowed to leave on a free transfer. Over the course of the window, Palace were heavily linked with both Gylfi Sigurdsson and Steven Caulker, now of Swansea and Queens Park Rangers respectively. It's easy to see how a manager might feel unsupported by this club.
It's also easy to see how a chairman might take the view that the squad is in pretty good shape. Though Palace aren't going to be bothering the European places any time soon, the spine of last season's side -- particularly the excellent Mile Jedinak and the reborn Marouane Chamakh -- is still in place, and was bolstered in January by the arrival of Joe Ledley and Jason Puncheon. Not the most exciting collection of names, perhaps, but clearly sufficient to mix it in the Premier League. One problem with managing a club to safety with such apparent ease, notching up victories over Chelsea and Everton on the way, is that the case for new players becomes significantly weaker.
The initial suspicion, on hearing yesterday that "crisis talks" were ongoing, was that Pulis was being a little cute, using a judicious leak to the press to leverage extra money out of the board in the safe and secure knowledge that they couldn't take the risk of to losing him. If so, then that went well. You'd think football managers would have realised by now that they are never indispensable, even when they probably should be.
But reports today suggest that Pulis had been considering his position for much of the summer, and had even been unhappy since January, as names on his lists went elsewhere and Palace's pursestrings remained tightly bound. Whether there was some specific broken promise isn't clear, though James Nursey of the Mirror has raised the possibility that the clash centred over a mooted loan move for Wilfried Zaha. Brilliant for Palace in their promotion season, Zaha is currently unwanted at Manchester United, and while his repatriation to south London would doubtless please the fans and represent something of a coup for the chairman -- the return of a prodigal son is always a good look -- the suggestion is that Pulis simply didn't want him.
The wrinkle is that for all Pulis' fine work last season -- had Palace's form since he took over been applied across the entire season, they'd have finished eighth; had he not taken over, they could well have finished 21st -- he is not necessarily a manager that should be handed a series of blank cheques. His transfer record at Stoke was spotty at best; for every Ryan Shawcross there was a Sanli Tuncay, and nobody ever seemed to get sold on for any money. Buying low and selling high is good business, and Pulis' record suggests that he's a master of the opposite. It's worth recalling here that Steve Parish took over the club on the point of liquidation; following their promotion in May 2013, he stressed that prudence would need to go hand-in-hand with improvement.
That said, his prudence has landed the club in one hell of a mess. Palace are now in much the same state as pretty every single Premier League preview (thanks for that, lads). A safe season of consolidation under an ultra-reliable manager now threatens to be one of absolute chaos; not only to Palace need to dig out another signing or two, they have to do so at the same time as finding a manager. The transfer window closes in sixteen days, and they kick off against Arsenal tomorrow. Maybe just stick the baseball cap on a ringer and hope the players don't notice?
The list of replacements features some exciting/totally predictable faces. The most promising (but perhaps too expensive) is David Moyes. As plainly a decent Premier League manager as he plainly is not a Manchester United manager, Moyes has previous experience at Everton working for a chairman who can't or won't spend any money, not to mention experience at Manchester United working for a CEO who doesn't know how to. Some of the more serious newspapers are tipping Malky Mackay, to whom any chairman must look like the Dalai Lama after Vincent Tan. Otherwise, the Sun today announced Tim Sherwood as the favourite, which must have amused Brighton fans plenty.
But if Pulis' departure creates an opportunity for somebody to jump off the merry-go-round, then equally it makes life for many of the Premier League's managers even more uncomfortable than usual. Maybe a return to Stoke is a stretch, but a sticky start for any one of ten or eleven other teams could see Tony Pulis and his Magic Hat of Salvation entering the dugout. A certain managerial infelicity in the transfer market can be set aside, at least temporarily, when Premier League survival is on the line. Certainly, Paul Lambert and Sam Allardyce can't be feeling too comfortable this morning, particularly since Pulis' Palace weren't even that Stoke-like to watch.
Football lends itself to odd quirks of fate almost as much as it does to hideously mixed metaphors, and by winning the sack race Pulis has ended up in pole position. Walking away from a job two days before it begins is not a great mark on the CV, but that's the only blemish on a reputation that has been thoroughly restored after the Conscious Stoke Uncoupling. A cynic might even suggest that things could not have gone better for the Welshman; he's managed to leave behind a job with a club of (understandably and wisely) limited ambition without having to go through the uncomfortable business of losing any games.
A few months of part-time punditry beckon, but before too long he'll flick on Sky Sports News, watch the yellow ticker get all overheated, then sit back with a smile and wait for the phone to ring. And ring it will. He's a miracle-worker now, and miracle-workers are never out of a job for long.