by Colin Savage

Who’s going to be the first PL manager to get the sack this season? Early runners are Mark Hughes, Andre Villas Boas, Sam Allardyce and Brendan Rodgers but I’ve got my (virtual) money on an outsider. Who is it and why I hear you ask? Well I’ll tell you.

I had some reason to look at transfer activity for all Premier League clubs over the last 5 years and got a bit of a shock. Well a lot of a shock really. Chelsea and Manchester City topped the list of net-spend but do you know who was third? Go on, have a guess.

Liverpool, Manchester United, Spurs, Sunderland, maybe even QPR? Not even close. The club who had the third highest net spend over the last five years was Stoke City. Yes – Stoke City. Stop laughing at the back! No honestly it was Stoke with net spending of just over £75m in those five seasons. That’s £25m more than Liverpool and £13m more than Manchester United. So by now I suspect you’ve guessed I’m talking about Tony Pulis.

Overall I’m not a great believer in using net spend as an accurate barometer of anything. It’s a great for accountants to bandy about but it tells you little about the value of a squad. If one club pays out £200m for players and recoups £150m you’d still expect them to have a better squad than a team that paid out £60m and recouped £5m. Plus it tends to be higher for clubs lower down the development curve, most notably Manchester City. Once you’ve got a squad where a lot of players have a decent resale value then you can finance transfer spend more out of sales than out of other revenue. But it does have some value as a performance indicator.

As an example, Stoke got promoted to the PL in 2008, when they were second to West Brom in the Championship. Now you might reasonably take the view that Stoke wouldn’t expect anything more than mid-table mediocrity as they’re never going challenge the likes of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and even Liverpool, Everton & Spurs. Yet Newcastle, with their negative net spend of £36m over the last five seasons, broke into the top six. West Brom (who were promoted with Stoke, relegated then promoted) has paid out nearly £49m for players and recouped nearly £25m, giving a net spend of £24m, which is a third of Stoke’s  and they finished two points and four places above them last season. Both Norwich & Swansea, newly promoted in 2011, finished above Stoke.

Stoke’s record since promotion is 12th place with 45 points in 2009, 11th place with 47 points in 2010, 13th with 46 points in 2011 and 14th with 45 points in 2012. So despite having spent the third largest net sum since promotion, they actually haven’t progressed at all, either in terms of points or places. In their first season, I was down at the Britannia for a game and got talking to some of their fans afterwards. They were concerned primarily with survival but it was clear even then that winning most of their home games would be enough to achieve that. Pulis’s football was based on achieving survival and you can’t blame him for that. When they were criticised for their somewhat robust style, I remember him saying something like “Our priority is staying up and I’ll do whatever we need to achieve that. When we’re established then I’ll think about playing better football.”

They’re now established but the better football hasn’t really materialised. A lot of that is to do with their transfer policy. Compared to Newcastle’s Ben Arfa, Tiote, Cabaye, Ba & Cisse, they’ve brought in Beattie, Etherington, Pennant, Kenwyne Jones, Huth, Whitehead et al. Almost invariably they’re “safe”, Premiership-experienced players but without a great deal of flair. They’re the sort of players who have little down-side but not much up-side either. The sort of players that will keep you up but not advance you.

Stoke chairman Peter Coates is a level-headed chap so maybe he’s happy with stability, albeit under-achieving stability. But 5 or 6 places further up the table could be worth at least £5-6m when the new TV deal kicks in, which is a significant sum to them. Possibly he doesn’t think it’s worth taking a chance on some foreign imports that might disrupt the squad and move on if they were successful or drag them down if they weren’t. But if he’s looking up the table at the likes of Newcastle, Swansea, West Brom or Fulham then he might wonder whether it’s time to move on from Tony Pulis.