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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 16:23 GMT
Championship chargers
By Paul Fletcher

Stoke boss Tony Pulis (left) and Bristol City manager Gary Johnson
Stoke's Tony Pulis (left) and Bristol City's Gary Johnson are desperate to manage in the Premier League

It is August 2008 and supporters of Stoke and Bristol City are feverishly anticipating their first fixtures as a Premier League club.

A pipedream? The hard facts of the Championship table suggest otherwise.

While many familiar faces - the likes of Watford, West Brom and Charlton - are hoping for a return to the top flight, it is the Robins and the Potters who occupy the top two slots bringing automatic promotion.

It is a state of affairs that has taken almost everyone by surprise, including the managers of the respective clubs.

Neither Bristol City's Gary Johnson nor Stoke's Tony Pulis started the season anticipating a sustained promotion challenge.

The biggest thing for a manager is knowing the product - and the product in football is players

Stoke boss Tony Pulis

But as the season moves into its final furlong, both clubs have serious ambitions of reaching the promised land.

Their stories are very different - as are their styles of play - yet there are undeniable similarities that help to explain why both clubs have managed to scale new heights.

Pulis is in his second spell at Stoke, having returned to the Britannia Stadium in June 2006.

His first lasted from November 2002 to June 2005 and was largely unremarkable, characterised by mid-table finishes and the direct style of play for which Pulis is known.

The long-ball tactics made Pulis unpopular with Stoke fans but the 50-year-old is quick to point out that he was working on a restricted budget.

"The club now is unrecognisable from when I took over for the first spell," Pulis told BBC Sport.

TONY PULIS MANAGERIAL CV
1992-94: Bournemouth
1995-99: Gillingham
1999-2000: Bristol City
2000: Portsmouth
2002-05: Stoke
2005-06: Plymouth
2006-: Stoke

"The budget was comparable with the bottom four teams in the division."

When Pulis returned, the Icelandic contingent that ran the club had left and Peter Coates was back as chairman.

Coates made some money available and Stoke finished eighth last season, missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the campaign.

The summer saw a number of key players such as Danny Higginbotham, Jonathan Fortune and Lee Hendrie leave the club.

It left Pulis with a significant problem as he set about building a new squad, with the difficulties that involves.

"The biggest thing for a manager - and this is something that I learned when I came into coaching with Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth - is knowing the product," Pulis explains. "And the product in football is players.

606: DEBATE

"There has been a big change of players here.

"You have got to really know what you want as a manager and put the right pegs in the right holes.

"You don't find out about players sat around the television. You have to be out and about, on the road, watching games. It takes a lot of time to analyse what is out there."

Pulis believes he has a good knowledge of players and signed the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Richard Cresswell during the summer, while Danny Pugh and Leon Cort arrived on loan early in the season.

All have excelled, with young defender Shawcross a particularly inspired signing. So much so that Pulis paid 1m to sign him permanently from Manchester United in January.

Pulis has a set of criteria when assessing whether to sign a player - with one firmly at the top of the list.

"The most important thing that I look for is the player's character, both on and off the pitch," he said. "To get the right mix in a dressing-room it takes all sorts."

You stand and fall by your philosophy and ours seem to be working

Bristol City boss Gary Johnson
Pulis's diligence in researching the transfer market has paid spectacular dividends, with his team second in the Championship.

Furthermore, Pulis feels a key factor in explaining why Stoke have gone from a team challenging for a play-off place to one pushing for the Premier League is that goals have come from right through the team this season.

He also believes they have the right blend of players to cope with the particular challenges of Championship football.

"We have got a mixture, plenty of power and pace but some really good players in the likes of Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence and Salif Diao," he said.

"It is about having enough to cope when you go into battle against the stronger teams and having enough to compete when playing the best footballing teams.

"We have taken four points off West Brom, scored four goals against them and only conceded one."

In contrast, Bristol City have a reputation as more of a pure footballing side.

Gary Johnson celebrates winning the Conference title with Yeovil in 2003
Gary Johnson started his climb through the divisions with Yeovil
Quite simply, while standing on the touchline watching his team play, the manager Johnson wants to be entertained.

But if the style of play at both clubs contrast sharply, they are united in the belief that hard work is the lynchpin of their success.

"You stand and fall by your philosophy and ours seem to be working," Johnson, 52, told BBC Sport.

"There is a lot more to it than words but mainly it is hard work and putting into training what you do in a match so then in games you can trust your training."

Johnson likens the situation to a soldier at war - if he cannot trust his training then he will soon perish.

And, as with Pulis, Johnson believes that when it comes to a new signing the character of the player cannot be under-estimated.

"We would rather lose somebody than not know about their character," added Johnson. "If we are told have to sign someone by two o'clock today but we have not met them, then it simply won't happen."

Johnson will consult footballers who once played for him, and have since been a team-mate of the potential signing, to find out about their character.

As well as getting the right chemistry in the dressing-room, Johnson believes trying different things to freshen up training is important over a long, hard season.

It is the same off the pitch as well.

Johnson's father used to ask people to light a candle for him as a good-luck charm. The Robins boss jokingly made the same appeal to supporters and was astonished by the response.

Fans from as far afield as Japan e-mailed the club to say they had done so. Hundreds turned up at Scunthorpe with candles.

By the following home game against Palace it was battery-operated candles - 2,000 of them.

GARY JOHNSON MANAGERIAL CV
1993-95: Cambridge United
1995-97: Kettering Town
1999-2001: Latvia
2001-05: Yeovil Town
2005-: Bristol City

City are in their first season in the Championship after finishing as runners-up in League One last year - and both managers and fans are enjoying the experience.

Whereas Stoke's success has brokered a a fragile alliance between Pulis and the club's fans, Johnson is extremely popular at Ashton Gate.

His career has been on an upward trajectory since he took over Yeovil in 2001.

He guided the Glovers through two promotions before leaving for Ashton Gate in September 2005.

In some ways Johnson has continued the work he started at Yeovil at his new home - and several players have joined him, including son Lee.

If the Robins reach the Premier League he will have won promotion through every division from the Conference.

Johnson is a former boss of the Latvian national team and dryly observes: "They say you have to learn your trade."

Johnson and Pulis are united by a burning ambition to test themselves in the top flight - and whether or not they would survive once there is a question for another day.

Johnson, whose team are top of the table, always takes one game a time. If you do not, he believes, "you wish your life away".

Pulis, who has just won the manager of the month award for February, has seen his team lose just three of their last 20 league games.

Worryingly for him, the Potters have lost their last two games but Pulis is focused on keeping the routine at Stoke exactly the same through the final crucial few weeks of the season.

What he wants is a little bit of luck along the way.

Both clubs will probably need some if the Premier League is to have a new member next season.



The Coca-Cola Football League Championship Table
30 January 2010 19:21
    P GD PTS
1 Newcastle 27 27 56
2 Nottm Forest 28 23 52

3 West Brom 27 26 50
4 Cardiff 27 22 45
5 Swansea 27 3 42
6 Sheff Utd 27 4 41

7 Blackpool 27 10 40
8 Leicester 26 2 39
9 Middlesbrough 28 7 37
10 Bristol City 27 -4 36
11 Preston 26 -2 35
12 QPR 27 -4 34
13 Doncaster 26 -1 33
14 Coventry 28 -8 33
15 Barnsley 26 -8 33
16 Scunthorpe 27 -13 33
17 Watford 26 -6 32
18 Derby 28 -11 32
19 Sheff Wed 28 -12 31
20 Crystal Palace 27 2 30
21 Ipswich 27 -8 29

22 Reading 27 -16 26
23 Plymouth 26 -14 24
24 Peterborough 28 -19 18

SEE ALSO
Bristol City 2-1 Hull
01 Mar 08 |  Championship
QPR 3-0 Stoke
02 Mar 08 |  Championship
Pulis handed Championship honour
28 Feb 08 |  Stoke City
Shawcross ties up 1m Stoke move
18 Jan 08 |  Stoke City
Crowd can push us up says Pulis
22 Feb 08 |  Stoke City
Pulis confirmed as Stoke manager
14 Jun 06 |  Stoke City
Boskamp confirms exit from Stoke
30 Apr 06 |  Stoke City
Johnson named Bristol City boss
23 Sep 05 |  Bristol City
Johnson prepares report on City
12 Oct 05 |  Bristol City


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