Once in a while a player comes along with whom you fall in love. I’d already had this experience with Turkish international Tuncay Sanli when I saw him play for Middlesboro during Stoke City’s first season in the Premiership. Below are my thoughts on him from ASLNM when he gave a Man of the Match performance and still ended up on the losing side at the Britannia Stadium (incidentally, I predict that ‘Boro will continue to lose, having just appointed Tony ‘found on the moon’ Mowbray to the managerial hotseat [managerial seats: never cold]):
In the second half Tuncay – a hero from the Turkish side who did so brilliantly in those European Championships last year – runs the show, trading back-heels through his midfield, playing dummies that deliver, crossing, sometimes shooting and generally providing no small measure of energy. But still Boro cannot score: they have no outlet for Tuncay’s creation and he cannot do it all on his own. Tuncay should play for us, our crowd of Magyar-Ottoman hybrids would appreciate him: at one point Tuncay shoots over the bar, or wide, and his momentum takes him into the advertising hoardings in front of the Boothen End where he is greeted by wild derision for his miss. He momentarily freezes, he is just a gesture away from retaliating, but a likeable note of good humoured self-preservation kicks in and he takes a step backwards, smiles, and half-bows. The crowd appreciate it…
And now, as things have turned out, Tuncay does play for us. In the final moments of last year’s summer transfer window this incredible news was confirmed: Tony Pulis had gone madly against type and bought a flair player to the club. My heart skipped several beats and, as much to wind up Old Stokie as anything (OS has something against Turks, he claims they cut his father’s throat with a dancing girl and a dagger or some such Ali Baba-type tomfoolery) I painted a white t-shirt with a red banner leaving blank the spaces for the reverse crescent moon and star of the Turkish flag (the most accepted legend of the flag is that it represents a reflection of the moon and star in a pool of the blood of Turkish warriors. That’s what you call symbolism.) My t-shirt was rather grubby by the time Tuncay had his proper full debut (if indeed he ever did; I can’t remember it). It took longer than it seemed it ought for the gifted new signing to get on to our pitch for anything like ninety minutes because, although he was a ‘smashing kid’ (Tuncay Sanli is twenty-eight) who ‘worked hard in training,’ he was judged to be short of match fitness having ‘not had a full pre-season.’
Tuncay arrived from Middlesboro along with German centre back Robert Huth. With the same pre-season as Tuncay behind him, Huth walked straight into the starting eleven. At 6ft 3ins and 13stone 12lbs the centre-back is an effective unit with more than a touch of Deutschland über alles about him – he has been caught swinging an elbow into an opposition player off the ball more than once and regularly hauls an opponent to the ground if that appears to be the last resort. All to the good, and apart from the malevolent streak he’s a player I like and is exactly the sort of individual who, in conjunction with Rory Delap, can cause havoc in the opposition penalty box: he scores a number of bread and butter goals with his head. Huth immediately went on to Pulis’ Category-A list of un-droppables. How this list is compiled is anyone’s educated guess: a combination of being quick to salute, good at following orders, never questioning of the gaffer, and of being the acme of a hard worker will define it, in short: a Pulis Category-A is a conformist. One glance at Tuncay will tell you he is a non-conformist. He is a simples meerkat in a pair of flash blue boots and an ill-advised piratical headband. Therein lies part of the problem.
Having bought him, Pulis instinctively feels he cannot trust him, and in some dark part of his being the manager must struggle with an urge to self-flagellation because Pulis sees the chairman’s money as his own (the figure was about 5 million). The way Pulis deals with his ‘mistake’ is to single him out for special treatment. For example, having bought Tuncay on as a substitute away at Hull last season he then subbed him back off in a bizarre tactical change following a sending off. Having been on the pitch for six minutes (81-87) Tuncay stormed down the tunnel (and we actually lost the game after he had disappeared) a dramatic gesture he soon repeated at our place following another premature withdrawal. Pulis won’t have that. He could hold clear-the-air talks, perhaps, but he’s just not built that way, and these matters are not so straightforward to deal with in any event as the tabloid manager-player drama between Wayne ‘Robbed by a Scouser, you’re getting robbed by a Scouser!’ Rooney and Sir Alex demonstrated so well all last week in the build up to the match on Sunday.
So, after a very short period of probation, Pulis takes against Tuncay. And subsequently and forever afterwards the manager lets the crowd in on how badly Tuncay is playing and how terrible he is at following orders by giving him ‘the water treatment’. This involves the slinging down of the plastic bottle in his hand or a kicking-out at the one nearest to his feet whenever the player makes the slightest mistake. We’ve seen it before, also involving a flair player (shoulder-length-hair, at any rate), the full-back Carl Hoefkens. But in the Hoefken’s Case the real matter at issue was that he had been purchased by interim manager Johan Boskamp and that he was popular with the fans; for that much he had to go. Also, Hoefkens was Belgian, which could not help (Boskamp was Dutch, there was too much Low Country-conspiracy theory at play there for the Pulis psyche to cope with. Hoefkens was a good player, there was no doubt about that, better than we had in that position, but there was only one inevitable outcome, and Hoefkens went to West Brom).
The Stoke City squad is stronger than ever at the moment. The manager attracts a real respect from most quarters and grudging respect from almost all quarters now, for this, and for other matters, such as turning Stoke into a formidable side who are very hard to beat, such as arriving down at the touchline at half-time to inspire a win (Huth in the last minute) when we were in the bottom three on the day his mother died. You have to stand up and applaud that and I did. By now some fans love him, maybe; I don’t know.
But I do know that for situations like Tuncay Sanli I never will. Tuncay has never been genuinely integrated into or established in the side, In short, he has never had a chance and he has never stood a chance. He does not fit the system – he is a ‘licence to roam-type’ and Pulis has never accommodated one of these; it has become as much as the player can hope for these days to find a place reserved for him on the bench. Indeed, it was reported that having been left out of the squad entirely at Bolton the weekend before he ‘stormed’ back to Stoke-on-Trent in a cab. On Sunday against Manchester United, taxi or no taxi, Tuncay was reinstated to the bench because Ricardo Fuller is injured: even Pulis could not leave him out under this circumstance. As the second half developed it became clear to the proverbial ‘blind man on a charging horse’ of Oatcake fanzine myth (blind men on charging horses are always able to see what the manager/referee didn’t/couldn’t in the pages of the Oatcake) that we needed something extra in the way of wit, guile, pace & invention up front for us to have any hope of turning round the situation in which we found ourselves (one-nil down). The Boothen End let the gaffer into their way of thinking by chanting Tuncay’s name. This sort of pressure is likely to be, and can be, counter productive in the case of a man who as stubborn as Tony Pulis, but for some reason (he was coming on anyway? that would have to be the given reason) he relented and the crowd got what it was crying out for. Tuncay saw twenty-five minutes of action and in the fifteenth of those minutes he scored a goal I will never forget, that made my blood fizz; that is the whole point of dragging yourself along to what Old Stokie calls ‘the nogger’. He took the ball down on his chest out wide on the right wing, headed to the angle of the penalty box, cut inside the full back and curled it into the top corner with his left blue boot (he is nominally right-footed). Our seats are directly behind the flight-path the ball took; neither Edwin van der Sar nor any other goalkeeper in the world was going to stop it. Tuncay headed to the Boothen End with his arms raised in vindication, thanking and praising these people for bringing him on. He kicked the advertising hoardings a couple of times to vent his frustration: that the opportunities for him to express himself in this wonderful way are made so few, and then he bowed low as he had done two seasons earlier while wearing a Middlesboro shirt.
Pulis will never keep a player whose name is sung as a proxy for criticising him and his team selection. The Turk has always been on borrowed time and I expect the lease to expire in January. Less than we have seldom seen the best of him, we have seldom seen him at all; that is a criminal waste, but we will always have this goal. Twenty-five thousand people and more will never forget it; in twenty-five years time they will still talk about it. Tuncay Sanli should know that. It’s a shame they scored another one, because the draw would have been celebrated like a win, and the goal deserved that at the very least.