In these times of physical distancing and self-isolation, many of us are left to reflect on past glories and failures or to just kick back and watch Netflix. Gus Poyet can mix them all into one.
Like many, Poyet has been watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the documentary about the club he managed for 18 months until March 2015. The first series focuses on the 2017-18 season when they were relegated from the second tier. Poyet was vocal during his tenure about the issues he saw at the club and feels his opinions have now been justified.
“The first series was very special, as it touched me a lot as I was there,” he says. “It was my office, that was my life. I was there first thing in the morning and leaving the training ground at five or 6pm. I was one of the few, and I am not putting myself in a special place, who managed the club while living in the city.
“It was sad to see so many people I worked with that were still there and it was tough for me to watch. The second series shows a different side of the story of the new owners. They wanted to change things in a very strong, aggressive manner and certain things they were complaining had been done by people before, they ended up doing themselves. It just shows you that it is easy to talk about something you are not in and it shows what goes on behind the manager, letting people know how it isn’t his responsibility. At the end, though, it ends up being the manager’s responsibility.”
Brutal honesty is part of the package when hiring Poyet as a manager, with the 52-year-old having seen how cut-throat football can be. His manner is designed to improve his club but the hierarchy do not always welcome it. At Sunderland he performed one of the greatest Premier League escape acts to stay up in 2014.
“When I went to Sunderland, the owners and the fans asked for two things: one, to stay up and two, beat Newcastle. The rest, I swear to God, does not matter. Somehow we did the miracle – and it will be remembered as a miracle – to stay up. Six games to go we were seven points from safety and we were playing Chelsea, Man City and Man United, so it was a miracle.
“In my time we played Newcastle three times and beat them three times, twice at St James’ Park. Then it depends how you analyse what success is. People say to me: ‘You had a tough time.’ Yes. ‘You got sacked because the team was bad and close to relegation.’ Yes. But what did you ask me to do? What was my goal? Save the team and beat Newcastle. Without saying that we went to Wembley for the first time in 20 years, we lost the Carling Cup to Man City, but I think we did our job and I was easily accused of saying things that now people watching the series, they will think back: ‘Oh, Gus had a point.’”
There are numerous clubs on Poyet’s CV that would make for intriguing documentaries, the former midfielder having managed in Spain, France, China and Greece. A year at AEK Athens gave him situations he had not dealt with before; even without a TV crew following the team the walls had ears.
“For two months I was talking freely in the dressing room and in meetings inside the club and most of it was coming out in the press, which is normal in Greece. You don’t know as you don’t speak the language, so don’t read the newspapers. It was just before Christmas and I was thinking: ‘Wow! Why didn’t you tell me?’ [They said:] ‘As here it is normal.’ It was part of life.”
The Uruguayan has plenty to look back on fondly from his playing and managerial career but has often lacked time to reminisce. When Spanish TV filled its schedule by replaying the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup final, a WhatsApp group of former Real Zaragoza players lit up Poyet’s phone as they watched it back in full together, reminding themselves of the forgotten moments overshadowed by Nayim’s dramatic winner against Arsenal.
Poyet was also part of a Chelsea team including Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf who won an FA Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and Uefa Super Cup. However they never secured the title and Poyet explains why.
“I think we were a team that played great football, it was beautiful to watch and to become champions you have to win games in an ugly way, whatever it takes to get three points on the table. We were not that team. We were a team who really made people enjoy watching us and that meant we needed to play well to win games.
“We were missing that consistency of champions, of having a bad spell [but still winning]. Manchester United won the league many years with many 1-0 wins and last-minute goals. Even this Liverpool team for the last three months have played at 50% of their possibilities and still won games, which is a sign of champions. We were not that team.”
Since leaving Bordeaux in 2018 Poyet has had opportunities to return to management but is yet to find the perfect role, and the season’s suspension means managers are not being sacked.
“I am still waiting and talking to people. Abroad is easier as football is worldwide and I can go anywhere in the world. My aim was to come back to England, as after I left Sunderland I wanted to go somewhere to open my mind and come back. It’s taken a little bit longer than expected to come back but that is football. Now it is a little more difficult to come back here in England.”