Sunderland can expect a ruthlessly ambitious, likeable exponent of passing football in their new manager.
That is the verdict of former Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper, who has delivered a ringing endorsement of Gus Poyet – his boss for a month while on loan at Brighton.
Poyet’s introduction as Black Cats boss came amid accusations that Sunderland had merely appointed Paolo Di Canio-lite in the shape of a Uruguayan who proved abrasive but successful in his spell in charge of Brighton.
Harper did not recognise that portrayal of a boss who stood out in his mind for his commitment to play attractive football. While Harper’s black-and-white connections mean that he can’t quite extend his good luck wishes to Poyet’s first home game – a derby clash with Newcastle United, of course – he does feel that there is plenty to look forward to if you’re a Black Cat.
“I think it’s a very good appointment. Obviously he’s got an incredibly tough first home game against Newcastle but I think he’ll do well,” he said.
“I liked him at Brighton, I liked the way he wanted his teams to play and I’m sure Sunderland fans will like that as well. Ultimately his ambition cost him his job at Brighton because when I was there he wanted one or two extra players to get to the Premier League and I think his frustrations came to the fore there and ultimately he left.
“They’ll like him. Ultimately he’s ambitious and likable. He encourages teams to play, he encourages players to express themselves on the pitch but ultimately he doesn’t mind letting players know if they’re stepping out of line or not doing what is expected of them as well. I was only there for a month but you could see he was destined for bigger and better things. Hopefully for Gus – after his first home game anyway – he can do a good job.”
Poyet admitted at his unveiling on Tuesday that his career path had always seemed destined to lead to the North East and his credentials for next week’s Tyne-Wear derby are pretty impeccable – from a red-and-white point of view. He has broken Newcastle hearts before and Harper acknowledges that his enthusiasm for Poyet makes him untypical from a North East point of view. “Unfortunately, he’s got a great record against Newcastle,” he said.
“He’s not a popular man on Tyneside. We cursed him a few times.”
Harper was back in Newcastle to present a cheque worth more than £320,000 to six North East charities – the result of two months of hard work organising his charity match.
He said: “Times have changed. The money in football is astronomical. It’s a million times above the level that I’ve ever been, but it’s a no-brainer to help out these fantastic charities.
“I’ve had a fantastic relationship with this club and the people of this region have been fantastic supporters of mine, so when the concept came up it was the least I could do to say thank you and try to put something back into these fantastic charities.”
As well as raising lots of cash, Harper’s match stood as a genuinely memorable occasion. A Newcastle old boys’ team took on an AC Milan Glorie side that included some of the finest players of their generation.
The Hull City goalkeeper has been inundated with messages since the match, many of them from players who enjoyed pulling on the boots again. “It was an honour to share the same pitch with them – even if they weren’t as mobile as they might have used to been!” he said.
“I’ve seen three or four of the guys since and that’s all they want to talk about, how amazing it was to play in front of a full house at this fantastic stadium. It just worked.”