Once the small matter of Saturday’s Tyne-Wear derby is out of the way, they will probably talk of little else in the pubs of Sunderland but the League Cup final is strictly off topic at the Academy of Light.
Worried his team might be distracted by taking on Manchester City at Wembley in March, Gustavo Poyet set aside a few days to get everything out of their system.
When he used the word “basta” in yesterday’s Press conference, Poyet was not talking about Paolo Di Canio (who he is steadfastly ignoring), Mark Hughes or anyone else who has upset him this week. “Basta” is Spanish for “enough, stop it”. He wants no more talk of the League Cup final.
The Uruguayan is right to be worried. Tonight’s apparently run-of-the-mill Premier League game at home to Stoke City is arguably more important than a jolly-up under the arch, and as the end of the season approaches, the games will only get bigger.
No wonder he does not want his players falling into the trap which got him sacked at Tottenham Hotspur. “We did something specific about that, regarding the cup final,” Poyet explained. “We have tried to sort out everything over the weekend and on Monday – tickets, flights, tracksuits, suits, where we’re staying and where we’re going. That’s it, done. See you later.
“There’s a Spanish phrase, basta, that means stop it, that’s enough.
“Why? Because we don’t want it hanging over us.
“On Friday we spent a good two or three hours with the squad just talking about the final. When everything was done and the players were gone unfortunately as a staff we had to talk more about it.
“That doesn’t mean we weren’t paying attention to Kidderminster but there were plenty of things we needed to discuss – the trip, the hotels, everything. It’s part of your job but it is also your duty to keep the players away from that as much as you can.
“The players weren’t really involved. They asked a few questions but on Monday we finalised the ticket arrangements. The players are now aware we don’t talk about that any more.” Last weekend was as good a time as any. With ten players rested, those that faced non-league Kidderminster Harriers in Saturday’s FA Cup ought to have known they can ill afford to have their heads turned by dreams of Wembley. It is something all players talk diligently about avoiding, but disappointingly few manage.
The FA Cup tie was successfully negotiated, albeit only just.
“Now we are feeling that everyone is talking about Stoke, which is most important for us,” says Poyet.
“When a club is playing on a Saturday and then afterwards goes to Dubai, before you play the game everyone is in Dubai already (mentally). I hate that situation.
“Their minds are not on the game. I had it as a footballer and it’s difficult. You’re preparing everything – the lagers, the golf clubs – you need to play the game first.
“One day we will go to Dubai – although that is up to the chairman! – but I would prefer to go four days after a game. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, it’s there, over you. We have dealt with this situation as quickly as possible for us.”
Sunderland have experience of how a cup final can derail a season.
“We won the League Cup with Tottenham when I was a coach and after winning the cup we were so bad, so poor, we went down and down,” Poyet reflects.
“Luckily we had enough points already. But it was bad, bad, bad and it continued the momentum into the following year.
“We started the next season terribly under (Juande) Ramos and we got the sack.
“Winning a trophy and qualifying for Europe in the middle of the season, the players think that’s it, it’s the end. But for us there’s still the league, which is a little more important.”
That said, even the focus of Premier League survival was not enough for Birmingham City, who won the 2011 League Cup and still went down, with Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner in their team.
“Mamma mia, I still have three days to move them on!” jokes their current boss. “That’s one of the things you must guard against.
“I suppose Larsson and Gardner are talking to the players about that. They know the situation very well. They will know what to do for it not to happen again.”
Having laid down the law, all Poyet can do now is trust.
“I probably walk into the players’ dressing room every three weeks so I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he insists. “I can’t follow them and check what they’re talking about or put a recorder in there. But it was important we made that decision.
“I cannot confirm it but I’m expecting the players to have the same attitude because it would be a shame to have a chance to play in a great game at Wembley and not do our business before that. That would spoilt it. That would be terrible. It would be devastating.
“It is time to win at home now. That is one of the issues we need to pay attention to.
“We need to make sure we do well, what we need to do better round the box and last third, make decisions, finish better have more time, put the ball in the box with more quality. If we do those things better, which we have done against top teams, we will have a great chance to win it.
“That is why I want to make this a special game for us. It is a key game for the results.
“Every game is different. Both teams need to play, it is not only about us.
“It is a good time to play them, let’s go and win it.
“I don’t think there will be too many surprises with my team.
“Now we need to do the job, show our ability, try to compete. This is the most difficult part, the part that counts.
“We have talked and worked on a few things, to do a bit better, I am not asking for a lot. Then we have a great chance to win.
“We are going to do things differently which I hope works for our benefit. It is time. It is time to win.”