The thing about contracts in football is that they don’t really mean what is presented to us.
If they did, Gus Poyet would still be at Brighton and Hove Albion plotting the club’s path into the Premier League. In 2011 he signed a five-year deal which would have tied him to the South Coast club until 2016, roughly the time at which Lee Cattermole’s long-term contract would be coming to an end.
A contract is not a cast-iron guarantee or a millstone around the neck rather, in football at least, it represents a financial and philosophical commitment to a way of playing. In short, it is a manager’s mandate.
At the moment, Poyet’s mandate at the Stadium of Light is to take them until the end of this season and then, after another summer of change, have another crack at it next term. It gives him one less year than he would have had at Brighton, if they hadn’t mystifingly taken against him after the play-off defeat to Crystal Palace that seemed to curdle attitudes towards their most successful boss for decades.
Much has been made of Ellis Short’s pleasing propensity to correct the mistakes he made earlier in the season. He is the billionaire who says ‘sorry’; that rarity among Premier League owners more likely to hunker down and ride out a storm than reconnect with supporters by admitting he has erred.
The relatively short deal for Poyet was not a mistake, as such. No one blamed Short for trying before he buys with the club’s Premier League football in serious doubt but can anyone really make a convincing case that goes against Poyet being given a long-term mandate to mould Sunderland’s future?
A new, longer deal for Poyet is a must – and it should be done swiftly. Before Wembley, before the forthcoming run-ins with the top four which might further enhance a reputation that has already been bolstered by Sunderland’s remarkable resurgence since the turn of the year. And it must be signed, sealed and delivered long before the managerial merry-go-round of the close season.
It is a long, long time since Sunderland had a manager who left the club of his own accord, as Saturday’s visiting boss will need no reminding. Most of them have been fired and Steve Bruce, who returns for the first time with Hull City tomorrow, was convinced that he was harshly treated by Short. He has no doubt looked on at events at the club since his departure as evidence that he was doing well at the Stadium of Light and Short was too hasty. Poyet is the first manager that Sunderland supporters can point to as proof that this is wrong.
When Martin O’Neill left last spring, there were a few prepared to ask ‘If not him, who?’ The prizes, the plaudits and the gold-plated pedigree suggested O’Neill would be the man but it imploded. The less said about Paolo Di Canio the better. No wonder Poyet’s appointment, while warmly welcomed, was hardly the cause for black and white rejoicing that it might have been.
But within a few months of getting the job, he has begun to turn things around. He brought players back onside, filling them full of confidence in their own ability. When the sort of mistakes that had Di Canio wiping his hands of them were made, he bit his tongue. Players written off or ignored by O’Neill found a manager prepared to offer them a second chance. Even Ji Dong-Won, who had gone into a winter hibernation, came back into the fray and played his part during a frantic Christmas.
It sounds like simple man-management but then so does everything Poyet has done. The Journal ran an analysis this week that pin-pointed five “simple” steps Poyet had taken and they weren’t particularly complex things that he has done.
It begs the question though – if they are so simple why has someone else not tried to do them? Poyet is the first man to crack the Black Cats code in the Premier League – and he is the club’s future.