The Agenda: Can Gus Poyet succeed where others failed?

After five managers in five years, Gus Poyet's biggest task is helping Sunderland AFC rediscover its soul, argues Mark Douglas

Richard Sellers/Getty Images Gus Poyet
Gus Poyet

Gus Poyet sported a smile as wide as the River Wear as the photographer’s bulbs flashed with machine-gun frequency at his official unveiling.

“I am a positive person,” he beamed, midway through an hour-long inquisition from football’s fourth estate. “If I’m here it’s because I believe it is possible to do well.”

Before he had emerged from the bowels of the Academy of Light to present his Black Cats vision, experienced journalists traded in a more familiar currency around these parts: the number of these unveilings they had covered. It has been five in five years at Sunderland but a couple of the more established scribblers aren’t far off a remarkable half-century across the region’s three big clubs.

It seems uncharitable to end the honeymoon before Poyet has even carried Sunderland over the threshold but he will soon discover the job he has been appointed to is even bigger than he presumes. Saving Sunderland from relegation might look tough but it is just phase one of a monumental challenge. The next challenge is to give the club its soul back.

Think about it for a minute: can you identify a clear brand of football that the Black Cats have played in the last five years?

They have gone from the 4-4-2 of Steve Bruce to the high-velocity style of Paolo Di Canio via the kick and rush of Martin O’Neill. None have stuck.

Take the question on and ask yourself: what is a typical Sunderland player?

A decade ago you’d have pinpointed Niall Quinn, Kevin Philips or even Kevin Ball. These were men of skill and ability but who grafted their way into the affections of Wearside locals. Latterly it feels like there have been too many interlopers, men with extravagant gifts but who don’t tick the Black Cat boxes.

Poyet’s challenge – and it is a huge one – is to reconnect the club with its roots. Ball’s plan was to pull together a ‘Black Cats Bible’ to give to every new player to infuse the values and philosophies of the club but it will take more than that.

Given the way it has ground down men of substance like O’Neill, Bruce and Roy Keane, the cynics might argue that it will take a miracle.

It won’t. It requires the new man to be more humble than Di Canio but to share some of his vision. In the dark days he must remind himself of the enthusiasm of his first day and not to let the myriad people in the game who try to paint the North East as an impossible place to succeed affect him.

It can be done, and Sunderland supporters should be enthused by the dispatch from Brighton that his biggest legacy was to leave a defined playing style for the club. He didn’t just give them success on the field but a philosophy on it.

On the South Coast he favoured a 4-1-2-3 formation. The key was a sitting midfielder (Liam Bridcutt got the nod at Brighton and subsequently got player of the season two years on the trot), which is good news for Lee Cattermole.

An orthodox striker was supported by two supplementary forwards who were expected to do much of the leg work.

The football was pleasant to watch but the system was actually quite cagey.

When he talked yesterday, he spoke of building from the back – and admitted that points would preface his philosophy.

The good news is he is coming into it with his eyes wide open.

“In terms of coaching and managing this is the biggest challenge and I like it. Just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean it is impossible,” he said.

“I know it is a big challenge. A big part of the process is the results and it depends on us. If I’m here it’s because I believe it is possible to do well. I am confident, very confident, but I am very positive person.

“But I have to make sure the ones who are confident are the players. I need to convince them of the way I am expecting to win games. They need to be convinced that it’s possible. That’s the biggest challenge for me, to convince the players it is possible as quickly as possible.”

First impressions of Poyet were overwhelmingly positive. He seems smart and impressive and an altogether warmer personality than Di Canio, which is what Sunderland need after the abrasive Italian’s ‘scorched earth’ policy.

He showed remarkably little anxiety about having been made to wait a fortnight to be appointed. His interview with Short had emphasised that he is his own man.

He said: “I don’t try to be anyone else. I told him the truth, I am honest and then we go from there. It was clear that this was nothing to do with Paolo, this was about the future. Together we need to work well. This a great opportunity for me to show what I can be.”

The North East has proved a barren breeding ground for managers. Few go on to bigger and better things although a worrying number – Bruce immediately springs to mind – tend to rebound and reassert themselves elsewhere.

Does Poyet feel anxiety about that? “No. It’s a great challenge. It is not a risk. If you think I am scared about the position we are in, then you don’t know me.

“I had phone calls from abroad. I wanted to stay in England until January at least. I had a feeling that if something came up in the Premier League then I would have an opportunity and I have.

“Now it is up to me to prove the chairman right. I like England, I love it, it changed my life.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer