WHEN Gustavo Poyet walked into Sunderland’s Academy of Light training ground for his first full day as the club’s manager, he found himself presiding over half a team. Literally. It was international week, and a host of players were away representing their country.
Yet as a metaphor for the dire situation he was inheriting, the lack of numbers was apt. This was a club with its heart ripped out, a shell of a side beset by infighting, ill-feeling and a chronic lack of confidence, all of which were remnants of Paolo Di Canio’s disastrous six-month spell in charge.
How on earth was the amiable Uruguayan going to turn things around? At first, the answer was unclear. Poyet’s first game was a 4-0 defeat at Swansea that saw Sunderland ship four goals in the space of 23 chaotic second-half minutes, and while his next outing brought some much-needed respite in the shape of a derby win over Newcastle, things quickly reverted to type when the Black Cats had two men sent off during a 1-0 defeat at Hull City.
At that stage, damage limitation looked a difficult enough task. A cup final? Don’t be ridiculous. Yet just four months down the line, and that is exactly where Sunderland find themselves. Rarely can such a radical transformation have been enacted in such rapid time and from such grimly unpromising beginnings.
“I remember planning out the first training session, and it didn’t work very well,” said Poyet. “Of course you start asking yourself questions, but there was always that thought of, ‘Okay, let’s wait until everybody comes back’. Then if you remember, my first game had a very entertaining second half!
“Since then though, it’s incredible. One of the options we had this week, in the planning for the game, was to show the players the second half at Swansea and the second half of the Manchester City home game. There was two weeks difference from each other, and one had us four goals down and the other had no goals conceded.
“There was already something extra in the group. The group, together, were playing for something. Then, we got better, and now we’ve got an opportunity to show the world because this game, as you know, is going everywhere.
“That’s what I want to see. I will be proud to see my team on the pitch doing the right things, and then if City are unbelievable, or if Yaya Toure is the best player on the pitch or Sergio Aguero is unstoppabe, then fair enough. But if we are spot on in what we do, then that would make me proud.”
Poyet has overseen two key developments during his four-month reign. On the pitch, he has gradually introduced the same passing style that became his template at Brighton, encouraging players to be patient in possession and counselling against the long-ball game that was evident under a number of his predecessors.
The likes of Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabio Borini have become important players in his system, with Adam Johnson successfully rediscovering his best form after being restored to his preferred position cutting in from the right flank.
Off the field, Poyet has proved equally transformative, rebuilding the team ethic that had been shattered by Di Canio’s philosophy of divide-and-rule and coaxing the entire squad to buy into a project that has already had more than its fair share of ups and downs.
“Someone told me last week, you have been here for four months, but it feels like you have been here for three years,” said the South American. “So many things have happened – so many good things, and so many bad ones too. It has constantly been up and down.
“It feels like we have played more games than we actually have. I think it is 20 in the league and 27 in total, but it feels like we have played the whole league already because so much has happened.
“I am delighted with where we are now because it looked like a really difficult challenge from where we were. We have a massive chance to survive in the Premier League, and an incredible opportunity in the cup.
“If you ask any manager in England if they would like to be where we are, they would say ‘Yes’ because we have a chance to win something. We need to do everything we can to take this opportunity.”
As a player, Poyet was adept at taking opportunities, as underlined by a CV that includes Copa Del Rey and Cup Winners' Cup winners' medals from his time at Real Zaragoza and FA Cup, Charity Shield, Cup Winners' Cup and Super Cup successes from his spell at Chelsea.
As well as winning the 2000 FA Cup final at Wembley, he also scored both goals in a 2-1 semi-final win over Newcastle at the same ground, and his Wembley record makes impressive reading.
“I think I've only lost their once,” he said. “And that was a Charity Shield on penalties. That was my first game for Chelsea and I got a welcome from Roy Keane – a kick in the head.
“I won the FA Cup, and also drew with England with Uruguay. I even won there as a coach because we won the League Cup with Spurs. They say things happen for a reason, so come on, I don't want this to be my first proper defeat.”