Gustavo Poyet sparked rumours that he had quit his position as Sunderland's head coach when he spoke of “something wrong in the football club” on Saturday. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson examines why the Uruguayan is being so explosively honest as his club hurtles towards the Championship ahead of tonight's game with Manchester City
HAVING been suspended in acrimonious circumstances at Brighton, Gustavo Poyet knows exactly how it feels to lose his job.
“I hate getting the sack,” said the Sunderland head coach. “The feeling is terrible.” So after nine games without a victory, and with his side rooted to the foot of the Premier League table and almost certainly heading into the Championship, Poyet could have been forgiven for keeping his head down and his mouth shut. When there's nothing positive to be said, it's often better, or at least more politic, to say nothing.
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Yet in the last four days, Poyet has delivered two lengthy press briefings in which he has repeatedly suggested that there is something rotten at Sunderland's core, a series of fundamental failings constantly holding the club back.
In some quarters, his comments have been interpreted as a precursor to a departure at the end of the season. With only 18 months of his contract to run, is Poyet getting his excuses in early so they resonate when he eventually jumps ship?
It is a tempting argument, hence the speed at which false rumours of his resignation swept across the internet on Monday evening. It also appears to be a thoroughly incorrect one.
Sunderland's despondent players during last weekend's 1-0 home defeat to Everton
Instead of wondering, 'What happens if I have to get out of here', Poyet appears to be thinking, 'Oh my God, what happens if I'm the one who has to sort out this mess'. Losing his job this summer would be a nightmare. The realisation appears to be setting in, however, that retaining it could be even worse.
“I am not better or worse than anyone – but I can tell you I am different,” said Poyet yesterday, in a statement that had more than a flourish of the Mourinhos about it. “It would be very easy for many, many people in football to just shut up and get on with the job. And then wait to get the sack.
“I don't do that. I don't wait to get the sack, and that doesn't mean that you're pushing for it to happen either. I don't want to get the sack – if they sack you, it looks like you have done something bad - but the idea is to put things right and I would rather push to make things better than accept them as they are.”
Hence Poyet's willingness, in fact desire might be a better word, to hold what are likely to be some fairly uncomfortable discussions with Ellis Short in the summer.
Back in 2006, it was Niall Quinn who spoke of “a gremlin” undermining Sunderland's attempts at progress, a matter of days before defeats to Southend United and Bury proved the validity of what he was saying.
Paolo Di Canio
Quinn had the option of bringing in Roy Keane, and for a brief while, the Irishman's flint-edged combustibility ushered the Black Cats along a different trajectory. Poyet will have to rely on himself to put things right, or at least trust that a modified relationship with Short and new sporting director, Lee Congerton, enables him to steer the club on a radically altered course.
“If I can get certain things in place and certain standards, then I know I am going to be able to do my job better,” he said. “I like to set certain standards. Every day, those standards should be there.
“There are plenty of things that need to be right. Not everything can be right, so sometimes you are a little bit under and you need to work to put it right. Sometimes, you are there, and it is easy.
“But it cannot only be my way – it has to be the club's way as well. You kind of agree things. So what is going to happen? Who knows.
“Like I said, there is something wrong in here and I am going to find out what it is. But what if I find something I like, and they don't. Or the opposite way, if I want to change something and the club doesn't?
“It's very easy to look at all of this and say, 'He's leaving'. But I'm trying to put it right because I don't want to be sitting here losing games. I hate it, I want to put it right.”
So what, in particular, does Poyet want to change? The limitations of his role as head coach are clearly frustrating him, and he understandably wants to avoid the situation that unfolded last summer, when former director of football, Roberto De Fanti, presented Paolo Di Canio with a succession of players that were not fit for purpose in terms of the Premier League.
Since being installed as sporting director, Congerton has spoken of a willingness to work closely with Poyet to ensure the pair are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to targeting signings, and one of the first things the Uruguayan did after his appointment last October was to sit down with his scouting team to run through exactly what he wanted from prospective targets in every position on the field.
It is increasingly clear, however, that recruitment is only one area where Poyet feels Sunderland have repeatedly failed in recent seasons. He talks of altering “attitudes” and “relationships”, and it would be no surprise to see yet another overhaul of both the backroom staff and structure this summer.
In an instructive section of yesterday's press briefing, he spoke of his unhappiness with the degree of crossover between the development squad and first team, a seemingly minor issue given the state of Sunderland's problems in the Premier League, but perhaps proof that Poyet sees problems pretty much everywhere he looks.
“What is different here about playing for the first team than playing for the under-21s? Hardly anything,” he said. “The dressing room is the same, as is the bus, the kit, the pitch, the footballs and the swimming pool. It is all the same.
“The change when you become a professional first-team player is very small. I would like to make it a little bit bigger. I would like the players to get there and achieve something unique.
“It should be different when you are with the first team – your locker should be better, as should the bus, the food and the training pitch. Everything should be better because you are at the highest level.”
Sunderland owner Ellis Short
Next season, Sunderland will almost certainly not be at the highest level. It is Poyet's job to ensure they eventually return, and it is increasingly clear that he is unwilling to do it with one hand tied behind his back. Crucially, however, that does not mean that he is unwilling to do it at all.