GUSTAVO POYET faces a series of crunch talks with Ellis Short and Margaret Byrne next week that will determine whether he triggers an escape clause in his contract.
Despite guiding Sunderland to safety in the penultimate game of the season on Wednesday, sources close to Poyet claim he will consider leaving the club unless significant changes to the playing squad and coaching structure are agreed.
Yesterday, the Uruguayan, who only signed a one-and-a-half year deal when he took over at the Stadium of Light in October, was installed as a strong favourite to replace Sam Allardyce as the next manager at West Ham United, with his odds tumbling from 66-1 to 5-4 in the space of less than 24 hours.
The Sunderland hierarchy do not want to lose Poyet after he engineered a remarkable survival act that sees the Black Cats assured of their top-flight status whatever happens in tomorrow’s final game of the season against Swansea City.
However, having radically reorganised his club’s backroom structure to take a large amount of power out of the hands of the head coach, it is unlikely that Short will be particularly keen to backtrack just to appease Poyet.
Lee Congerton was appointed as sporting director in March, and it is envisaged that he, rather than Poyet, will play the leading role in this summer’s recruitment programme.
Poyet did not attend a scheduled press briefing yesterday because he was discussing the future of a number of Sunderland’s out-of-contract players, and it is believed he would like to retain Phil Bardsley, Jack Colback and Seb Larsson, all of whom are due to become free agents next month.
Earlier this season, he spoke of “something fundamentally wrong” at Sunderland, with his words being interpreted as an attempt to secure a greater say over the future direction of the club.
West Ham’s potential interest adds an interesting element to the mix, as Poyet’s family did not move to the North-East with him and he retains strong London ties.
Reports yesterday claimed that the West Ham board are split over whether to dismiss Allardyce at the end of the season, but with the Hammers due to relocate to the Olympic Stadium in the season after next, the club’s ambitions are being significantly raised and their managerial job would be an appealing one if there was to be a change at the top this summer.
A break clause means that having kept Sunderland in the Premier League, Poyet can walk away from his current deal at any time before the end of May. Had the Black Cats been relegated, they could have severed their ties with the former Chelsea midfielder without any financial penalty.
Next week’s planned end-of-season talks are likely to play a major role in determining his future, but assistant coach Charlie Oatway insists Poyet remains as committed to Sunderland as ever.
“He’s as committed as when we first signed here,” said Oatway. “We signed for this year and next year, that was the length of contract we got, and we are committed to it – hence him not being here now. The reason he’s not here is because he’s trying to sort the foundations out for our club.
“It amazes me when people contradict themselves. One person says we’ve got gremlins behind the scenes, someone else says Gus says we’ve got problems. Of course we have because of the situation we’re in. We have got problems at the club.
“What he meant was he wants to get them sorted out – on the playing side and every which way possible. He’s focused on us and what we’re going to do. He’d better be anyway, because I’ve just moved into a new house!”
Previous talks with the eight players due to become free agents next month were shelved while Sunderland did not know what league they would be playing in next season, but there is a desire to make progress before everyone departs for their summer break.
If he remains in the North-East, Poyet does not want to be heading into the pre-season programme still unsure of how many of this season’s squad will be returning to the club.
When asked whether Bardsley and Colback were involved in yesterday’s talks, Oatway said: “They’d be two of the players Gus will be sitting down with, although being in here I don’t know how those conversations have started. We don’t want them to leave, hence us offering them contracts.
“Gus just tried to convince everyone to put everything else on the backburner and get safe. He said, ‘I know you’re worried about your futures, but your futures will be better off in the Premier League than if we’re in the Championship’. Everyone sat back and let that happen, so now negotiations will happen.”
Sunderland will name a much-changed line-up for tomorrow’s final game, with some of the key players from the successful survival push set to be rested. Lee Cattermole is unlikely to be risked after picking up a knock in the latter stages of Wednesday’s win.