HE has overseen a Wembley final, back-to-back victories at St James’ Park and last season’s ‘Great Escape’, but as he prepares to lead his side into tomorrow’s home game with Burnley, it is no exaggeration to claim Gus Poyet could be heading into the biggest match of his 14-month reign as Sunderland head coach.

Not in terms of the league table perhaps, because even if Sunderland lose to one of the four clubs below them in the Premier League table, they will still have 15 more matches in which to put things right. But when it comes to his standing as Black Cats boss, and his fraying relationship with the club’s fans, tomorrow feels like a pivotal moment. After last weekend, the Uruguayan’s few remaining credits have all but expired.

He has brought this situation on himself, partly because of his failure to get the best out of the players at his disposal, but more so because, last Saturday, he broke one of football management’s unwritten rules. Don’t take on the fans. Or if you’re going to do so, do it on the back of a ten-game winning run rather than after you’ve guided your side to just six victories from the 26 home league games played under your tenure.

By accusing Sunderland supporters of “living in the past” and hankering after the “kick and rush football” that was played in the era of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, Poyet tore apart the one successful period his club has enjoyed in the last four decades. In truth, apart from one glorious FA Cup win, you can probably go even further back than that.

Little wonder that the reaction from some fans has been so furious, the dismay so deep. Poyet’s words displayed an ignorance about his club’s heritage and an alarming refusal to accept blame. Little more than a week after Jermain Defoe’s arrival had been accompanied by a pledge that there would be “no more excuses”, it felt like Poyet was trotting out one of the most hurtful ones of all.

His words, which importantly were not prompted by a direct question about Quinn and Phillips, revealed a deep-rooted frustration that Poyet has harboured ever since he replaced Paolo Di Canio. He likes his side to play a certain way, and clearly feels that an element of Sunderland’s support, and probably a fairly sizeable one at that, would rather see something much more rudimentary.

Hence the comments about “kick and rush” and the obvious frustration when periods of purposeless possession are greeted with groans of frustration rather than knowing nods of the head.

Yet Poyet’s attack was misguided on two scores. First, he was simply wrong when he derided the football Sunderland played in the early 2000s as “kick and rush”. Yes, there was a certain directness to the playing style espoused by Peter Reid, but it was never simply a case of lumping the ball up to Quinn, whose heading ability was never as good as it should have been anyway.

Reid’s Sunderland side played with plenty of width, with wingers such as Nicky Summerbee, Julio Arca and Kevin Kilbane instructed to get the ball into the area as quickly as possible, but there was also a great deal of creativity in a central-midfield unit that regularly featured the craft of Stefan Schwarz and Gavin McCann as well as the more prosaic qualities of Alex Rae.

The Northern Echo:

 “Football has changed,” says Poyet. Well, maybe, but if providing service for a couple of top-class attacking players is no longer one of the primary jobs of a midfield, then the rest of the teams in the Premier League must be getting things wrong on a weekly basis.

Yet even if Poyet was right in his assertions about the Quinn and Phillips era, he was wrong to suggest that Sunderland supporters are obsessed with wanting it to return. His comments feed into an erroneous narrative, often relayed at a national level, that fans of both Sunderland and Newcastle United are rabidly unrealistic about their club’s level and constantly demanding things that cannot be achieved.

They bore unfortunate parallels to the “unrealistic expectations” gibes that ultimately caused Steve Bruce so much damage during his spell in charge, and mean that the last three Sunderland managers have now used attacks on the fans to shield their own shortcomings.

A personal opinion is that Sunderland’s fanbase has been remarkably tolerant throughout the last decade, shying away from direct conflict with managers, owners or players in order to support their club. The wonder, last Saturday, is that the discontent wasn’t louder and more aggressive given the extent of Sunderland’s struggles against Championship opposition.

Sunderland’s supporters wouldn’t be questioning Poyet’s approach if it was serving up a succession of victories, but the fact is that it isn’t.

The Northern Echo:

Increasingly, it looks as though the South American only knows how to approach things one way, and he won’t be adapting his approach even though he does not have the players for his philosophy to succeed.

Rather than altering his own style to suit the players at his disposal, he is tackling things the other way on, and just as Roberto Martinez is finding at Everton, such inflexibility can be damaging.

There has been a lot of talk about formations and midfield selections recently, but that is something of a red herring. If Poyet is constantly instructing his players to rotate possession, pass backwards whenever necessary and avoid taking a risk by playing a pass that could be intercepted, it doesn’t really matter whether he has two men up front or eight. They still won’t be seeing much of the ball.

Rather than grumbling about his own fans, perhaps Poyet would be better served by looking rather closer to home. He has achieved plenty since replacing Di Canio, most notably the restoration of a team spirit that had been completely shattered under the Italian, but he risks undoing it by sticking rigidly to a plan that quite clearly is not working.

It was Albert Einstein who judged insanity to be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and perhaps that is the history lesson Poyet should be pondering. Talk of Quinn and Phillips is merely an attempt to avoid the bigger issue.