Gus Poyet interview: peripatetic football manager on the highs and lows of coaching in China, France, Spain and Greece
Uruguayan coach discusses his various stints around the world and reveals how he’d like to manage in England again
Gus Poyet spent the international break at his family home in London, helping unpack the contents of the home which he’d moved to Bordeaux only two months previously.
“No, my wife is not happy if that’s what you’re going to ask,” says the former Chelsea player. “She has suffered more than anyone as I’ve travelled around the world in recent years.”
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho chose to keep his family in London after his kids spent their childhood following him around, thinking it would be only fair for them to have a permanent home.
Poyet approves of Mourinho’s decision. “He’s right, a family deserves their life too. The kids are not babies, they have jobs and friends. We can’t expect them to follow us.”
Poyet was an absentee for most of 2017.
“I spent 20 days at home,” explains the Uruguayan, who has lived and managed in the port cities of Sunderland, Seville and Shanghai, Athens and Bordeaux in the last three years. Each had their cultural nuances.
“First time in China, I got in a lift and pressed the floor,” he explains. “When the lift opened, people flooded in and I couldn’t get out. At first I thought ‘this is crazy’, but then I was the outsider who had to adjust. If you don’t move quickly around the lifts in China, you don’t get in the lift. From then on, I waited for lifts poised. Shanghai was a great experience for me. I would go on the underground to feel the energy of so many people. Hardly anyone recognised me.” Relative anonymity was not afforded to him in his previous jobs.
In Sunderland, Poyet broke with convention and would socialise in Newcastle, home of their despised rivals.
“I had no problems – despite my Sunderland team beating them three times in three games,” he explains. “But once, I’d just left a restaurant when I saw a man change direction and walk across me. ‘Wrong city, t**t,’ he said. He didn’t even think I was worth looking at as he walked off. I didn’t say a word, but I knew where he was coming from. I quite liked his style. He was so passionate about Newcastle that he didn’t think that the Sunderland manager should be able to walk the streets of his city.”
Poyet, 50, had a fine career as a midfielder with Grenoble, River Plate (Montevideo), Zaragoza, Chelsea and Tottenham. He became an assistant manager at Swindon, Leeds and Tottenham, managed Brighton, Sunderland and AEK Athens too. His brief stay at Real Betis, who he joined in 2016, was a near disaster, winning three from 11 games before being sacked.
“Betis was my mistake,” he admits. “I didn’t do my research. I just saw the name and La Liga.
It’s a huge club and is doing well now, but it was divided behind the scenes when I was there, with different factions.”
After a spell in China, Poyet arrived at Bordeaux in January 2018. The team were struggling and had been as low as 15th that month. Poyet was charged with avoiding relegation: Bordeaux finished sixth and qualified for Europe.
“My first game was Lyon at home, we won 3-1 and it was spectacular,” he enthuses. “Lyon beat PSG the week before, they were second. We won my first three games, but then didn’t win for six matches. We had a mental block and I made a few changes. We were soon back on track because I found my team.”
Brazilian winger Malcom, 21, was the stand out and Poyet has nothing but admiration for him.
“Malcom could be the difference, the man to open up a game on his own. He was the top goalscorer, he defended too. I knew we had no chance of keeping him.”
Malcom was about to sign for AS Roma when Barcelona stepped in and paid €41 million in July.
Poyet was assured the club would bring in new players.
“We were now in Europe and I needed more and better players. I wanted Bordeaux to be top six again this year and move towards the top four.
“I left Bordeaux on May 28. When I came back six weeks later the club hadn’t made a single new signing. I wasn’t happy, especially on July 2 when I was pushed to do a pre-season press conference. I was honest in that press conference and made my discontent clear. But people don’t always like the truth. Maybe they wanted me to act in front of the press.”
Still, Poyet was in the process of moving furniture from London and he had to set his team up for Europa League matches.
“We won every game despite having no new players and then we came to the fourth game against (Ukrainian team) Mariupol. I got to the team hotel and a club delegate came to my room to tell me that Laborde, the striker, wasn’t there. He didn’t know why. I called Laborde and he told me he was in Montpellier. With permission from the club, and about to sign for them. Laborde had scored twice in the away leg.
“I have to be honest here as some details about what happened have been misreported. It was likely that Laborde was going to leave in the summer – but not before we’d brought another player in. I had no idea he was leaving that day. I thought it was a complete lack of respect from a club where I’d done well.”
Poyet spoke to the media. He was furious and told them: “It is one of my worst days at the club.” He said it was a shame, an embarrassment, what the club had done. It was reported in English as ‘disgrace’.
“The word I used was ‘honte’,” says Poyet, who is familiar with French as his first professional club was in France, “that means shame, not disgrace.”
Bordeaux suspended Poyet.
“They did that not because of what I’d said but because of what they’d done. They were embarrassed. They’d done other things like forget to put a player, Toma Basic, on the Uefa list. How can a club do something like that?”
In support of their manager Bordeaux’s players initially refused to train.
“Those actions showed the team spirit we had,” explains Poyet. “I was proud of my players.”
Poyet will speak his mind and wear his heart on his sleeve. At AEK in 2016, he was reported to have been sacked because of a disagreement with the club president, a misrepresentation he is keen to set straight.
“No disagreement at all. I’d done well and the owner was under pressure to renew my contract. We negotiated for two months, but he didn’t make me an offer. My contract was up in June and in April, I thanked him privately by email and said I would be leaving at the end of my contract. The president sacked me three hours later. Did I do something wrong?”
Poyet is now back home enjoying some time with family.
He has no regrets about his time in China. “Living in Shanghai was a spectacular experience. Communication could be tough and the playing standards were not as high as I’d been working with, but there’s a tremendous determination to improve.”
Carlos Tevez was his star player, on a vast contract.
“He’s a winner but while people talk about the money, you would go for less money if you knew the reality of China. It’s a good place to work in football.
Gus Poyet scored the winning goal as the Blues beat Real Madrid to lift the European Super Cup on this day in 1998! pic.twitter.com/YVwZfgixo3
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 28, 2018
“Carlos thought we’d be a team that could win the league which unfortunately wasn’t true. He got a few injuries, but when fit he was excellent. I decided to move on from Shanghai. I found it difficult to make it my team. The club were very professional with me.”
Poyet retains a passion for the sport that has served him well.
“I’m very fortunate to have worked in football, fortunate to be able to make a difference to people’s lives and bring happiness. At Sunderland, fans would see me riding my bike along the beautiful seafront by the North Sea and cars would be beeping me, people would be waving and wishing me well for the next game.
“At Sunderland, I lived in an apartment block and word soon spread. I’d get letters from neighbours saying they were proud that they lived in the same block as the manager of their team.
“We beat Man United away in the League Cup semi-final on penalties. It was 3am when I got home. The neighbours had put a giant Sunderland scarf around the plant in the hallway and there were Sunderland shirts in the windows of my apartment building like you’d see the flags of countries in other parts of the world.”
This is just one of the reasons he’d like to manage in England again.
“My teams play well. My teams are organised. My players play for me.
“It’s not easy, there are other good managers out of work, but I’m a better manager after all my recent travels. It’s good to see how other countries work.” But first, there’s still some unpacking to do.