LESS THAN a year ago, Gus Poyet was hailed as a miracle-worker.
Poyet inherited a shambles from the deposed Paolo Di Canio, but somehow managed to preserve Sunderland’s Premier League’s status, take the club to their first cup final in 22 years and to boot, secured a first derby double since the 1960s.
One of the worst kept secrets in football was the tension between Poyet and Lee Congerton
It wasn’t a bad start to life at the Stadium of Light!
The passionate Uruguayan seemed a perfect fit for the living, breathing football fanaticism of Wearside. For a start, he actually took up residence in Sunderland.
He loved those YouTube videos Sunderland supporters made chronicling the Great Escape, while he was diligent and intelligent enough to brush up on the club’s history.
Whenever you chatted with him, he didn’t miss a beat.
Poyet had a genuine determination to leave a legacy for whoever eventually succeeded him and unlike his two predecessors, took a keen interest on those coming through the ranks. There were a couple in the Under-18s that he was particularly excited about.
In the first half of the season, Sunderland weren’t spectacular, but there was slow, steady progress and it was evident what Poyet was trying to achieve.
They were difficult to beat and certainly didn’t have the look of a side destined to plunge into the depths of the relegation dogfight.
But since the turn of the year, it’s all gone horribly wrong. Why?
Here’s some of the factors which led to Ellis Short pulling the trigger on Poyet yesterday after less than 18 months in charge.
FORMATION AND SELECTION
ALL summer, Poyet meticulously worked on a 4-1-4-1 system and Sunderland continued in that vein throughout the first half of the season.
Even when Sunderland were chasing a game, there was no switch to a 4-4-2 or any such desperate measure.
But all of those foundations went up in smoke when Jermain Defoe arrived at the Stadium of Light in January.
Finally, Poyet had the natural poacher in his midst, capable of grabbing the goals which would ensure Sunderland comfortably remained in the Premier League, yet by the time of Defoe’s 10th game in a red and white shirt last weekend, the head coach still hadn’t worked out how to use him.
There was almost a degree of random selection in picking those to line up alongside Defoe - fresh formations every game, fresh strike partners, fresh set-ups in the middle of the park.
The shape and balance to the side was all wrong. How many times in recent games have opposing teams been left two-on-one against the defensively suspect Patrick van Aanholt and reaped the subsequent dividends?
But there was never any continuity in team selection throughout the season.
May was the last time Poyet named an unchanged line-up in the Premier League.
Did he ever know his strongest side this season? The constant changes suggested not. That lack of cohesion ultimately told.
SUNDERLAND’S recruitment has by and large been dreadful over recent seasons and is a prime reason why the club are annual strugglers.
It’s not got any better during Poyet’s time at the club.
Poyet has clearly been the instigator behind bringing certain players to the Stadium of Light - Liam Bridcutt, Nacho Scocco, Will Buckley, Sebastian Coates.
None have proved to be a success and together they set Sunderland back a total of more than £10million in fees.
Admittedly, Sunderland have been having to move on a lot of Roberto De Fanti dross during that time, while having to bring in numbers on a budget, yet the current league position demonstrates that the quality hasn’t been richly improved.
But how much blame is attached to Poyet on recruitment, when Sunderland operate a director of football model?
Poyet insisted he had always had the final say on transfers and indeed vetoed several potential acquisitions.
A loan move for Manchester City’s Micah Richards was one. Poyet thought he was too cumbersome to play the ball out from the back and wanted fellow countryman Coates instead.
Chelsea’s Victor Moses was similarly a player Poyet didn’t fancy.
Instead, Poyet spent far too much time hankering after Fabio Borini when it was clear to everyone else - including Lee Congerton - that the Italian wanted to make a fist of it at Liverpool.
But how much input did Poyet actually have on transfers under Congerton?
Yes, Poyet clearly lusted after Borini, yet what about his other principle summer target Marcos Alonso?
After weeks of negotiations, the Alonso move collapsed and Poyet was presented with the prospect of Patrick van Aanholt. With no other left-backs on the club’s books, he had little option in saying yes.
Is that really a ‘final say’?
DIRECTOR OF FOOTBALL SYSTEM
ONE of the worst kept secrets in football was the tension between Poyet and Lee Congerton.
When Congerton succeeded Roberto De Fanti as sporting director 12 months ago, Poyet approved the appointment of the ex-Hamburg and Chelsea man.
Yet friction in the relationship quickly emerged.
They clashed over transfers, with Poyet believing the arrival of summer signings wasn’t swift enough and making that perfectly clear in barely masked remarks during Sunderland’s pre-season trip to Portugal.
Predictably, that didn’t go down well.
But there were also differences of opinion over their respective responsibilities, with Poyet frustrated that he didn’t have more of a say over areas such as youth development and contract negotiations.
It was immediately noticeable after the January capture of Jermain Defoe that Poyet praised Congerton by name. It was the first time.
But Congerton wasn’t the only member of Sunderland’s hierarchy that Poyet clashed with.
There were angry phone calls to Ellis Short himself during the summer over the need for further transfer funds to be made available.
Short has wanted to balance the books though, and he has wanted some continuity in scouting and recruitment - leading him to adopt the director of football system.
Poyet clearly wasn’t convinced by it. And in fairness, so far, it has hardly reaped great dividends for Sunderland.
THERE WERE echoes of Niall Quinn, Roy Keane and Paolo Di Canio before him when Poyet suggested last April that all was not right at Sunderland.
Poyet implied that there was a rotten core at the Stadium of Light which was responsible for the constant cycle of struggle and managerial departures.
He had a point. Looking at Sunderland’s fortunes over the last five years, it comes down to much more than the man in the dug-out.
However, from that point on, Poyet’s no-nonsense comments were closely followed by club officials and ultimately they weren’t the only ones angered by what came out of the Uruguayan’s mouth.
It was a foolish step to begin questioning the outlook of supporters at the start of 2015 and he didn’t learn from his mistakes either. On three separate occasions, he implied fans were harking back to the days of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn.
Predictably it got Poyet in trouble on the terraces and it sparked “It’s always our fault” chants during the abject humiliation at Bradford.
Blaming the press afterwards at Valley Parade didn’t help matters either. It just looked like yet another excuse.
Poyet’s open letter reconciled feelings somewhat, yet by then, the seeds had been sown.
WHERE WAS THE POYET PHILOSOPHY?
AT BRIGHTON, Poyet was renowned for a patient, possession-based philosophy and that was a Continental style which Sunderland ultimately hoped to practise.
Swansea’s success was a model that Poyet was eager to follow and there were signs of it last season, particularly when Ki Sung-Yueng was on song in the middle of the park.
But for far too much of this season, Sunderland have been a passing team who can’t pass.
The ball has been ceded far too frequently, with slow, stodgy build-up play often the defining characteristic of this Sunderland side.
If Lee Cattermole was absent, there was barely any bite or pressing, while it was almost routine for Sunderland to begin Stadium of Light games in second gear and allow the opposition side to play their way into the game.
When blessed with such a boisterous crowd, Sunderland surely need to be playing with tempo, if not necessarily the high octane stuff of the Peter Reid era.
Regardless of style though, Poyet didn’t win enough games this season. That’s the bottom line.
Four Premier League victories is pathetic stuff. A win percentage of just 23 isn’t any better.
LUCK AND CIRCUMSTANCES
NAPOLEON famously quipped: “I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one”.
Every manager needs a slice of fortune and Poyet hasn’t had much this season, with circumstances painfully conspiring against him.
Blatant refereeing mistakes went against Sunderland against Southampton, Hull and Bradford. They were big games that had big repercussions.
Almost all of Sunderland’s specialist full-backs were on the treatment table for a couple of months during the Autumn.
Emanuele Giaccherini, who caught Poyet’s eye during pre-season, has been limited to just four starts.
Lee Cattermole missed the opening two months of 2015 with niggling problems and showed during his absence how crucial he is to this Sunderland side.
And then earlier this month, there was the shock of Adam Johnson’s police investigation and the inevitable club suspension that followed.
Regardless of the legal ramifications, Johnson is a big, big loss to this Sunderland side, as one of the few creative forces on the field for the Black Cats.
It’s no wonder that Poyet’s characteristic enthusiasm began to wane. He must have felt it was destined to end in failure.