Friday spotlight: Poyet proves he’s the real deal

Sunderland manager Gus Pooyet
Sunderland manager Gus Pooyet
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“WE made a miracle!”

Not my words (as Alan Partridge would say) and, no, not even the words of Gus Poyet this week, but the words of former Sunderland head coach Paolo Di Canio, made almost exactly a year ago to the day.

If Di Canio’s modest assessment of his first seven games in charge – made in the bowels of White Hart Lane on the last day of the 2012/13 season – was correct, then we have to accept that miracles now happen at Sunderland on an annual basis.

They don’t of course.

What Paolo did was have an instant and unforgettable galvanising effect which produced two totally treasurable results – the gobsmacking back-to-back victories over Newcastle United and Everton.

Di Canio was not the fascist that he was portrayed as when he first arrived at the club, but his methods at the club were certainly extreme.

And while their initial impact was awesome to behold, Blitzkrieg tactics by their very nature are unsustainable.

After those two wins, Sunderland relapsed, suffering a 6-1 defeat to Aston Villa on their way to taking only two points from their final four games.

The summer should have been a watershed of positive change, but it was anything but and Di Canio was consumed by his own hubris when he promised Sunderland fans, on the eve of the new campaign, “a season without suffering”.

But a Sunderland team which finished fourth bottom and lost arguably their two most influential players, in the sales of Simon Mignolet and Stephane Sessegnon, needed to have a stunningly good transfer window and neither Di Canio nor the inexplicably appointed director of football Roberto De Fanti came anywhere near fashioning one.

The 14 new signings made failed to gel. The Black Cats lost four of their opening five games.

And with the club riven by division from top to bottom, Paolo was sent packing with chairman Ellis Short later apologising for bringing the controversial Italian in in the first place.

The American did not make a public apology when he gave De Fanti the bullet a few months later, but no-one would have been surprised if he had done – the club’s first director of football was a disaster zone.

I mention these things because there is a definite feeling of things coming full circle at the moment – and not just with the similarity of the “miracle” comment.

Sunderland’s opponents in these last two games of the season could hardly have been more symbolic in terms of underlining progress made.

It was after defeat to Wednesday’s opponents, West Brom, that Paolo lost his job back in September.

Ultimately, the sacking came on the back of a player mutiny, but Di Canio was living on borrowed time the moment he strode over, jut-jawed to distraught Sunderland fans at The Hawthorns after a 3-0 defeat, posturing in front of the crowd, for a couple of excruciating “lost the plot” minutes.

Fast forward to this week and it was Sunderland facing West Brom with the mood of ecstatic fans in complete and utter contrast.

Poyet allowed himself the luxury of milking the applause from Sunderland fans at the Stadium of Light in midweek after staging the greatest escape the Premier League has ever seen.

But he did not do it in a “look at me” way and his demeanour and comments afterwards only underlined the difference in styles of the two men – while Di Canio had been a dictator, Poyet has been a diplomat, seeking to include everyone he could in the cause.

Whereas Paolo’s football was about all-out attack – 4-2-4; Gus’s has been about a patient, passing style on a primarily 4-1-4-1 formation based around the players’ strengths rather than personal preferences.

Above all, he has done it without compromising his principles – Sunderland have played their way out of football this season, rather than hoofed, kicked or long-balled their way to safety.

“I hope that the fans will like me for the football we play as much as anything else,” said Poyet as he reflected on safety achieved.

He tried to put that footballing philosophy into practice from his very first game in charge and ended up with the Black Cats’ biggest defeat of the season – a 4-0 drubbing at Swansea.

But he has stuck doggedly with it through the highs and lows.

It has been a long haul from the Liberty Stadium, but, having seemed dead and buried several times, Sunderland have found release and freedom in a stunning end-of-season burst of form based on a squad of players who have now fully absorbed and supported his approach.

By sweet coincidence, as Sunderland look to finish on a high, it will be Swansea who are their last opponents this season when they visit on Sunday.

Once again there will be that contrast in mood and momentum.

And although the Black Cats’ coach will have to make several changes to a side unchanged for weeks now, few would bet against Sunderland notching their fifth straight Premier League win in a row for the first time since the heady, early months of Peter Reid’s 1999/2000 campaign.

Even if Sunderland lose this weekend though, they cannot lose, for the bigger picture – that Great Escape – is all that counts.

Already minds are turning towards next season.

And in yet another chord struck with the recent past, Poyet’s comments on Wednesday night came dangerously close to echoing that of Di Canio.

“I wouldn’t want another seven months like this,” said the Uruguayan. “I am a strong man but I don’t want to die – I want a season ahead where we can relax.”

Sunderland fans will hope that, with those comments, is where Poyet’s similarity with his predecessor ends.

It seems certain though that it will.

Paolo was a pretender, but, over the course of almost an entire season, Poyet has proven himself the real deal.

Twitter @sunechograeme

* Don’t miss tomorrow’s online Football Echo – the last edition of the season. It’s available from around 6.45pm.