01 Oct 2014


The 2013/14 relegation battle was one of the fiercest in years, but thanks to Gus Poyet’s mental resilience, unfailing belief in his methods and inspirational leadership, Sunderland not only made it out of the danger zone but slayed a few giants along the way.

Every weekend, parents the world over escort their children to football, feeding their passion for the game and hoping to import a sense of dedication and competitive spirit. Gus Poyet’s father, however, understood the value of these qualities better than most. As captain of the Uruguayan national basketball team he had set the bar high. “He was a very positive role model when I was growing up and I can still remember when I was young how fans would look at him,” says Poyet. “I wondered whether I would ever achieve even half of what he had.”

His dad, he says, taught him everything. “From a very early age he instilled in me the importance of punctuality and never missing training; of being part of a group and understanding your role and knowing when you need to adjust,” says Poyet. “He taught me how to understand sport and he pushed me to the very limits, because he wanted me to be the best at everything I did.”

But, despite his own successful career in sport, Poyet’s father was determined that his son should not put all his eggs in one basket. “As soon as I saw I had a chance to be a footballer I wanted to put my studies aside, but it was non-negotiable with my father and he was right,” says Poyet.

When Poyet finished high school he started a university engineering course in Uruguay, involving not only physics, but also elements of chemistry and mathematics. “I’ve always enjoyed the practical side of maths, working with numbers and figuring out problems,” he says. “I suppose I have an analytical mind and it is no doubt very useful to me as a manager. Numbers influence so many things, whether it’s working out co-ordinates or the mechanics of a situation or how to achieve the right balance. I love problem-solving and strategising and the challenge of figuring out in the heat of the moment how a game is playing out tactically and how I need to be proactive or reactive.” His love of numbers doesn’t, however, mean he is a slave to statistics, he says. “But if a statistic repeats itself enough times that it gets your attention, you know you have either an advantage or a problem.”


The young Uruguayan has lived and breathed football from an early age, playing in the streets with his friends and acquiring his taste and proficiency for strategising, making use of people’s talents and tackling problems.

His first opportunity to apply his skills on a professional stage came at French side Grenoble when he was 20. While he has since moved a number of times as a player and a manager, the first move was, he says, by far the hardest.

“As a young player, leaving the familiarity of friends, family and my home country for a city in the middle of the Alps was tough,” he recalls. “It was cold – I had never seen snow before – I was on my own and suddenly had to pay bills and fend for myself in ways I had never had to before. A move like that changes your life and you have to become an adult very quickly. I developed more as a person during those 18 months in France than I did in my 20 years in Uruguay.”

Unfortunately, the scale of the upheaval affected Poyet’s football as much as it did his emotions and he failed to perform as well as he would have liked. “I effectively had to rebuild the reputation as a player that I had made for myself in Uruguay,” he says.

Poyet’s next experience of playing abroad, at Real Zaragoza, was a very different one, not least because Spanish culture was not dissimilar to what he was used to in Uruguay. He also feels that his time in France helped and, when he later came to play in England with even more experience under his belt, the transition was easier still

“I know from these personal experiences the impact that moving from overseas can have on a player and why players need a period of adjustment before they can start to perform at their best,” says Poyet. “That’s why we pay a lot of attention to the transition of players from overseas to Sunderland, particularly the young ones.”


Poyet’s first foray into management came at Swindon, where he worked as assistant manager to Dennis Wise and then later with Juande Ramos at Tottenham Hotspur.

For someone who likes to observe and learn it was, he says, the perfect preparation for management. “Dennis Wise and Juande Ramos are also very different in character, so it gave me the opportunity to see how people deal with situations in different ways and how the players respond to that,” says Poyet. Acting as assistant manager also confirmed that the top job was something he wanted to pursue.

When that opportunity came, at Brighton in 2009, he made an instant impact, earning the club promotion during his first season in charge and winning LMA League One Manager of the Year in the process. After four years with the club, Poyet moved to Sunderland, where his presence has been no less felt. He took the side to the final of the Capital One Cup and won a fierce relegation battle to keep Sunderland in the Barclays Premier League.

Faced with a battle of survival at the foot of the table, the mental resilience of both leader and team are tested to the limit, but rather than choke under the pressure Sunderland found another gear. In their last five games, Sunderland pulled off victories against Manchester United, Chelsea, Cardiff and West Bromwich Albion.

“It was very important that I emphasised to the players how marginal the difference between winning and losing had been in the previous four or five games,” he says. “It had been down to just one action, one decision, one miss or one own goal. I needed them to share my confidence that our fortunes would change sooner rather than later, although I had expected it to do so sooner than it did, with only six games remaining.”

When things did start to come together for the side, it was confirmation to Poyet that they were on the right track. “We kept our resolve, the belief in the training ground never faltered and eventually it all clicked,” he says. “It’s all well and good having beliefs as a manager, but you also have to prove that you are right. During my time in management I’ve also been proving to myself that my methods work.”


How your team plays, though, is always dependent on the players you have, says Poyet. “When you join a club midway through the season like I did at Sunderland, you first have to adapt to them,” he says. “Then, slowly, you bring them around to your way of thinking. I have a clearly defined philosophy – built around the idea that the ball is precious and the most important part of the game – but my ideas are not black and white or rigid. I have respect for the different styles of play and methods that other managers adopt.”

His own methods include what some past players have described as a ‘kind and honest’ approach to his team, always letting players know why a decision has been made and where they stand. He also has a good relationship with his players, creating a healthy divide between what happens inside and outside the training ground and never allowing an atmosphere or grudge to linger too long. He also understands the importance of team unity and of every individual believing in their own crucial role in its success.

“To compete in the Barclays Premier League you need every one of your players to be convinced that every position is important, not just the one who scores the winning goal or saves a penalty,” he says. “Players need to buy into the idea that they can’t dip in and out when they feel like it; there must be unity right from pre-season training through to the end. We must all show honesty, respect and responsibility at all times.” Given that he exhibits these qualities in abundance, Poyet certainly leads by example.