Interviewing footballers can be the journalistic equivalent of pulling teeth: an arduous process which ultimately leaves both parties unfulfilled. With Gus Poyet, I needn’t have feared.
The Uruguayan has always cut a popular figure throughout his career, from promotion to the Championship with Brighton, to last-gasp Premier League survival with Sunderland. He’s on a brief visit back to the UK from China, where he manages financial powerhouse Shanghai Shenhua. When I sat down with him in the belly of the Union, he was on good form, having already let loose at the balloted pre-event drinks and in the Q&A on a host of topics.
A word which cropped up constantly throughout both was “pressure”. I opened by asking what marked the difference between the good pressure to which he frequently referred and the negative pressure which can derail entire seasons.
I didn’t expect his words to be quite so applicable to the Oxford experience: “I think it’s untenable when you can’t control it – when it starts affecting your personal life or your health or your sleeping or whatever. Without pressure, you don’t care. But when the pressure is dramatic, and really big, it can start affecting your life.”
He goes on to talk about its impact on his own life, and I get the sense that his handling of the stresses of managerial life has greatly improved as he has got older.
“Sometimes we need to be strong to control it. It’s not for everyone,” he says. “At Sunderland, I was finishing the games – for example playing a game in the afternoon—and I wouldn’t even reach Match of the Day because I was so exhausted mentally. For five, six hours, I was asleep like I was on another planet. Gone.
“But then you wake up and you start thinking at five or six o’clock in the morning. I think it was all the pressure and demands of the Premier League. For example, I’m in Shanghai now, and I’m struggling to sleep after the games. It’s a different kind of worry. There’s less pressure than in Sunderland – or it feels less.
“But it’s dangerous and it’s a shame because if you put too much pressure on yourself, you’re going to have a problem for sure. I think the League Managers Association here help managers a lot, and I learned incredible things about how to control it, to manage it, how to improve it, how to rest. That’s one of the biggest problems with being a manager: we never rest, we never stop.
“The manager will go to the game, and then will check the game, and then will go through the game again, and then will do the next game, and will never rest. Sooner or later you’re gonna collapse. It’s important to have the strength to know.”
His approach to a work/life balance is now more healthy than ever. He talks me through his post-match schedule: “For example, now the day after the game I do no football related to my team. It’s not negotiable. If I had said it to you five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. It was impossible.
“Of course, when my wife is here, I can spend time with her, I can do something different. When I’m on my own, it’s a little bit more difficult, but it’s key for me to completely stop thinking about training, the game, the result. It makes me recharge my energy and be fresh for the next game.”
I wonder if that negative pressure he speaks about is exclusive to the Premier League. “I think it’s a little bit yourself, but the Premier League is incredible because of the repercus- sions,” he says with an air of experience. “I was in Spain and there was a lot of pressure and I didn’t enjoy it. There’s pressure in Shanghai, but the Premier League is unique. The Premier League repercussions are amazing. Wherever you go in the world, it’s the Premier League first.”
With that in mind, I worry about those young men my own age or younger who are thrust into what seems to be an unforgiving world, and ask Poyet if the pressure has changed his approach to coaching young players. He points me to the impact of social media on young millenials, and again, the answer is far closer to home than I was expecting.
“Everything they do on social media is them, and they feel the repurcussions good or bad. If they make a mistake, they know it because they get killed for it when they open their phones for a text or a tweet.
“On the other hand, social media keeps them away from football because they are watching and doing 100 things that have nothing to do with football. The problem is not to be in the extremes. We try to show the players what is best for them, depending on their characters – they are not all the same.
“One of the biggest lies for me in football is when people say, ‘He’s a great manager, he treats everyone the same’. It’s not true. You cannot treat everybody the same because they are different people.”
It’s an inspiring answer. Even the most teleologically-minded of football fans would concede that the game is now a machine which gobbles up young players and spits them out bereft of footballing or personal futures. For Poyet then, pressure affects both managers and young players, even if in different ways.
It’s at this point that I ask if the press contributes to this cult of pressure. He inhales. I perspire pre-emptively, expecting to be put in my place as an MSM hack. However, he’s contemplative when it comes to the topic of managerial sackings.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” he explains. “It depends on how you’re doing, depends on the comments. Everybody comments now – newspapers will publish an article, and there are 300 comments on it, and from those comments it becomes a bigger issue. I would say that it depends on how the people at the top accept your responsibilities and the pressure.”
When he talks about his sacking from Brighton, he twice calls it “funny”. For a man who was essentially given his P45 live on air when working as a pundit for the BBC, it seems anything but. Indeed, as his characteristically relaxed demeanor becomes tense, I get the sense of what it would be like to sack Gus Poyet.
He recalls that a small minority of fans started to stoke rumours on the forum citing “somebody at the club”. One example which seems to particularly sting is an accusation that he turned up to a 7.45pm match fifteen minutes before kick-off.
“How on Earth am I – the manager – gonna arrive fifteen minutes before the game when I was in the hotel, when we had pre-match together three hours before the game, when we had the meeting in the dressing room an hour and a half before the game?”
I nod appeasingly as I realise that I may have become a vehicle for pre-existing anger. He returns to his 300 commenters. “250 of them believe it, and then you’ve got 50 of them saying no.”
“And then, the people in charge are gonna read that – and people do care about what the fans do – then they think maybe it did happen. You have to be clear that it didn’t happen. Everything is put in a context and leads to you keeping your job or losing your job.
“It’s four or five who provoke from what they’ve been reading and they shout at you questioning what you’ve changed. Change is part of the solution, remember that. Like Leicester: they were going down. And they got rid of [Claudio] Ranieri and they didn’t lose another game with the assistant.”
“But why?”, he asks, doing my job for me. “Why change?”
“It’s part of the game,” he answers himself definitively.
Given the ridiculously high turnover of managers in the Premier League, I often wonder why they’re so keen to throw themselves back into the fray, fresh from the disappointment of dismissal. I expect some comment in response about how it’s a bug, or a love affair or some such stock phrase about ‘The Love of the Game’. Rather, his drive is far more personal. “You have to be clear in what you believe. You’ve got two options: go to the highest level or get to a place where they understand you and believe in you and give you time. That would be the dream job. It’s not about money. It’s about believing it’s possible and letting you do it.”
Ah, the ‘M’ word. Seeing as Gus broached the topic, I bite, and ask him if managerial power is watered down by new money.
“Yes”, he immediately replies, “because there is too much money to spend and it is dangerous. You cannot spend that much. I think the problem with money is that in every single job in the world, where the product produces money, there is money.
“The amount produced by TV is incredible. Is it too much? Yes, it is. But people shouldn’t blame the players. It’s the product. It’s extraordinary. It’s incredible. The Premier League is watched in every little town in the world, and that costs money, and I don’t think it’s bad that the money that is paid goes back to the players.”
But isn’t saying there’s too much money slightly hypocritical when he’s managing in China, currently one of the world’s big spenders? Shanghai Shenhua – under Poyet’s leadership – are reportedly paying former Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus striker Carlos Tevez £615,000 per week.
Poyet argued in his Union talk that most of the squad decisions were made before he joined, but he still manages in a league which boasts Oscar (signed from Chelsea for a reported £52m), Ezequiel Lavezzi (reportedly earning around £200,000 per week), and the much-coveted Jackson Martínez (signed for £31m).
Not the first time, he answers altogether too quickly. “I think it’s a little bit too much. I have always thought the extremes are bad. Too much or too little is bad. It’s about the balance. If I was in charge I would tell you what it is, but I’m not—so I take advantage of it.”
That final sentence is accompnied by a knowing laugh, and it is a disarmingly honest answer from a man who, for many, can do no wrong. It’s hard to begrudge a fan favourite his time among new money – even if many of us hope that soon he’ll return to old friends back in the Premier League.
He certainly talks about the Premier League with striking regularity during our short time together. I wonder if, despite the bright lights and hefty cheques of Chinese football, he may yet have unfinished business here.