Brighton & Hove Albion will be the highest ranked side in the competition when the FA Cup first round draw takes place tomorrow afternoon. Topping a tight League One table by three points, things are looking good for the Seagulls right now.
Although the club is yet to grace the Premier League (they last appeared in the top flight 27 years ago), a more hankered after milestone occurs next July when the 22,500 all-seater site at Falmer opens.
On the pitch, Albion have lost just 14 of the 49 games played under Gus Poyet – no mean feat considering the former Chelsea midfielder has changed the club’s footballing philosophy in the process.
I met with the South American on a nippy morning earlier this week. Well, I thought it was nippy anyway… Poyet was in his shorts. “My mind is always on the football,” he says.
Poyet is one of just two managers from the Americas currently working in the Football League* (Try and guess the other before you finish reading. I’ve put the other manager’s name at the bottom).
Born in Montevideo, Poyet began his professional career at Grenoble in the French second division. The team finished a disappointing 12th in Poyet’s debut season, and after never really settling, he moved back home with River Plate Montevideo.
In 1990, the then-23-year-old returned to Europe with Real Zaragoza. Poyet enjoyed great success in Aragon, becoming the club’s most capped foreign player, winning the Copa Del Rey in 1994, and the European Cup Winners Cup a year later.
He left northeast Spain after seven years, joining Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea. Poyet scored his first goal for his new employers during a 3-2 home defeat by Arsenal, but only played another 17 games in that début season due to injury.
Nevertheless, the team won a famous double after Gianluca Vialli took over in February, including the second Cup Winners Cup of Poyet’s career, and a League Cup. Injuries soon took their toll, however, and Poyet finished his playing career in 2004 after three seasons with Spurs.
Spells as Dennis Wise’s managerial deputy at Swindon Town and Leeds United followed. Then, after 12 months in Yorkshire, Poyet rejoined Spurs as Juande Ramos’s no. 2. The pair were unceremoniously ditched not long into their reign, and after a year out of the game, Poyet joined Brighton in 2009 – at last losing the ‘assistant’ tag.
“I did all my coaching badges in England,” Poyet tells me. “Three when I was playing, and the rest when I finished.”
Despite this foresight, the Uruguayan wasn’t always interested in coaching: “Early in your career, you’re never 100 percent sure what you’ll do after that final game,” he reflects.
“But when I was 30, maybe 31 years old, I decided for sure then.”
In an interview discussing his managerial spell at White Hart Lane, Poyet lambasted some of the club’s youngsters: “Half the team didn’t know much about football and you had to tell them everything,” he said.
“When I was at Chelsea, we spoke about football all the time, but it was different at Tottenham. Some of the players have things too easy. They have the best cars by the age of 21, whereas when I was playing we had to wait until we were 30.”
By way of comparison, back in the 1950s, Malcolm Allison and his West Ham colleagues would flock to the Boleyn Castle café after training to discuss tactics. But Poyet isn’t surprised that today’s players aren’t interested in discussing football’s nitty-gritties: “Early in your career, you turn up, wait until the manager tells you what to do, and then train,” he says.
“You do your best, get fit, then go home. You never think of the reasons.”
But Poyet remembers when he started to study things in detail: “At Chelsea, all of a sudden, Gianluca Vialli took over the team. He was sat next to me in the dressing room one day, then the next, he’s manager.
“Then I realised, you must be ready if you seriously want to move into management as chances come up at any time. So I started paying attention, and always wondering, ‘Why?’
“I was no longer just a player – I was a coach too.”
Poyet admits one thing he’s learned to do differently from Wise and Ramos is to seek the opinion of his assistant – former Spurs full-back Mauricio Taricco. If you add together the ages of 37-year-old Taricco and Poyet, 42, you get 79. In comparison, Poyet’s former Uruguay manager, Roque Máspoli, was in his 80s!
However, age seems to be irrelevant in the world of football today.Víctor Fernández, Poyet’s coach at Zaragoza, was 31 when he took the job, and at 42, Poyet is the third oldest manager of a club currently in League One’s top nine.
But lack of experience doesn’t mean lack of know-how.
Poyet says: “I understand the game one way – the game is played with one football, so you need to use it.”
I asked him how he implements his vision of the game on the Brighton squad. ”We explain everything before working on it and trying to saturate it,” he says.
“When I arrived, the team was very direct. They’d kick it for the sake of kicking it.
“Now, I’ve shown them when to kick the ball, and when to attack with it. We went from one style of playing to the other, but that gives us balance, and now we are in great shape.”
Poyet adds: “In the beginning it was difficult for the players. When they were tired, they’d still kick it in the sky. But slowly, we changed that reaction, and now the players are used to it – the fans too.”
During the recent draw with Bournemouth, sections of the Withdean Stadium crowd were jeering before Newcastle loanee Kazenga Lua Lua gave Albion the lead.
“If the fans want Brighton to change our style of play when we’re top, they need another manager,” Poyet told reporters after the game.
“The team will play the way I want them to play: it’s my team and my decision. If somebody starts panicking and kicking long because the fans shout, he’s going to be out of the team.”
I raised the issue with Poyet, wondering if supporter opinion could ever influence his tactics.
“There are a few fans who don’t understand the way we play,” he says. ”They’ve been watching football here for years and want the ball put forward as soon as possible. But it’s impossible to please every single person. So I say, when it comes to styles, there is no right or wrong – some like it one way, some like it the other.
“I know which I prefer,” he adds.
Poyet hasn’t always been flattering about the tactics deployed by other football managers, however.
Recalling Claudio Ranieri’s time as Chelsea boss, Poyet once said: “It was difficult playing under Ranieri. You start a game 4-4-2, then five minutes later it’s 3-5-2, and four or five players have to change positions.”
Yet this hasn’t put Poyet off changing his side’s system within moments of starting with another.
He says: ”I’m always watching to see if the tactics are working, and if they’re not, I’ll react. You plan for games by expecting the opposition to play one way: if they are playing a totally different way, you need to adapt straight away.
“We never go to three at the back or five though because English defenders are used to four. How I set out the rest of the team depends on what I believe is the best way to win,” he adds.
“But you know the famous Plan B in England? And the fans, they always blame the manager for not having a Plan B? Well, we have plenty of plans. The problem is, we managers are convinced that the way we start is always the best.”
With Brighton topping the table, the tactical boot is currently on the other foot: “We have teams at the Withdean who just come to match up. After we change formation, they change formation. And then we change again, and they change again,” Poyet says.
“It’s crazy, always trying to stop the opposition from playing rather than playing themselves. I just use a system to win the game.”
Poyet represented Uruguay 26 times between 1993 and 2000. I asked him if he believes players learn more about the tactical side of the game by playing international football.
“The best part of my career was in 1995 when we won the Copa América,” he says. ”We played throughout with just one plan – four at the back, three in the middle and then three outstanding players in (Enzo) Francescoli, (Marcelo) Otero, and (Daniel) Fonseca.
“It was a very different way of playing – 4-3, and then giving full freedom to those three players. I don’t think it would work very often now though unless you really, really worked on it.
“However, perhaps we’re seeing it at Manchester City – a solid 4-3, and then Tevez, Silva and Wright-Phillips. But always, that 4-3 at the back is so important.”
Poyet rejected the chance to manage his home nation’s U20 side earlier this year, but admits he dreams of coaching the Uruguayan senior team one day.
“I’d love to get into that, but it wasn’t the right time when the offer came in,” he says.
“The chance to pick your players who play the way you want them to play does make international football very appealing though.”
Óscar Tabárez is doing a good job with the senior squad at present, and led Uruguay to fourth spot at the last World Cup. Poyet is full of admiration for the way 63-year-old prepared his squad in South Africa.
He says: “For the first time in many, many years the squad just trained. They didn’t play too many friendlies; they just trained twice a day for a whole month, and this meant the coach could use great players like (Edinson) Cavani in different systems.
“As a Uruguayan, I was so so proud of what they achieved, and how they did it.”
Proud Uruguayan Gus might be, but son Diego has already represented at England U16 level. On the books of Charlton Athletic, Phil Parkinson could have done with Poyet Jnr. last weekend when the Addicks went down 4-0 at home to Brighton – a performance that Poyet Snr. referred to as “nearly perfection”.
Poyet has already done better than Brian Clough did in his spell as Brighton manager. And like the former Nottingham Forest boss, there’s no doubt that this smooth-talking, upbeat and intelligent Uruguayan will eventually manage at the highest level.
And if he’s lucky, perhaps Michael Sheen will consider him significant enough to portray in a movie too!
* – Paul Peschisolido – Burton Albion’s Canadian manager.