Gus Poyet will spend his 53rd birthday quietly with a family walk around Battersea Park on Sunday. At some point, there will be a video call to Mum seven thousand miles away in Uruguay.
It is two years since Poyet’s last managerial post and after spells in Greece, China, Spain and France, he is back in his adopted city where he played successfully for Chelsea and Tottenham and raised two sons.
‘I was 29 when I first came to England from Real Zaragoza, It turned out to be a life-changing decision, and the right one,’ he recounts.
Gustavo Poyet celebrates Chelsea’s 2000 FA Cup win with his sons Diego (left) and Matias
The Uruguayan celebrates a victory as Sunderland manager over Manchester United during Ryan Giggs’ spell as caretaker manager at the end of the 2013-14 season
‘Spain was comfortable but England was a challenge I wanted, to experience playing with guys like Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and Dennis Wise.
‘My team-mate Nayim helped make my mind up. He’d played for Spurs and explained everything about English football and living in London. And here we still are!’
Anniversaries are a natural time to reflect on the past and consider the future.
Poyet has plenty to look back on, both as an energetic box-to-box midfielder and as a manager, particularly at Sunderland where he pulled off the greatest escape of them all in 2014.
Like many South American talents, he came to Europe young, first with Grenoble in France and then Zaragoza, who famously beat Arsenal to win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1995 with Nayim’s goal from the halfway line.
Mohamed Nayim of Real Zaragoza hits his audacious shot from the halfway line against Arsenal in the 1995 European Cup Winners’ Cup final
His extraordinary shot was completely misjudged by Arsenal keeper David Seaman
‘I was 10 yards away when he hit it. I thought, ‘What is that?’ because there was nobody ahead of him,’ recalls Poyet. ‘Everyone went silent, just watching the ball and David Seaman.
‘It was probably the worst-celebrated goal in football to be honest, everyone went everywhere, and it wasn’t much better at full-time because it meant so much.
‘I cried like a baby because of the emotion but I also had cramp in my calf. When I tried to run, it seized up and someone had to pull my foot up.’
Zaragoza had beaten Chelsea in the semi-final and it opened the door for Poyet to arrive at Stamford Bridge two years later – only for a serious cruciate injury to then nearly wreck his stay before it had properly started.
‘I did my ligaments in October and people said I’d miss the whole season. I bought a bike for my house and Terry Byrne (masseur) became my personal recovery assistant as well as an English teacher.
Poyet and team-mates including Jody Morris and Dennis Wise celebrate a goal in 1998
Poyet celebrates scoring against Real Madrid in the 1998 UEFA Super Cup final in Monaco
‘With the help of some special people, I got back in time for the Cup Winners’ Cup final which we won. It meant so much personally.
‘The other highlight was winning the FA Cup (against Aston Villa) in 2000, the last final at old Wembley. That long walk out the tunnel onto the red carpet with the fans going crazy was spectacular.
‘After the final whistle, Wisey told us to get our kids to lift the cup with us. It was that spontaneous. Afterwards, the authorities decided it wasn’t allowed so nobody has been able to do it since. I treasure the pictures I have at Wembley with Matias and Diego.’
Poyet started in management as Wise’s assistant at Swindon and Leeds and performed the same role for Juande Ramos at Spurs when they won the League Cup in 2008 – still their last major trophy.
As a No 1, he won promotion into the Championship at Brighton and rightly describes keeping Sunderland up in 2014 as a miracle, seven points adrift with six games left including visits to champions-elect Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Poyet crossed the London divide to join Tottenham in 2001 and played there for three years
‘You have to consider it the greatest escape and I have to give credit to our substitute goalkeeper Oscar Ustari,’ he reveals.
‘The first game of the run-in was at City on April 16. We led until the 88th minute when Nasri equalised. Oscar was worried I’d be upset because we were so close to winning. He pulled me as I went into the dressing-room and said: ‘Gaffer, the players were unbelievable, praise them, they deserve plenty of credit.’
‘It was a turning point. We went to Chelsea next and won, it was Jose Mourinho’s first home defeat in the Premier League after 77 matches. Then we beat United at Old Trafford. We ended up finishing 14th.
In recent times, Poyet has been a globetrotter to AEK Athens, Real Betis, Shanghai Shenhua and Bordeaux.
‘Football in China isn’t easy but it was one of my best experiences as a person,’ he says.
Moving into management, Poyet took Brighton and Hove Albion up in the Championship
Poyet and his backroom team celebrate a Sunderland victory over their rivals Newcastle
‘They are very superstitious. The number eight is lucky, the colour red is lucky, the number four is unlucky.
‘I was once about to walk through door marked number four into an airport when my staff started shouting: ‘Don’t go through, go to entrance three or five instead.’
Poyet’s honesty and passion can be a strength or a disadvantage in today’s game. He left Bordeaux after complaining a striker had been sold behind his back.
‘What are we saying, that telling the truth stops you getting a job. Wow,’ he remarks.
‘We live in a world where you tell a lie ten times and it becomes the truth. But I don’t want to be like that,’ he says. ‘But I know the owner is the boss, I am easy to work with in that respect.’
He has had interest from Spain and a national team in Africa but wants to choose his next role carefully.
Poyet pictured at home during lockdown, reading and enjoying a cup of ‘mate’ tea
‘I jumped at Betis (in 2016) without doing my homework because I regarded them as how the club used to be when I was a player, rather than the situation I was walking into.’
He is pleased to see former team-mate John Terry learning his managerial trade as No 2 at Aston Villa while Frank Lampard, Poyet’s playing replacement at Chelsea in 2001, now has the hot seat at Stamford Bridge.
‘I like what Frank did last season without the chance to sign players,’ says Poyet. ‘He used young players who go through these adrenaline periods of doing brilliantly and then not so well.
‘Expectations have changed now because Chelsea spent big money in the summer. Frank has embraced that, no more transition period.
‘Is it more pressure? Give me pressure with better players any day. I’d always prefer a chairman who spends £200milion.
Poyet has been impressed by the impact Frank Lampard is having as Chelsea manager
John Terry, a former team-mate of Poyet’s at Chelsea, is Aston Villa’s assistant manager
Poyet as a manager
November 2009-June 2013
Brighton and Hove Albion
Games 194 Wins 86 Draws 59 Defeats 49
Win percentage 44.33
October 2013-March 2015
Games 75 Wins 23 Draws 22 Defeats 30
Win percentage 30.67
October 2015-April 2016
Games 28 Wins 18 Draws 5 Defeats 5
Win percentage 64.29
May 2016-November 2016
Games 11 Wins 3 Draws 2 Defeats 6
Win percentage 27.27
November 2016-September 2017
Games 29 Wins 10 Draws 7 Defeats 12
Win percentage 34.48
January 2018-September 2018
Games 21 Wins 13 Draws 2 Defeats 6
Win percentage 61.90
‘JT was clever from the first time he trained with us. He improved by watching Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly. He learned from them positioning, passing skills, aggression, professionalism, power.
‘Being an assistant-manager is ideal for him. I benefited from studying the relationships a manager has with his player or owners, but without having the responsibility of making decisions myself.
Poyet also accepts managers need a tough hide in these days of social media and 24-hour opinion. ‘That’s football, that’s society,’ he says. ‘We increase dramatically the bad things and diminish the good.
‘I saw when Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino, it was because the board wanted to win trophies. But then they need to remember Ramos who did win a trophy. It is a contradiction.’
No Uruguayan played more Premier League games than Poyet’s 187, well clear of second-highest Luis Suarez.
Uruguay produces a remarkable amount of players considering its population of 3.5million. Edinson Cavani, 33, is the latest of their Premier League imports at Manchester United.
Cavani hasn’t yet started a game for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but Poyet thinks his potential impact has been underestimated.
‘I think he is going to be more important for Manchester United than people think,’ asserts Poyet.
‘Look at the last game at Everton. The result was in the balance, he came off the bench, once chance and bang.
‘English football is perfect for Uruguayans because we are passionate. Once we sign a contract, we forget about it because the only thing that matters next is winning. English fans love that.’
Cavani has been world-class for PSG and at World Cups. ‘He makes an incredible amount of runs,’ says Poyet.
Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani opened his account for Manchester United last weekend
‘Maybe he makes an unbelievable run and the ball isn’t played. The fitter he gets, the more he understands United’s play, the more he will play.’
Poyet has been talking for nearly an hour. His enthusiasm is undiminished. He can’t wait for the next opportunity.
‘When two successful people work together, the outcome is normally good,’ he says. ‘I think back to my relationship with (chairman) Tony Bloom at Brighton.
‘He led the financial side, I led the football side, and the club was flying. We had an identity and the crowds went from seven thousand to 30,000. I’m sure I’ll be back.’