Gus Poyet says he would die in defence of his fellow Uruguayan Luis Suarez against the Football Association's charge of racist abuse. The Brighton & Hove Albion manager is not a man given to understatement. He did not intend to pour fuel on the highly inflammable Suarez-Evra situation, he assures me, when he declared last week that he had never responded to insults – even though they had been frequent during his playing days in Spain – by "crying like a baby, like Patrice Evra". All the same, there are dedicated arsonists who get lesser conflagrations going.
Sir Alex Ferguson was among those who combusted, and I offer Poyet a route out of the flames by asking if he regrets the cry-baby sneer. But the 44-year-old is no less penetrative in verbal combat than he was as a midfielder for Real Zaragoza, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. "Not at all," he says. "He's played football at every level, in Italy too. There would not be time in his life to tell you how many times someone has said something bad to him, so it's quite funny he only says this when he's playing against Liverpool."
For Poyet, in other words, this is a Manchester United-Liverpool thing rather than a racism issue. But is it not disingenuous of him to compare the jibes thrown at him, as a South American, during his seven years in Spanish football, with those alleged by Evra? After all, he doesn't know what it is like to be abused for the colour of his skin.
"I disagree," he says. "If you are racist, you are against someone who is not like you. Because you are from another country, another continent, or because of the colour of your skin, for me it's the same. And in football they do it to make us react, to go crazy, so we deal with that. Patrice Evra should deal with that. Suarez is a lovely guy, and 100 per cent not a racist. I have texted him to support him and to say I'm available if he needs me."
Poyet thinks, as others have suggested, that Suarez might have used the word "negrito", and that it was misinterpreted by Evra. "In Uruguay it is a nickname for someone whose skin is darker than the rest," he explains. "It is not offensive. Such people are part of our society. We will defend them, go to war with them, share everything with them, and at the same time use that word. But I do understand that in England the word is used differently, so we have to pay attention how we use it. We need to adapt. Do we as foreigners need to adapt more to England than England to us? Yes, of course. That's common sense. I know things Luis Suarez does not know because I have been here 14 years. So let's use common sense and give the kid a chance."
Common sense is one of Poyet's favourite English expressions. "I use common sense for everything," he says, sitting on a battered sofa in the pavilion at the University of Sussex playing fields, which Brighton rent as their training ground. "Some people only use it when it is good for them, but if someone disagrees with me and they are speaking common sense, I will change my mind."
He has had two years to hone his leadership philosophy. Last Saturday, he took Brighton to Southampton, which is where his managerial career began, auspiciously, with a 3-1 win, in November 2009. Coincidentally, it was also Southampton where the Uruguayan had earned himself an indelible footnote in the history of English football, for at The Dell on Boxing Day 1999 he led out a Chelsea team containing not a single Englishman. It would happen again but it had never happened before. Middle England was aghast. And Poyet told his team-mates that for that reason they had to win. They did.
"I don't agree with an English team having only foreign players," he tells me now. "But I came to England in 1997 and people were talking then about improving the technique of English players. That's 14 years ago. A kid of 10 then is 24 now, but we're still saying the same things. How can we improve English players? Will we still be talking, talking, talking in 2025, or will we do something by then?"
Poyet is at pains to point out that when he talks about England and the English, he likes to say "we" and "us" and "our". His son Diego, on the books at Charlton Athletic, has captained England Under-16s. If Diego progresses all the way to the senior squad, no one will be prouder than his old dad. But it is still with strong Hispanic vowels and an outsider's knowing eye that Poyet gazes upon English football, and he cites Diego as example A of where it's going wrong.
"I've been watching him play at Charlton from the Under-13s, and I hear the coaches tell the players 'well done', when they kick the ball into the stand. That is a problem. If a defender is in the six-yard box and kicks it into the stand, then I too will say well done. Otherwise, no. But when you say no, the player says, 'Wait a minute, I've been playing like this 10 years, and everybody tells me well done. Now you say the opposite. So who is the crazy one? Everybody else, or just you?'"
He laughs, mirthlessly. "We need to produce players with lots of qualities. The biggest mistake in England is to look only for one quality. He's quick! But does he have a good first touch? It doesn't matter, he's quick. Or he's big! A good, big defender. But can he read the game, can he make decisions? It doesn't matter, he's big. That is the English mentality."
Another dimension of the English mentality, he says, is to make unrealistic demands of the national team. "England have won one World Cup, at home. Uruguay did that as well, in 1930. How many other times are England in the final? Never. In the final of the Euros? Never. So why the expectations?" Indeed. But these unreasonable expectations would be best shouldered, he thinks, by Harry Redknapp. "It would be easier with an Englishman. In my country we tried Uruguayans, but it did not work, so they brought in [Daniel] Passarella from Argentina. That didn't work, but at least they tried. In England it's the opposite. Try foreigners and if it doesn't work, try an Englishman."
He chuckles at these perversities of the English mentality. At Brighton his objective is to impose something of the South American mentality and, so far, so good. Saturday's journey back along the South Coast, following an emphatic 3-0 defeat, was less happy than it was two years ago, but then mid-table in the Championship is a much more congenial place to be than close to the foot of League One, which was Brighton's lot when Poyet succeeded Russell Slade in November 2009.
He has been turning heads since then, not only getting Brighton promoted as champions, but with notably stylish, flowing football that earlier this season propelled them to the top of the Championship, where they stayed for three weeks. There was much excited squawking and screeching from Seagulls fans, eyeing a return to top-flight football for the first time since 1983, at least until a run of defeats restored some realism.
Yet Poyet's grasp on realism had never slipped. He had not even started dreaming about league matches at Old Trafford and his still-beloved Stamford Bridge, he insists.
"It may have been some momentum from last year, or excitement about the new stadium, I don't know," he says, trying to explain the excellent start to the campaign. "When we have everyone available, we are a difficult team to beat. But it is a tough division in every aspect; technically, tactically, physically. There are the top divisions in England, Spain, Italy, France, maybe Germany, and then the Championship. Something unique in this country is the quantity of big clubs playing in lower divisions. It doesn't happen anywhere else. If you go to Spain, you won't find a lower-division team that has won the European Cup, like Nottingham Forest. But look at the Championship this year; Birmingham, West Ham, Leeds. I was there at Leeds, what a place. Look at the crowds in the Championship. Fantastic."
Poyet talks up the division with genuine passion, but we both know that he intends to leave it behind. Perhaps as manager of Chelsea? "Yes, perhaps. But I'm not in a hurry. That doesn't mean when I'm 72, but not tomorrow. Five years would be better than 10, but anyway I'm convinced it's possible with Brighton. If the aim here were not the Premiership, I'd already be gone. But the chairman [Tony Bloom] wants the same as me. In England, people say don't pick a club [to manage] because of the history or the quality, pick it for the chairman. And this chairman is top-class."
As for his own attributes, he claims it is difficult to talk about them himself, yet seems to have little trouble. "I am different, not a typical manager. It doesn't mean I am better or worse, but I am able to separate the person from the player. When I'm dealing with the player, that's business. The rest of the day, I treat them as people, with respect." Nobody, he says, ever extended such courtesies to him in his playing days. "Never. Never. But that was always our aim, me and [assistant manager] Mauricio Taricco. It is my instinct, and I always go with instincts. They helped me as a player, as an assistant manager, and now as a manager."
Poyet was assistant to his old Chelsea team-mate Dennis Wise at Swindon Town and Leeds United, and later to Juande Ramos at Spurs. "The experience," he says, "was too good even to be paid. I was learning constantly, learning more how not to do things than how to do them." Even as a player he'd had some exposure to the demands of football management, during a stressful time as Claudio Ranieri's interpreter at Chelsea. He rolls his eyes. "It was madness," he says. "An Italian talking to a Uruguayan in Spanish about English football, and playing, then translating, or not being picked, getting angry and upset, but still translating. A crazy time."
In Uruguay, he tells me with a wry smile, football-mad youngsters don't believe that he once played for Chelsea. "They see Abramovich's Chelsea," he says, "and it is different. The Premier League is totally different now. Much better. Watching Man City has become part of my weekend."
Nonetheless, he thinks it is wrong of the media only to have eyes for the Premier League, and last month was waspishly critical of the BBC commentary team of Guy Mowbray and, an old Seagulls hero, Mark Lawrenson, for expressing surprise at the quality of Brighton's Craig Mackail-Smith during the Spain v Scotland international.
Poyet felt they should have known all about him. "It hurt me," he says. "Anything good or bad that happens to one of my players, it affects me. I become too much involved in the team I work for. I become a fan. And even afterwards I stay a fan. I like Barcelona, and I really, really admire Mourinho, but my team in Spain is Real Zaragoza. And Chelsea are in my heart too, more than Tottenham, because at Chelsea I won trophies every year."
His chances of managing Chelsea might be improving, as Andre Villas-Boas looks beleaguered. "Yes, but I hope it works for him," he says. "It is a difficult time [to be Chelsea manager]. Because in five years, three, two, someone has to make a decision on John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech." And if it is him? A shrug, which unlike certain words, means the same in Uruguay as in England. "I would not be worried. To make decisions, that is why I became a manager."
Gus Poyet factfile
Born 15 November 1967 in Montevideo.
Starts his pro career with French club Grenoble, but returns to Uruguay to play for River Plate.
Signs for Real Zaragoza in 1990, winning the Copa del Rey and Cup-Winners' Cup.
Wins the 1995 Copa America with Uruguay
Arrives at Chelsea on a free transfer in 1997 and wins the 1998 Cup-Winner's Cup.
Chelsea win the 2000 FA Cup before Poyet leaves for Spurs in a £2.2m deal.
Begins coaching career as assistant to Dennis Wise at Swindon before both leave for Leeds.
Moves to Spurs to work under Juande Ramos. The club win League Cup but both depart in October 2008.
Appointed Brighton manager and gets the Seagulls promoted to the Championship.
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