Gus Poyet slowly rolled the fingers of his left hand into a fist. “When the opportunity to play in a cup final comes along, you must grasp it,” he said. At least when it comes to cup football, the players he took over in October have listened.
Sunderland are Jekyll and Hyde. The team bottom of the Premier League with just three wins all season are the only side in England with a 100 per cent record in the domestic cups. When those around his team at the foot of the division speak of a lack of interest in the FA Cup (Aston Villa) or play significantly weakened teams (West Ham), Poyet plots a different and deliberate path. There is a search for a spark in the red-and-white corner of the North-east, or, as he admits, an attempt to alter the mindset of a football club that has got used to losing.
He speaks of psychological impact that alludes to the battered squad he inherited from Paolo Di Canio and from a loser’s mentality that preceded even the Italian’s controversial time in charge at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland face a Capital One League Cup semi-final against Manchester United, the first leg of which takes place tonight, before a fourth-round FA Cup tie at home to either Kidderminster or Peterborough. That contrasts dramatically with a league record of five wins from their last 33 games.
“It could be that there is no pressure on the players,” Poyet said yesterday. “The players are relaxed. It’s a cup game against a top team and it looks like – not for me – that if you lose, nothing happens. For me, if you lose, you are not a winner. You’re a loser, but it could be that it brings something different to the players, not as individuals, but as a group. If it continues, great, we are in a cup final.
“If you are playing Chelsea in the league and it is 1-1, how many of the players would take a draw? But in the cup, you must win. I keep saying this, but more and more in football it’s the mental side of things that’s most important. Fitness, the difference is not a lot. Technically, they’re very similar. But mentally, taking decisions, that is the difference.
“Why is there a difference between our league form and the cup games? Ask me tomorrow. We will have a better idea after that. Me, I played for a Chelsea team that won cups, but we never won the league. That doesn’t mean we weren’t playing the same way or trying the same. We were a cup team. It is very difficult to win the league, but something was missing: consistency. And that is definitely one of the things that’s missing here, without a doubt. We won a few times in the cup and then, the next game, when everybody expects us to win, something happens.”
It is hard to imagine just how desperate Sunderland’s season would be without the unexpected joy the cups have brought. The springboard, the follow-up of form from cup to league has still to materialise and that rankles with the manager. Typically there is no pattern, and as Poyet scrutinises every aspect of every game in minute detail, it adds to the confusion.
Sunderland beat Southampton in the Capital One Cup and then beat Manchester City in the following Premier League game at the start of November but after the euphoria of victory in the same competition against Chelsea came a hugely disappointing home draw with Norwich in which they ended up a player short following the dismissal of Wes Brown. The significance may well come from Poyet’s own tone, which appears less confrontational.
“This is the nicest part of the season because the rest has been a nightmare, so let’s try and enjoy it and achieve something,” he added. “It is nice to come here and talk about semi-finals and not talk about points so we will try to enjoy it.
“I was lucky enough to win this competition as a coach with Spurs under Juande Ramos. People forget very quickly. But how long will it be before Tottenham win another trophy? They are out of both cups and are not going to win the league. The Europa League is their only chance. Sometimes it takes 10 years even for a team like that to win something. So if you have a little chance, like we have, you must take it.”