From Uruguay, with love for the game: Feet on the foothills, eyes on the summit

Gus Poyet dreams of returning to his beloved Chelsea as coach but, he tells Jason Burt, his first posting as No 2 at lowly Swindon Town is a wise move
Click to follow
The Independent Football

From the likelihood of becoming the vice-president of the Uruguayan Football Federation, and the first ex-player to do so, to Hartlepool United away on the first day of the season. It has been quite a summer's journey for Gus Poyet. The 38-year-old is the assistant manager of Swindon Town, now in League Two, having received a phone call from his former Chelsea team-mate, Dennis Wise, just as he was mulling his options having moved back to Montevideo.

"There were a few propositions including a big one - with the federation - which would have been quite strange for a former player. It has never happened in Uruguay before," Poyet says. "But it was not the right time for me. I'm too young for that... So when Dennis said 'come here', well, I wanted to do it."

Poyet, surveying Swindon's pleasant training ground just off the M4, retired last year. His contract was up at Tottenham Hotspur and, after "17 years non-stop, thinking about football 24/7", it was time for him to hang up his boots and return home. He had been away, in Europe, all that time. First in Spain - with Real Zaragoza - then London. Poyet was serious about going back to South America. So much so that he sold up and moved lock, stock and barrel to Uruguay.

"It was nice to relax," Poyet, now house-hunting outside Swindon, says. "But after six months I was shaking and thought, 'I have to do something'." It did not help that, for him and his family, the pace of life felt so different in Uruguay. "Everything is slower," he admits. "And after such a long time away it was hard to go back. There you have to work hard just to find a way to get things done."

Poyet, a powerful and prolific midfielder, had always wanted to go into management, into coaching. He talked about it throughout his playing days and especially at Chelsea. "Dennis, myself, Gianfranco Zola, Dan Petrescu, Roberto Di Matteo," he says wistfully. "We were the ones always talking about doing something together when we left." Wise, he says, was always "the main man" at Stamford Bridge as well as a "top-class" player. Poyet adds: "He made sure we were together and that was important because there were so many foreign players. He was the leader. And the supporters, also, understood it."

Indeed, Wise promised that, when the circumstances were right, he would take Poyet with him. After his time at Millwall, where he took them to the FA Cup final but left messily, and his aborted attempt to take over at Southampton, Wise pitched up at the newly relegated Swindon.

"We connected," Poyet says of the pair's relationship. "From the first day I trained at Chelsea. Sometimes you get that connection - in football, in communication, in aggression, in power, in heart. His English was difficult to understand but our families, also, got on well. We really loved the club and, to be fair, we're still in love with Chelsea." Such is Poyet's - and Wise's - love for their former club that they hope, one day, to return as manager and assistant. "Who knows," says Poyet. "I hope so."

A link exists. Glenn Hoddle started his managerial career in Wiltshire. "Yes, I'm pleased with that," says Poyet, who worked under Hoddle at Spurs rather than Chelsea. "I'm sure Glenn will be thinking, 'Oh, Gus is here', so if we can follow him it wouldn't be a bad idea. Not that I want to be the manager of England!"

Poyet's thoughts on English football are illuminating. He was quoted, by Jose Mourinho, in Gianluca Vialli's recent book on the relationship between the Premiership andSerie A, about the inability of players here to "think football". There was an important caveat that was left out. He said: "Think football, 24/7".

Poyet explains: "It's a problem. Chelsea is supposed to be an English club. But it isn't. For the past 10 years there have been foreign coaches so you train the way you train in Europe. You don't have Sundays and Wednesdays off. You train every day and you are thinking football. I went to Tottenham. Typically English. Because I was 32, 33 it was good for me to have two days off but I couldn't see myself at 23 having that. It's too difficult. I had got used to training every day and thinking football every day. There are not too many players who can switch on, switch off. I talked to Jose about that."

There is no envy that his time at Chelsea was pre-Roman Abramovich and Mourinho. "You had to be lucky to be at the club at the right time," Poyet, who was invited back for the club's centenary celebrations, says. "For the players now everything is perfect. They have everything. They cannot complain. We were one step behind. We were very good in cups [they won the FA Cup, European Cup-Winners' Cup and Super Cup] because we were good at saying, 'This is the game, we have to win this game'. But it was difficult to do that over 38 games." But that is top-level football. Now he is at the lowest professional tier. "There's a big difference for sure," Poyet concedes of his new environment. Indeed, he canvassed opinion before taking up the Swindon post. "I was told, 'Don't panic, don't get frustrated'. That is the biggest danger. They are different players. Different levels of quality, fitness, technical ability, concentration, decisions. But we're putting things in place. And some of those things are what we used to do at Chelsea."

Poyet is no fan of Mourinho's predecessor, Claudio Ranieri. He respects the Italian's right to change things but the inference is clear. "Rotation. I hated it. I don't care how many players you have got, you need a core of eight and if you change it, it's bad. I couldn't complain because sometimes I was playing and Franco Zola was on the bench and I'm thinking, 'What's going on here? Something's wrong'. I didn't complain, but I didn't like it. Then there were different tactics as well: 4-4-2; 3-5-2; 3-4-3. I was thinking, 'What's going on?' You didn't know where you were playing. I saw Dennis in four different positions in the same game. The captain of Chelsea. That was bad. That was wrong."

Suffice to say, Swindon will be more settled. Pre-season has gone well. There is a solid defence, a promising front line. As for the midfield and both Wise, 40, and Poyet have registered as players but hope that their involvement is limited - "it's the worst position to play in this league" - even if the manager is still, according to his assistant, the "best runner" and fittest person at the club.

"We have a big chance of something," Poyet says of Swindon's prospects. "This is a club that has been up and down, up and down. But there is potential. The whole city is expecting us to do well and we need to convince them. We are ready and we want to do well in the first few games and then play in front of a full stadium. That will make it easier. I know that. For seven years I played for Zaragoza and the only times it was full was Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the semi-final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup." Heady heights. But first the foothills. "I want to see if I can deal with the pressure," says Poyet who will patrol the touchline today with Wise - for the first half at least - up in the stands. "If we are good together, then who knows? Maybe we'll stay as a team. I just want to work and learn and enjoy the moment."

And so to Hartlepool. Poyet is bursting at the prospect. He was so excited by this season that, back in Uruguay, when he got the fixture list through he unfolded his map of England. "And I got all the teams in the division and I put them on the map with pins to see where we will play. The first two away games, Hartlepool and Darlington, could not have been further. It's good. Then there is Accrington Stanley. Everyone is talking about it. I know where it is and I'm pleased we are playing them. We'll be going up there by bus. We are here. We understand the situation. Of course it would be nice to travel by plane but that isn't going to happen. Not yet anyway."

Comments