Sebastian Larsson had been told by Gus Poyet that he could come off at half-time on Saturday with a cut to his leg that looked bad, but to the midfielder’s credit he told his manager that he wanted to continue. Larsson has been in the game long enough to know that bailing out of a game after the kind of first half his team had endured against Aston Villa was not the conduct of a good pro, whatever the discomfort.
Poyet agreed and the club doctor administered stitches. With Poyet’s attention elsewhere he only realised when the team was ready to kick off for the second half that Larsson was not back out on the field because the stitching process had taken so long – and so it was a vulnerable manager was made to look that bit weaker.
Things like that can happen when you are down at the bottom of the table as the season reaches its conclusion. Small details conspire against you, and Poyet will have known he was in a bad place when even a bit of courage from a Sunderland player, rare on Saturday, ended up backfiring.
There were aspects of the decision to sack Poyet that made sense – four league wins all season, one point above the relegation zone – although few things tell you more about a club than the way they get rid of managers. In Poyet’s case he was permitted to take training as usual against the backdrop of a conspicuous silence from an owner, chief executive and sporting director who are low-profile at the best of times.
What a strange existence Sunderland have carved out for themselves under Ellis Short’s six-year ownership. The sixth manager under the American, Poyet took the job in November 2013 with the club in a crisis born of their own unfathomable intransigence over Paolo Di Canio. After a while it became hard to think of a job outside football, never mind inside the game, to which Di Canio was less-suited than managing Sunderland. Organising Comic Relief, perhaps, or running a childcare centre.
In June 2013, Sunderland appointed the little-known agent Roberto De Fanti as their director of football, a plan that ended after seven months with his dismissal for having largely acquired sub-standard players. Even given the mixed history of Premier League directors of football, it says much about De Fanti that arguably the most memorable thing about him was his resemblance to Murray from Flight of the Conchords.
Which brings us to Poyet, a manager who saved Sunderland last season from relegation after Di Canio’s start of one point from five games, and took the club to their first Cup final in 22 years. No one would suggest Poyet has not made mistakes and his combative approach with everyone from supporters to club officials is not to everyone’s tastes, but recent evidence would suggest that saving Sunderland goes a lot further than changing the manager.
Their track record has been dreadful in recent years, from falling out with managers who started well, to appointing a director of football who signed the wrong players. That they find themselves in mid-March picking Dick Advocaat from a very mediocre range of coaching CVs says as much about their own capacity for cock-ups as anything else.
The current director of football, Lee Congerton, can at least argue that Poyet’s appointment pre-dated his own arrival and most in his position are granted two lives for every manager deemed to have failed. But if Poyet is to be the scapegoat for all the duff signings made in the last 16 months Sunderland should tread carefully, given their own record in that department.
The club is run by Margaret Byrne, the chief executive, who appointed Congerton a year ago. As things went from bad to worse over Poyet, the recriminations, as usual, turned to who recommended which player, always a fraught and complicated business. While Poyet has long said that he had the final say on transfers, it is also accepted that the manager was not party to what the club paid for a player or the wages they agreed with the player in question.
That itself made it difficult for Poyet to assess the relative value of any player or keep to a budget. For instance, the club agreed last summer to pay more than £10m for Ricky Alvarez, signed on loan from Internazionale, if they stay up. Alvarez is the signing most often used as evidence against Poyet and yet there was consensus from the club who agreed the deal.
The signing of Jack Rodwell was another £10m-plus deal, and one driven by the club rather than the manager. To Poyet goes the responsibility for recommending Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Costel Pantilimon, Anthony Réveillère, Jordi Gomez, Ignacio Scocco and Jermain Defoe. The notion that Poyet discouraged Toby Alderweireld from joining on loan from Atletico Madrid last summer, however, is one the Uruguayan will deny in the fallout from his dismissal.
There was an approach for two Atletico players, neither of them the Belgian in question, during last summer but neither deal materialised. As for Alderweireld, why would Poyet turn down a defender when he knew that he was relying on Wes Brown and John O’Shea to carry the team for long periods of the season?
Either way, we are reaching the stage when apportioning responsibility for the details of transfers feels like a separating couple arguing over the decent albums in their shared CD collection. The results have not been good enough and, with so much water under the bridge, the parting might just be best for both sides in the short term. But what certainty is there that the big picture will be better for Sunderland?
You could make a strong argument for saying that Poyet should have left last summer, exercising the break clause in his deal that was insisted on by the club when he joined and going on good terms. Given how long it was before he confirmed he would be staying come the end of May, it was clear that he had a great deal of misgivings even then.
When a new manager saves a club from relegation and still wonders whether leaving might be a better option, it says a lot about the club he works for. It would be hard to imagine, for instance, Tim Sherwood deciding this summer he would be better off leaving Aston Villa if he does keep them up come May, yet last summer the warning signs for Poyet were already there.
This morning Sunderland will congratulate themselves at having taken positive action in shedding a struggling manager, and the more blame he carries, the better for them. But Short, Byrne and the rest surely cannot keep making appointments they later decide to be inadequate without someone eventually asking if the fault lies more with them.Reuse content