Gus Poyet’s early learning curve as a Premier League manager was steep, teaching him within a fortnight of moving in at Sunderland in October how much more important it was to have beaten Newcastle in his second match than merely losing 4-0 at Swansea in his first.
Since then the curve seemed to have levelled out, along with results – until the past few days.
Poyet had rashly assumed that avoiding relegation was the priority for a manager taking over the Premier League’s bottom club, only to discover that steering the same team to Wembley for Sunday’s Capital One Cup final against Manchester City has sent the city into a time-warp, telling tales of Bob Stokoe, Jim Montgomery and the boys of ’73.
The league more important? “It is, but not up in Sunderland,” he said with a mystified air after his preoccupied players had crashed and burned 4-1 at Arsenal on Saturday. “I learnt that in the last week. I thought it was only one thing, [to] stay in the Premier League. Apparently for a manager it is better to win the Cup, because you become more famous.” So famous, in fact, that there is a statue of Stokoe outside the Stadium of Light, even though he spent all his three full seasons as manager there in the Second Division.
“I am learning,” Poyet said. His second lesson was that he must start planning for the final all over again. Having assumed Saturday’s starting XI would be desperate to play themselves into the side for Wembley, he found in the first half that most seemed to be doing the opposite.
“The idea was for them as a team to put themselves in the line-up for next week, so I was expecting them at least to do the basics,” he said. Instead it proved a good game to miss, like Lee Cattermole (left out because the referee Andre Marriner “was one who normally sends him off”), or at least to enter at half-time with the game already lost, as Sebastian Larsson and Emanuele Giaccherini did to good effect.
“I say to them sorry,” Poyet said. “Don’t just throw me out there against Arsenal when we are 3-0 down and cannot pass it three yards. But credit to them, they gave us something extra and [themselves] an opportunity for next week.”
The boys of ’73 beat Manchester City, then Arsenal and Leeds, two of the League’s top three teams, during their FA Cup run. Their heirs looked a very long way off such heroics on Saturday.