Gus Poyet: the story of the Seagulls' saviour
“This is another challenge for me to take the club where everybody in Brighton wants to be and that’s in the Championship. Being realistic I think 18 months is possible. If that is the goal of the club it’s no problem.”
Gus Poyet – 10th November 2009
It had been a gamble, writes John Verrall. When Tony Bloom announced that Gus Poyet would take over as Brighton manager, replacing Russell Slade, he came with no past experience in the role before. Brighton were hardly in a stable position either, sitting in 20th position in League One. With the threat of relegation a real worry, many chairmen would have opted to appoint a more proven, experienced manager. If this appointment was not successful, the Seagulls would be playing League Two football in 2010-2011.
It turned out to be more successful than anyone could have predicted. Poyet’s previous managerial experience had consisted of three assistant manager roles – at Swindon, Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur – where he was largely heralded for his work. Indeed, Leeds fans often credit Poyet rather than Dennis Wise, who was manager whilst Poyet was working as assistant, as the brains of the operation. The Uruguayan had certainly done his apprenticeship for management, but many had done so before – and failed.
Poyet’s first aim was to save the club from relegation. His reign started with a 3-1 victory over Southampton and it was a signal of things to come. Many managers have a “honeymoon period” when taking over a new job, but for Brighton and Poyet this still hasn’t finished. By the end of the 2009-2010 season, Brighton had finished in a comfortable 13th place and the fears of relegation were long forgotten. This was an achievement in itself but it was during the summer that Poyet really started to make his mark on the club and put his philosophy in place.
With a host of new signings, combining the vastly experienced Gordon Greer, Radostin Kishishev and Casper Ankergren with the mercurial young talents of Kazenga Lua Lua and Ashley Barnes, Poyet had prepared a squad that he thought could take on League One. His initial aim had been to provide promotion within 18 months. He had 12 months left.
Poyet, on the pitch, had been a graceful central midfielder, gifted with wonderful technical ability and his footballing approach shone through in his management. Over the summer Brighton’s approach to football changed. Poyet said that “the biggest thing for me is that the team plays the way I want, the team was not playing like that when I arrived”. Slade’s Brighton were hardly a long-ball team but Poyet’s approach was a continental one. His style moved away from the conventions of lower league English football. He shortened the passing, added more tactical variations to Brighton’s play – often favouring a 4-3-3 away from home – and got his team playing a much higher tempo.
All of a sudden, lower-league journeymen were looking like accomplished, technically astute footballers. Adam El-Abd, a robust, no-nonsense centre-back was turned into a ball playing defender. Elliott Bennett began to look a class above anybody else in the division with his pace and attacking prowess. Glenn Murray was transformed into one of the division’s top goalscorers. Brighton were reaping the benefits of Poyet’s leadership and managerial approach. From the offset they were League One’s leaders and they were not about to let the position slip.
At Peterborough in October, Brighton destroyed a team tipped widely tipped as promotion candidates on their own patch. A 3-0 win was the final score but the league leaders could easily have had double figures – Poyet acknowledged Joe Lewis, the Peterborough goalkeeper, as Man of the Match. Midway through the match, though, a telling chorus of “we’re f****** brilliant” broke out from the away contingent. It was hard to argue otherwise.
If Brighton fans were well and truly sold by Poyet’s approach, then so were the players. It was winning formula. By May the South coast side hadn’t stopped being brilliant and ended up winning the league on 16th April, almost a month before the season ended. It had been a quite remarkable season for a team that were expected to be play-off contenders at best. In the end, they had shown themselves a class above anyone else in a division that included the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton and Huddersfield Town.
Indeed, Brighton can now claim to be able to compete with these clubs in all areas of the game. Poyet has revolutionised the club on the pitch and Bloom is backing him with funds off it. The 2011-2012 season sees Brighton move away from the Withdean, a crumbling ramshackle old ground never designed for football – and move into Falmer Stadium, a modern 22,000 seater stadium with state of the art facilities. With 18,000 season tickets already sold and a host of reputable lower league players – including Craig Mackail-Smith, Will Hoskins and Kazenga Lua Lua – joining Poyet’s revolution, the future for Brighton looks very bright indeed. Many have tipped them as promotion contenders this season and it is very hard to argue otherwise.
Poyet’s start to managerial life has been very impressive. He has shown loyalty to Brighton in rejecting the advances of a number of clubs already, stating it would take a “very special club” to make him leave the South coast. Who can blame him either? With Bloom providing backing, the supporters flocking to see the Seagulls play and some wonderfully talented players at his disposal, Brighton are looking like an exciting proposition at the minute.
Ahead of the new season Poyet has stated that “perfection for this club would be to win the Championship in the new stadium.” And after almost achieving perfection last season who’s to say they won’t do it again this year?