The Shadow of Gus Poyet Hangs Over Brighton
When we reflected on the potential of Brighton & Hove Albion with Sam Swaffield of The Seagull Love Review fanzine in March, little did we foresee what a traumatic few months it would be down Falmer way. If August days and nights should never be taken as a guide of what’s to come, it’s nevertheless been a right stinker of a campaign for the Seagulls so far and one that seems utterly inbued with the spirit of recently departed manager Gus Poyet. Here, Tom Furnival-Adams, a contributor to our recent series of TTU Predicting posts, ponders a situation which needs closure. Tom can be followed on twitter at @Tom_FA.
Between the beginning of 2010 and the end of the 2012-13 season, Brighton & Hove Albion were an awe-inspiring, unstoppable steamroller of footballing positivity. As an outsider, imagining supporting Brighton during this period conjured up images of the Ron Burgundy-curated ‘Pleasure Town’ scene from Anchorman. Dancing among the kitsch images of cherubs and rainbows were Albion’s multi award-winning pies; Craig Mackail-Smith and his flowing blonde locks; the Amex’s improbably comfortable seats; and, of course, the charming efficiency of Gustavo Poyet, marching up and down the touchline purposefully in his pristine tailored suit. Poyet’s arrival in November 2009 sparked the beginning of a spell that would ultimately yield promotion to the Championship and oversee Albion’s much-anticipated move to a new 30,000-seater stadium in Falmer. Their fortunes under Poyet were almost uniformly utopian; a dream-like state of existence in which every decision, every twist of fate had served their favour.
But like every empirical rise, Brighton’s fortunes were bound to meet a setback at some stage. And so — with somewhat unfortunate timing — it was Albion’s 0-2 loss to bitter rivals Crystal Palace in the second leg of the Championship play-off semi-final earlier this year that a backlog of bad luck announced itself. Going into the game, Brighton were undefeated in ten matches, and looked well placed to overcome Palace on their own turf. When the occasion demanded focus and energy, however, what unfolded was an underwhelming, lethargic performance, in which Wilfred Zaha and co were able to unpick their hosts with ease. Gus Poyet’s final words after the game were telling: ‘I’m under contract, but we’ll see. We’ll see.’ His grave refrain could not have spelt out his intentions more clearly.
Days later, the club announced the immediate suspension of Poyet and his assistants, Mauricio Taricco and Charlie Oatway, after Poyet allegedly told his players that he planned to leave. To compound the misery of defeat, details later emerged of what has since become known as ‘poo-gate’. In events that would surely have been deemed too base for most pre-pubescent schoolboys, Brighton Chief Executive, Paul Barber, was forced to issue a retrospective apology to Palace on behalf of the club after human excrement was discovered in their changing room. Having embarked on such a smooth journey from the depths of League One to the fringes of the Premier League, it seemed that a lifetime of bad news had struck in one blow. In Barber’s words: ‘It’s clearly been a challenging week for our club’. This was something of an understatement.
Fast-forward a few months, and here we are at the dawn of 2013-14. A new manager, Oscar Garcia, is in place, but the Poyet dispute is yet to be resolved. Mudslinging (poo-slinging?) has, thankfully, largely been avoided — to the benefit of all involved — but the absence of a resolution continues to cause discrete concern. When, whilst working as a pundit for the BBC at the Confederations Cup, Poyet’s suspension became a dismissal live on air, things stepped up a notch. Understandably, the football media pounced on such a farcical story. Regardless of the facts (was Poyet, as has been claimed by Albion, already aware of the decision?), Brighton’s credibility and, indeed, professionalism was suddenly, very publicly, called into question. Following a subsequent failed appeal against his dismissal, Poyet last week instigated court proceedings against the club, ahead of which, he sounds distinctly bullish:
I totally disagree with every allegation and accusation the club has put on me. I will take action because I think it’s important for me. I’m quite confident and relaxed but I hope we will go to court because it is the best way for the truth to come out.
Confident he may be, but has the bitter end to his tenure tainted his legacy at the club? Brighton chairman Tony Bloom’s recent revelation that the Uruguayan stated his intention to leave the club as long ago as March will do little to enhance supporters’ perceptions of him. It can be a chastening experience for the beholder to see the reputation of his flawless hero soiled so graphically (any reference to poo-gate here is unintended), but then it would be nice to think that society has evolved beyond seeking black-and-white heroes. Looking at two of the most popular TV series of recent years, it is characters such as Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Don Draper (Mad Men) who strike a chord with viewers, precisely because their behaviour hovers constantly on the ambiguous moral boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Do Brighton fans not have Poyet’s fiery temperament and dogged determination to thank for their recent success in the first place? Successful individuals and extreme personalities are often intrinsically linked — you only need to examine Brian Clough’s departure from Derby County to see that Gus Poyet is no trailblazer.
With the dearth of information currently in the public sphere, there is a sense among Brighton supporters that it would be wrong to cast aspersions at this stage. Certainly, though, it would seem that most are able to distinguish between the commitment and professionalism he showed in successfully leading the club to the Championship, and the ugly, unfortunate nature of his dismissal. There is also a consensus that Tony Bloom is a man of honour and sound judgement. If he deemed it necessary to take action against the former manager, then it would, unequivocally, have been in the best interests of the club to do so. Poyet, lest we forget, has spoken publically in support of Luis Suarez – he is arguably a proponent of the modern incarnation of the game, where careerism and self-preservation trump loyalty. If this is the case, Bloom simply carried out his duty in protecting the club from the actions of a rogue individual – albeit one who has been so pivotal in masterminding its recent successes.
Ignoring the question of which party is in the right here, it is hard to argue that the saga has not inflicted a degree of PR damage on the club. The extent of this damage, though, is debateable. Some, of course, subscribe to the view that ‘all publicity is good publicity’. This is not necessarily applicable here, but my feeling is that good will towards Brighton as a club far outweighs any negative perceptions arising from the events of the past few months. Fundamentally, the fairytale rise from playing home games in Gillingham and perpetual financial struggle to Championship promotion contenders playing in front of the largest home crowds in their division remains intact. Poo-gate is mere seaside postcard titillation; a fine illustration of the theory that yesterday’s news is today’s chip paper. The feud between Poyet and the club will have more far-reaching consequences, but these will not be known until the outcome of the court case. If the gross misconduct charge is upheld, the club will be proven conclusively as having shown strong moral leadership, and their image perhaps even enhanced. If, as he expects, Poyet is victorious, negative divisions may emerge within the club between those loyal to the former manager and members of the club’s administrative hierarchy. Either way, he cannot be blamed for trying to safeguard his own professional reputation. The episode is unsavoury, but there is little to suggest that the club cannot ultimately put it behind them. The rapid nature of the Premier League-obsessed mainstream football media will certainly aid them in doing so.
In the meantime, the business of achieving success on the pitch must take priority. The appointment of Oscar Garcia was a bold one, and although he lacks direct experience of English football, there is no questioning his pedigree. Having associated with Barcelona for most of career, he doubtless brings with him significant experience and knowledge. He is a gamble of sorts, but he has the feel of a manager who, if able to succeed, will do so spectacularly. Optimists at the Amex might also conclude that failure to achieve promotion to the Premier League last season indicated that the club had reached a glass ceiling under Poyet, whose side often seemed to struggle to convert possession-based football into attack and, crucially, wins. Is Garcia, then, the man to take the club to the next level? The infrastructure is certainly in place for him to do so. Logically, though, this season must be allocated as one of transition for Albion fans. An opening trio of defeats against Leeds United, Derby County and, most disappointingly, Newport County, has not been an ideal start, and endorses the view that Garcia may not be able to implement his ideas instantly. Patience is necessary, particularly with the additions of QPR, Reading and Wigan to an already competitive division. Brighton certainly have a strong enough squad to make the top 6, but mid table may have to be a satisfactory conclusion come May 3.
To enable Garcia a successful transition, it is essential that the Poyet dispute is brought to a dignified conclusion as soon as possible. Whatever the outcome, it cannot be allowed to cast a shadow over efforts on the field, and there is no doubt that footballing success is the most effective method of obscuring any negative PR arising from the saga. Poyet laid strong foundations; a fitting legacy of his tenure would be for Garcia to be given the opportunity to use those foundations as a platform to helping the club realise its huge potential.