"It’s the most important part of being a manager, to not get carried away", Gus says with his trademark grin on full display. He seems relaxed, and it’s no surprise as, at the time of filming, we’re smack bang in the middle of our winning run which inevitably confirmed our survival in the top flight. "I’m learning (more about management) through the process. The emotions (I am feeling) are probably the same as when I was at Brighton but the repercussions are different, as we’re in the Premier League." Nothing much seems to faze Gus. Even when he, all of us, were down and beaten after that Spurs game he still manages a smile and it’s infectious. His enthusiasm inevitably found its way to the players, maybe later than we would have liked, but it did.
The methods Gus likes to deploy vary for each player. Throughout the interview, he’s keen to stress that there is no one way of doing things right – every player is different and, as a manager, you need to learn to treat each player differently.
"We’ve got a way of understanding football that we need the players to know and get quickly. The quicker they get it, the better for us. I think that the players trust me a lot. I follow my instinct a lot – if I need to have a strong word, I know it’s at the right time. If I don’t say a word, the players know I’m not happy."
When Ian Darke mentioned our visit to Wembley earlier in the year, Gus’s smile grew even wider than before. As wide as the River Wear, I’d say. His pride in that achievement is honest, it’s apparent.
"It (getting to a Cup Final) was incredible, a fantastic experience. The most common question I was asked before the game was, "how do you think you are you going to feel before the game?" and I couldn’t answer."
He got it. He gets us. When looking up at nine thousand of us going absolutely mental in the upper south east corner of Old Trafford, Gus looked on in amazement. How can you not get it after experiencing a night like that?
Talking about the cup final, he said, "Our supporters were fantastic. We were dreaming for fifty minutes. After twenty-plus years without being there (Wembley), you had to be there to realise how important that was for the fans. It brought me close to the club and the fans. That connection has been getting better and I’m very proud of that."
Despite his obvious qualities and love for the game, Gus didn’t always think of himself as a manager. "I didn’t make a decision until one day, at Chelsea, Gianluca Vialli was sat next to me in the dressing room as a player. The next day he was the manager. I asked myself, "Can that happen to me?", and from then I started paying more attention to things; little things that the manager was trying to achieve in training that previously I did not take much notice of. I started learning. I paid attention to Vialli, and to Ranieri and Glenn Hoddle."
It was through that process that Gus learned the fabric of what he implements into his own style to this day. "I paid most attention to not what to do. Things like not being flexible, not adapting to situations. You need to be ready to adapt."
Gus had a very successful playing career. He was part of the Real Zaragoza side that defeated Arsenal in the Cup Winners Cup and his career in England established him as one of the finest central midfield players in the Premier League in the late 90s. For Gus, being a player was a much more simple job than being a manager. "Playing is easier than managing, no doubt. 100% easier. As a player all that you need to do is look after yourself. As a manager you need to pay attention to absolutely everything, everything. All players are different and you need to treat them all differently. I hate the saying "he’s a good manager because he treats everyone the same". That is a lie. Every manager has to treat every player differently."
With this comes dealing with egos; dealing with players that need the proverbial ‘arm around the shoulder’. Gus, however, would much prefer to nip signs of ‘bad attitude’ in the bud.
"First, we try to not let him get there. We try to convince the player in every training session not to be like that. I’m not afraid to make strong decisions – I try to the best of my ability to bring the player into the system and mentality of the group but if he doesn’t want to be a part of that, we have to get rid."
Gus isn’t perfect, though. One thing you always hear about managers at the top level is that they struggle to switch off when they leave the training ground and go home. Gus, in this case, is no different. It’s an imperfection that he’s trying to improve.
"I admire Ruud Gullit for his ability to just switch off – I will never be able to do it. When I was a player I used to read a lot. It was easy for me to read a book and get away from everything – I cannot do it anymore. I have been trying to search for things to help me get away – I watch DVDs and Baskeball, but I still can’t switch off. People are always suggesting different things that I can do to me but I’m yet to find something that works. People tell me to play golf but even when you’re there you spend the whole day talking about football! I’m searching for other things that help me to switch off."
Darke asks Gus about whether Gus finds it difficult choosing who plays in that starting eleven each week – it’s a good question. Taking into account what Gus said earlier, noting that you have to sometimes deal with egos in a dressing room, it can’t be easy leaving out over half of your playing squad from the starting eleven – a unenviable task that most managers would usually leave to their assistants. Gus’s experience as a number two at various clubs taught him a lot about how to speak to his players, and this is something he admits he likes to do himself. "The biggest pressure we have got is when you have to leave a player out who doesn’t necessarily deserve to be left out. I like to tell the player the good and the bad news. I manage it by the way I understand the game, nothing else."
Perhaps the most striking thing about Gus Poyet the manager is the style and brand of football that his teams play. In our case, he has taken a squad of players that played what can only be described as non-football under Martin O'Neill, players like Lee Cattermole that you wouldn't usually associate with playing the ‘pretty’ way, and managed to get them playing the way that he wants them to.
"I think we demand to care about the ball, first and foremost. We don’t treat the ball badly; we don’t want it to be upset with us. You need to adapt – to the players, the style the fans want – but always remembering to play the game the right way. I think the idea is that the more you get the ball, the more you take it away from the opposition; the more you attack, the less you defend. It’s simple. Some people think it’s a risk (playing this way) but I think to win in any sport you have to take risks. You won’t convince everybody (that it’s right way to play) but this year has shown me it works in the Premier League, which pleases me."
When Poyet came to the club he was quick to try and establish one of the players at his disposal in the role on the pitch that he holds in the highest regard – that of the deep lying central midfielder. "You need to be in control from the middle of the pitch. I like that player to be in communication with the manager as they can instruct the rest of the players."
The natural candidate for the job was Lee Cattermole, but his form suffered slightly around the Christmas period. Gus was quick to praise Cattermole for the part he played in elevating ourselves towards the end of the season – "At Brighton it was Liam Bridcutt (that played in that role) but Lee Cattermole has been outstanding. He’s been a special player for us because it is an important role."
Poyet likes his players to be clever, to be good thinkers. "Being brave is important - knowing what to do and perhaps not taking unnecessary risks even if the fans want it. We’ve been getting better at that." It’s bringing football back to basics – Gus likes his team to play football with understanding yet in a simple fashion. And, if there is a player that doesn’t buy into that school of thought he won’t last very long. "We have a rule, a way of understanding football. A player can have a bad day but being committed to the cause and the way we understand football is most important. As soon as someone is not committed to what we want to do, he will be out of the club."
Perhaps Poyet’s most impressive trait is his wealth of knowledge and wisdom and it is that, he feels, will see him achieve things as a manager – that much is apparent. When asked whether he would love to manage Uruguay one day, he responded honestly. "Yes I would – but I think you have to do plenty of work before. There is a process. You need to manage at a certain level, and you need to manage certain egos. Only then will you be ready."
When asked what Gus Poyet the player would have thought of Gus Poyet the manager, his smile grew again. "If I was playing for Gus Poyet the manager I would know that I would be able to take advantage of my ability. I would think the manager would help the player to use his ability."
Next season just may be a healthy one under Gus. Having received the assurances he wanted from the club hierarchy he signed a new deal last week which was a statement of intent. Having listened to Gus speak over that half an hour it’s clear to see how his implementation and management style has become so infectious.
Here’s to next season.