By Liam Twomey
More than a few eyes will be on the sleek and shiny AMEX Stadium on the south coast when the FA Cup fourth round kicks into gear this weekend, where Championship promotion contenders Brighton take on Arsenal in a clash which has already earned that tiresome “one for the neutral” moniker.
Given the expansive passing football which is likely to be in evidence from both sides, it is not hard to see why. But the truly compelling feature of this tie is that it pits two of the most talented and charming idealists to grace the English game; the star of one supposedly on the wane, the other’s firmly on the rise.
A few years ago, this would have been a match – and indeed a competition – Arsene Wenger would have been content to treat with barely disguised disdain, using it as a training exercise for his promising but raw youngsters. More often than not he would get away with it, too.
Gus Poyet remains best known on these shores for the stellar services he provided to Chelsea and Tottenham over the course of seven years in which he, as part of with a beguiling band of exotic foreign imports, enriched the developing Premier League.
He is also one of the most popular foreign footballers of recent years. Affection for his bubbly and jovial personality, combined with admiration for the flair and panache he regularly showcased on the pitch, transcends the boundaries of club loyalty or petty tribalism.
But Poyet is not content to be regarded as such. He seems intent on building an even greater legacy as a manager, and has made a blistering start to his mission.
When he arrived on the south coast in November 2009, the Uruguayan inherited a Brighton side lying 21st in League One after 15 games, and with five of their next six games against the early-season promotion contenders. He steered them to the safety of mid-table before, in his first full campaign, guiding them to the league title and promotion to the Championship.
Once there, Poyet immediately set about establishing his team as a force, bolstering his squad with blossoming British talent like Craig Mackail-Smith and Will Buckley and a dash of Spanish flair in veteran Valencia winger Vicente. His reward was a comfortable 10th place finish. This term they are right in the promotion hunt.
Brighton’s lightning progress under the 45-year-old in the last two years is made even more impressive by the fact that it has been achieved playing the kind of open, expressive attacking football their manager was famed for as a player – a style which the man himself insists his side will not compromise, even for the visit of the Gunners.
“I’m not going to stop Arsenal playing just so we can go to the Emirates 10 days later,” he told the Evening Standard earlier this week. “It’s not my way.
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“We need to use the game as an experience, to see if we can perform against top teams playing our normal game, judge how good we are. What I don’t want is to change my principles and, because we are playing Arsenal, try to be a totally different team and lose anyway.”
In a footballing world where what you do is almost becoming less important than the way you do it, Poyet’s philosophy and success is turning heads. Now Pep Guardiola has definitively turned down the riches of Roman Abramovich to go to Bayern Munich, the bookmakers – and possibly even the Chelsea hierarchy – are scrambling around to find a candidate who is fresh and attainable.
The astonishing success of Roberto Di Matteo in the post has raised the possibility of another club legend succeeding the hugely unpopular Rafa Benitez, and Poyet’s name has been mentioned in conjunction with former team-mate Gianfranco Zola, also making waves at Watford.
The Uruguayan himself has confirmed he sees himself managing at the highest level, although he insists he would never let previous loyalties get in the way of his new career.
“I want to manage at the highest level and would love to manage Chelsea or Arsenal,” he added. “Why not?
“Does my Chelsea or Tottenham past mean I cannot be Arsenal manager? Look, I’ve been at Leeds [as assistant to Dennis Wise] and the relationship between Leeds and Chelsea was not the best. If you ask any Leeds fan, my relationship with them was absolutely exceptional.
“I would love to go back to Leeds because they know how much I care for the club and how much I will give the club. Same with Arsenal. The only thing is I need to be ready.”
He may not be quite ready yet, but Poyet seems to be getting there fast, and he will be looking to add a big feather to his cap on Saturday.
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