Gus Poyet: ‘Young people cannot believe I played for Chelsea’

Sport

Gus Poyet is on standby. He says it himself. It’s the nature of being an international manager, with periods of intense work followed by a vacuum before the next break. Poyet was appointed Greece manager in February and he has enjoyed a bright start, winning all four of his games in the Nations League so far without conceding a goal. The animated Uruguayan lives in Athens, but his mind is never far from matters in London, the city he calls his “real home”.

Chelsea have been in their own version of standby this year too, with Roman Abramovich forced to hand over ownership, leaving Chelsea rudderless and with an uncertain future until Todd Boehly finally bought the club for £4.25bn in May. Since then, it’s been all change at Stamford Bridge, with players and staff leaving as Boehly puts his stamp on things.

Chief among the departures was domineering centre-back Antonio Rüdiger, who has joined Real Madrid. How much of a hole his absence will make remains to be seen – although Poyet worries it will be significant. “It is going to be tremendous for many reasons,” says the 54-year-old. “He swallowed everything and waited for his chance under Lampard. Then he came back so strong under Tuchel and showed the world his value.

“And look where he’s going, he’s going to Real Madrid. It’s not like he’s going home and retiring. He’s going to one of the best clubs, if not the best club in the world. That’s the level of player they’re going to miss. It’s an opportunity for someone else, but I don’t think you’re going to compare anyone to Rüdiger.”

Rüdiger is not the only big-name player who left Chelsea this summer. Romelu Lukaku, signed by Chelsea for £97.5m a year ago, has rejoined Inter on loan after an underwhelming season. Poyet, who made 143 appearances for Chelsea, thinks it’s a huge shame that Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge will be seen as a flop. “In October and November, Chelsea lost Lukaku and Lukaku lost the chance to get back to Chelsea,” says Poyet. “In the first two months he was outstanding. He was fresh, mobile, strong, direct, making a big impact.

“Then he had a little injury and did the famous interview [in which Lukaku said he was ‘not happy’ with his situation at Chelsea]. From then on, it looked to me like relationships and feelings inside the club made things difficult for everyone – especially for Lukaku. He was outstanding initially last season, absolutely fantastic, but after all the rumours and stupidity from social media, it affected everyone at the club. The player didn’t get back to the same level. Something didn’t work out.

Gus Poyet and Gianfranco Zola in April 1998.
Gus Poyet and Gianfranco Zola in April 1998. Photograph: Francis Glibbery/Chelsea FC/Getty Images
“That shows the world that it doesn’t matter how good you are, there aren’t many players in any sport where you go to a new club and because you were good in the previous one, you’re going to be good in the next one. So many things influence your performance.”

Poyet believes Tuchel is the right manager for Chelsea but he was disappointed by how far the team fell last season, having threatened to challenge for the title in the early weeks of the campaign. “I thought Chelsea were playing to win the Premier League last year,” Poyet says. “After winning the Champions League and adding Lukaku, I thought they were set to challenge for the Premier League. And they didn’t. But they were close to winning trophies and that’s where Chelsea should be: playing for trophies. I’m sure they’re trying to make the right decisions with the new people to try and win a trophy this season.”

This is a new era for Chelsea after 19 years under Roman Abramovich. Poyet remembers life at Chelsea before the Russian arrived with his billions. Poyet signed for the club in 1997, arriving from Real Zaragoza, where he had won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1995, beating Arsenal in the final when Nayim scored from the halfway line. Poyet played for Chelsea under the ownership of Ken Bates and left a year before Abramovich rocked up in SW6, but the oligarch’s impact on the club is not lost on him.

“When I was there, we were a very good team; we played very good football, we were winning trophies, but something was missing,” says Poyet. “José Mourinho was very important for Chelsea, but it’s mainly before and after Abramovich. The combination with Mourinho was spectacular – absolutely key.

“It was going slowly in the 90s under Ken Bates. They were getting better. But then Chelsea went to another level under Abramovich. Young people in Uruguay cannot believe I played for Chelsea because they’re thinking about this Chelsea! They say: ‘Did you? Did you?!’. That shows the reputation Chelsea has worldwide nowadays. Maybe it doesn’t have the history of some of the other top teams in Europe but, because of Abramovich, they’re at that level – and that’s great.

“I want to wish him luck,” he says about Boehly. “They need a little bit of luck. They’re going to spend money because he’s not going to come to Chelsea and not try to help the team. The problem is that the first few movements are the most difficult ones. It’s like comparing when you’re going to buy your first car. You want this one, but you want that one that’s a little bit more expensive. It’s the same with players. You finish by talking about Neymar and Ronaldo and that’s a problem because you need to think about what is better for the team – the combination of what the coach needs and what the club needs.”

Poyet spent four years at Chelsea, where he won the FA Cup, another Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup. As he peers into the future of his beloved club, one concern outweighs the others. “If you put 10 Chelsea fans together right now and you asked them the starting XI, I don’t think you’d have two the same and that’s a problem. The best teams in the world, you know 95% of the team. I don’t think anyone knows that for Chelsea and it’s a little bit of a worry.”

With so much transition at Stamford Bridge at the minute, there’s one thing they are not anymore – and that’s on standby.