Gus Poyet: “Young people can’t believe I played for Chelsea” | Chelsea

Gus Poyet is on standby. He says so himself. That’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 has enjoyed a brilliant start, winning all four of his Nations League games so far without conceding a goal. The animated Uruguayan lives in Athens, but his mind is never far from things 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, there has been change at Stamford Bridge, with players and staff leaving as Boehly puts his stamp on things.

Dominant centre-back Antonio Rüdiger, who has joined Real Madrid, was top of the departures. How much of a hole his absence will create remains to be seen – although Poyet worries it will be significant. “It’s going to be huge for a lot of 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 worth.

“And look where he’s going, he’s going to Real Madrid. It’s not like he’s going home and retiring. He is going to one of the best clubs, if not the best club in the world. It’s the level of players 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 player to leave 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 played 143 games for Chelsea, thinks it is a great shame that Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge is seen as a flop. “In October and November, Chelsea lost Lukaku and Lukaku lost the chance to come back to Chelsea,” says Poyet. “For the first two months he was outstanding. He was healthy, mobile, strong, direct, and made 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 seemed to me that relationships and emotions at the club made things difficult for everyone – especially for Lukaku. He was outstanding at the start of last season, absolutely fantastic, but after all the rumors and stupidity from social media, it affected everyone at the club. The player did not return to the same level. Something didn’t work.

Gus Poyet and Gianfranco Zola in April 1998. Photo: Francis Glibbery/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

“It 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 at the last one, you’re going to be good at the next one. So many things affect your performance.”

Poyet believes Tuchel is the right manager for Chelsea, but he was disappointed with how far the team fell last season, having threatened to challenge for the title in the opening weeks of the campaign. “I thought Chelsea were playing to win the Premier League last year,” says Poyet. “After winning the Champions League and adding Lukaku, I thought they were ready 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 am sure they are trying to make the right decisions with the new people to try to 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 came 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’s promotion to SW6, but the oligarch’s impact on the club is not lost on him.

Poyet enjoys another moment with Zola.
Poyet enjoys another moment with Zola. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

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

“It was slow in the 90s under Ken Bates. They got better. But then Chelsea went to another level under Abramovich. Young people in Uruguay can’t believe I played for Chelsea because they think this Chelsea! They say, ‘Do you have it? Did you?!’. It shows the reputation Chelsea has around the world today. Maybe it doesn’t have the history of some of the other top teams in Europe, but because of Abramovich they are at that level – and that’s great.

“I want to wish him the best of luck,” he says of Boehly. “They need a bit of luck. They’re going to spend money because he’s not coming to Chelsea and not trying to help the team. The problem is that the first moves are the hardest. It’s like comparing when you’re going to buy your first car. You want have this one but you want the one that’s a bit more expensive. It’s the same with players. You end up talking about Neymar and Ronaldo and that’s a problem because you have to think about what’s 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 looks into the future of his beloved club, one worry outweighs the others. “If you put 10 Chelsea fans together right now and you ask them about their starting XI, I don’t think you’ll have two alike and that’s a problem. The best teams in the world, you know 95% of the team. I think nobody knows that for Chelsea and that’s a bit of a concern.

With so much going on at Stamford Bridge at the moment, there’s one thing they’re no longer – and that’s on standby.

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