The unseemly row between Brighton & Hove Albion and their former manager does neither party great credit
After Brighton's play-off semi-final defeat by Crystal Palace Gus Poyet made some pointed remarks about his and the club's future. "I have always said that during the time we keep improving I am going to be at this football club and the day we hit the roof I'm not," he said. "So tomorrow morning I am going to ask if we've hit the roof and to know that I need answers and then we'll see."
If that gave the impression that Poyet would leave only if his ambitious plans were not sufficiently supported by the chairman, Tony Bloom, it was disingenuous. In fact it had been apparent for some time that Poyet was likely to go at the end of the season, whatever its conclusion, as relationships became increasingly strained.
Managers have fallen out with chairmen before, and chairmen with managers. The sack nearly always follows, and swiftly. The difference this time is that, following the decision to suspend Poyet and his assistants in May, it took six weeks for it to be announced. Six weeks of confusion, of claim and counter-claim concerning secret misdemeanours. Neither club nor manager has emerged from it with great credit.
With both sides bound by legal constraints, it remains unclear what precisely Poyet has been found guilty of. Last week the League Managers Association released a statement dismissing "what we believe are unfounded charges". Brighton immediately threatened them with legal action.
Poyet's remarks after the Palace defeat – and those on the BBC on Sunday night when he inferred that his sacking, widely predicted across the media for the best part of two months and coming at the end of an extended disciplinary process, had come as a complete surprise – make it hard to take what he says at face value, however genial he appears while saying it. In an earlier appearance on the BBC's Confederations Cup coverage he had talked in very general terms about whatever it is that he is alleged to have done. "It's the way I am. I am a coach, an honest person," he said. "I work the way I do. Everybody knows how I treat the players."
That's not entirely clear either. On one hand Wayne Bridge, who spent last season on loan at the Amex Stadium, glowed: "Gus revitalised my love for football. He is a top-class manager both tactically and on the man-management side, one of the best I have worked with." But on the other hand the former Spain international Vicente described Poyet as "the worst person I've come across in football". "For me he is a selfish person, very egocentric," he continued. "I say that because it's how I feel. I've seen things here that I have never seen in my career. If you miss with a shot in training, he makes fun. For me, that is unacceptable in football."
What is undeniable is that Poyet had achieved excellent results, and as his Brighton swept into the play-offs in fourth place, on the back of a nine-match unbeaten run, there was a sense of undeniability about them. Palace, whose form at the tail end of the season had been as execrable as Albion's had been excellent, were expected to submit guilelessly. Instead they won 2-0 at the Amex, a night that started with the discovery of human excrement in the away dressing room and ended with Albion's hopes of promotion being flushed away.
Even so, purely in playing terms Poyet's achievement in guiding the club through three-and-a-half seasons of constant improvement, culminating in their highest league finish since their relegation from the top flight exactly 30 years ago, was certainly impressive. Once the dust settles on this fiasco, he should not struggle to find new employers.
But what next, for Brighton? Whoever takes charge it seems optimistic to expect an improvement on last season, achieved in an unusually homogeneous Championship in which unexceptional sides – including a couple of those that ended up getting promoted – were allowed to excel. Meanwhile those with long memories will recall the last time that Brighton reached the play-offs, in 1990-91, when they made it as far as the final, hit the woodwork a couple of times and lost 3-1 to Notts County. They promptly sold their two best players, and at the end of the following season they were relegated. It is unlikely that Poyet's departure will prove quite so catastrophic, but it's not much of a precedent.