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COMMENT - Poch faces biggest test
Many confusing returns, Mauricio.
When he woke up on Wednesday morning Saints’ Argentinian manager, Mauricio Pochettino, probably didn’t expect that some 30 or so hours later he would be be under interrogation from a pack of 40 journalists in a swelteringly hot room just two days before he celebrates a year in charge of the club.
But Pochettino found himself in exactly that role after Nicola Cortese’s departure.
Up until this week, Pochettino’s year in the once boiling hot-seat at St Mary’s had been one big upward curve.
He took over from Nigel Adkins and immediately had to win over the fans who were angry at the treatment of the man who had guided them to back-to-back promotions.
But wins at home over the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea persuaded supporters he was the right man for the future.
This season he has readjusted the ambitions of the club from fourth from bottom to fourth from top.
They won’t quite achieve that, but they look upwardly mobile and set for a top half of the table finish. It’s been impressive stuff.
It seemed all was rosy in the garden, even if he had struggled to explain why he hadn’t begun talks over a new contract with his current deal set to expire at the end of next season.
Pochettino has brought added hope to Saints. His high pressing, high tempo, high risk strategy is exciting to watch, the players love it and him too and he has endeared himself to fans and media alike, even if he continues to speak through a translator.
The next year was surely only set to bring more of the same.
All that was thrown into doubt on Wednesday afternoon when Pochettino received a phone call, asking him and his immediate staff to meet Cortese at St Mary’s.
After hot-footing it from Staplewood to the stadium, Pochettino learned the rumours he had heard in the morning were true – Cortese was resigning.
Pochettino was immediately in a tight spot.
Last May he had given Cortese his full backing and said he would quit if the man who brought him to the club left.
The crisis was averted then, but not this time.
Yesterday, as he faced up to the press, it was a time of reckoning for Pochettino.
The press conference room at St Mary’s, which normally houses about half a dozen journalists for a pre-match preview day, was packed.
Indeed, there weren’t enough chairs to accommodate everybody.
The Daily Echo had already reported he was staying when Pochettino breezed in in his Saints attire, clean shaven, his trusted assistants Jesus Perez, Toni Jimenez and Miguel D’Agostino at the back of the room.
The room was boiling and Pochettino looked hot, tired and drawn.
He admitted he hadn’t really slept on Wednesday night. The reason was obvious and Pochettino didn’t exactly deny it – he was deciding whether to carry out his threat from last May and quit.
Pochettino had a relatively smooth ride in the first half of the press conference, which is for immediate dissemination by the broadcast media.
He is good with the press anyway, and proved himself again with a polished display.
He was given a tougher time when he came under interrogation by the written press after the cameras were switched off.
As we tried to drill down into the detail, his answers didn’t always sound entirely consistent when it came to his own future.
At times you got the impression Pochettino was committing himself to Saints for the long term – or, at the very least, the rest of his contract.
He said: “What is clear is when I signed for Nicola I signed for two years. We signed together a number of players, and I am 100 per cent committed to those players, and 100 per cent committed to the project, to the two years of my contract.”
But under closer interrogation, he most definitively said he would be there until the end of the season.
“It’s clear that at the end of the season we will assess the situation at the club and then we will decide whether I am up to staying here another season.”
It is important he remains at Saints. The club cannot afford to lose the stability he provides, and the loyalty his presence generates in his squad.
Pochettino made it quite clear that he wouldn’t see any player sold without his prior approval, a strong marker to lay down to new non-executive chairman Katharina Liebherr.
He also stated that there had been no offers for left-back Luke Shaw – who was again linked with Chelsea yesterday – but was rather less forthcoming, and looked rather uncomfortable, when presented as a de facto statement that the club had opened talks with West Ham about selling talismanic striker Rickie Lambert before Cortese left.
Of course, as you would expect, Pochettino was glowing in his praise of Cortese, both as a boss and as a person. It’s clear that the two were very close and that the manager really hadn’t seen this coming.
His comments about his new chairman, Katharina Liebherr, were more guarded. He regularly used the, quite justifiable, get out that he had only spoken to her for five minutes in a meeting immediately before the press conference.
There were few details he could offer about rumours of a potential sale of the club or, indeed, its general way forward.
But he also stated his belief that it would be good if she was visible and went to Sunderland for the Premier League game tomorrow lunchtime.
He also added he had met her once before, at a party hosted by Cortese.
By the time the press conference started to draw to a close, Pochettino was visibly struggling to maintain concentration and patience.
He didn’t snap, but was regularly running both his hands through his hair and letting out the odd sigh.
He had been given a tough time in that he was not allowed to get away with half answers and was asked to clarify any comments which left room for misunderstanding.
It was a difficult afternoon for Pochettino, and the tiring week looked like it was taking a toll – and that’s before a long trip to Sunderland.
It’s not exactly what he had in mind for his first anniversary.
And while there is relief that he is staying at Saints, it feels as if the lack of clarity over how long it’s for will continue to cause ripples until it is definitively sorted out.
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