Captains on new bridge

A manager is reunited with his old team-mate as Toon rebuilding work beckons. By Simon Turnbull FIRST NIGHT; RUUD GULLIT & steve clarke
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It was Love Street at first sight, if nothing else. Certainly, there was precious little love in the air the night Ruudi met Stevie. Ruud Gullit will always remember the first time he encountered the professional partner with whom he hopes to make his sexy football on Tyneside not because Steve Clarke particularly stood out for St Mirren in a Uefa Cup first- round tie against Feyenoord but because of the hatred at Love Street that September evening in 1983. It was directed specifically towards the dreadlocked Dutchman. It was his first experience of racial abuse in a football ground.

It was also Gullit's first appearance in a European club competition. And he made an instant mark, responding to the monkey-noises by making monkeys of St Mirren. Feyenoord's young No 9 upstaged even the national treasure wearing the 14 shirt: the original Dutch master, Johan Cruyff. Gullit produced a virtuoso performance and a stunning goal, the only one of the game. "Even back then it was clear Ruud was an immense talent," Clarke recalled. "He played on the right wing for the first hour, then dropped back to sweeper. I marked him in the second leg out in Rotterdam. We lost 2-0 but I think I acquitted myself quite well."

Clarke was sticking pretty close to Gullit again on Wednesday night. For 90 minutes at Villa Park the one-time shadow man of St Mirren remained side-by-side with the former fulcrum of Feyenoord. They cut vastly different figures: Gullit Armani-suited and standing upright, arms folded; the more diminutive Clarke tracksuited and leaning forward on the hoarding in front of the dug-out. Clarke stood to the left but as Gullit's write-hand man. Every observation of import was duly recorded in his notepad.

It could not have made very happy reading. On the pitch, Newcastle United mirrored their new management team beside it: static and uninspired. Aston Villa were nothing to write home about either, but at least, like their manager, they moved around a lot and got excited. So animated was John Gregory, in fact, Graham Poll felt obliged to hold up play to calm him down. At the final whistle Gregory leapt to his feat and joined his players in a huddle in the centre-circle. Gullit straightened his tie and strode nonchalantly down the ash-track to the dressing-rooms.

The new era at Newcastle United kicked off for real, after Gullit's observational view of the 4-1 defeat against Liverpool a fortnight ago, with more unprotected sexy football. Gullit's first chosen black and white blend was appropriately grey. Ponderous at the back, plodding in midfield, and positively - make that negatively - powder-puff up front, they got off lightly with a 1- 0 defeat. They only flickered fleetingly to life when Gullit sent on his No 14. In the absence of a Cruyff (come to think of it, Newcastle's new manager could hand the shirt to the Cruyff he partners off the field these days), it was left to Temuri Ketsbaia to inject a little pace and passion.

The irony did not escape the Toon Army, encamped in the North Stand, that the best player on the pitch happened to be Alan Thompson, one of the likely lad locals deemed surplus to requirements in Kevin Keegan's time at St James' Park. The trouble for Gullit and Clarke is that they have such a dearth of talent, homegrown or imported, at their disposal. They have inherited 54 full-time professionals from Kenny Dalglish - not one of them, on recent form, worthy of a place in the team Gullit built before his last job became a Bridge too far. They have been left not so much a Magpie legacy as an albatross. "Of course we have to bring some players," Gullit said, holding court in Villa Park's interview room. "We knew that already." What Gullit and Clarke did not know, perhaps, was that they needed to bring so many - and to get rid of so many too. Not that, on Wednesday night at least, Newcastle's manager of two weeks was willing to concede the scale of the rebuilding job he has taken on.

"I was quite happy with the performance tonight," Gullit said. "I thought we played quite well. We were a little bit unfortunate, I think." The bemused faces in the audience must have been a giveaway. "I have the feeling, if I may say so, that you do not agree," he continued. "I must have seen a different game." It was like a Dalglish debriefing, with dreadlocks. As one member of the press corps muttered after Gullit had performed his disappearing trick: "Not a magician? He can certainly see things the rest of us can't."

It will fall to Clarke, as Gullit's assistant (the sorceror's apprentice, maybe), to direct the unseen work that needs to be done on the training ground. He will doubtless bring to his task not just the perceptive playing brain that allowed him to fit seamlessly into the cosmopolitan Chelsea set in his latter years at Stamford Bridge but also the natural resolve that pulled him through the dark days of relegation and personal demotion at the home of the Blues. Clarke did not hit the same heights as Gullit in his playing career but he made it to international level, deserving much more as an accomplished right-back cum central defender than the six caps he won for Scotland.

At 35, a year younger than his boss, the Salcoats man has hung up his boots to help Gullit on Tyneside. "It was a condition of the move," Clarke explained. "But this would have been my last season as a player anyway and I didn't expect to get into the Chelsea team that often. It was a job opportunity I just couldn't turn down. Things have been pretty hectic over the past week or so but for Ruud and me this is the start. Hopefully we can get across our message in the coming weeks and the team will start playing the type of football we want them to play. We want to be an attractive side to watch. We want to be successful too."

The next opportunity for success comes on Thursday night at St James' Park. And the challenge of the Cup-Winners' Cup - a first-round, first leg against Partizan Belgrade at - will be a poignant one for the new management at Newcastle. For Gullit, it will be a chance to settle a little unfinished business. His first managerial venture into Europe was abruptly halted by his enforced departure from Stamford Bridge in February, when he was preparing his squad for the quarter-finals of the Cup-Winners' Cup. For Clarke, the task is an even more beguiling one. He will be attempting to wrest the trophy from the team he helped to win it in May.

He played alongside Franck Leboeuf and Michael Duberry the night Gianfranco Zola's goal beat Vfb Stuttgart in the Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm. Last season's final was Clarke's last stand in the Chelsea defence. "Yes, it will be a bit strange when Thursday comes round," he mused. "The Cup- Winners' Cup was a wonderful competition for Chelsea last season. It was great to go right through and win it. It would be nice to think we could do the same at Newcastle."

It would indeed. But, then, it would be nice to think Charlton could be playing Juventus in the Champions' League next season, with Manchester United live on Sky at Stockport in the First Division. In the realms of reality, Newcastle are simply no longer a big force on the domestic front, let alone on the continental scene. It promises to be a hard slog on the road ahead for the would-be dream-makers whose paths first crossed in Paisley 15 years ago.