GULLIT Chelsea's icon of inspiration
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The Independent Online
The Duke of Wellington once spoke of how Napoleon's presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men. Begging the pardon of another famous Frenchman, Alex Ferguson's "mon genius", but one might say that Ruud Gullit, like no other player in the world today, has a comparable effect.

When discussing the merits of the Dutchman, with friend or foe, that word "presence" crops up time and time again. When Chelsea agreed a lucrative two-year contract with Gullit last summer, they got much more for their money than a once-great player enjoying an extended twilight to his career. They also acquired a living, breathing icon; someone the other players could learn from and to whose talent they could aspire.

When it comes to looking up to the big man, no one gets a worse crick in the neck than John Spencer. The Scot well remembers Gullit's first day at the training ground. "We were so in awe of him that we didn't have the nerve to introduce ourselves," he said. "It was like: `We're not worthy'. Instead, he introduced himself to us."

Bit by bit, Chelsea have become "worthy" of Gullit, whether it be responding to his subtle promptings or acting on the words of advice he offers. It beggars belief that Gullit was not among the five nominations for the PFA's Player Of The Year last week, but it was not for lack of support within his own club. As Peter Shreeves, the chief coach, put it: "When he's on the field the other boys believe there is no one they cannot beat."

In some ways, Chelsea got Gullit on false pretences. Part of the bait that secured him from Sampdoria was the invitation to play sweeper. It was a role he had not played since his PSV Eindhoven days and at the age of 33 naturally had great appeal. "He did fantastically well," said Shreeves. "We loved him in it but when he came out with the ball I suppose you'd say he left a few gaps which we weren't too happy with. What teams were doing was pushing one player up to stop him coming out. It was a learning process for all of us." Seven goals conceded in two matches last October, albeit against Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, brought matters to a head.

Chelsea reverted, momentarily, to a flat back four but reintroduced the system with David Lee as sweeper - and with considerable success - while Gullit was out for seven weeks with a calf injury. When he returned, Chelsea had to play him elsewhere, in a free role in midfield, and discovered to their delight that he was still capable of being just as much of a threat as he was at the height of his powers in Serie A.

"In the last five weeks he's been marvellous," Shreeves said. "He alone got us through that Wimbledon tie, pulling us up by our bootlaces. He also gives us extra goal threat. When he's got the ball 35 yards from goal you always think he is going to dip his shoulder and move off. He's still got pace to go past people."

Don't Wimbledon know it. You would have thought Joe Kinnear, their manager, would be sick of the sound of his name after that quarter-final replay, but his admiration for the player was impossible to conceal. "He's got such magnificent presence and wonderful awareness," he said. "Of course, Chelsea cater for him. Against us they brought Burley in to sit deep which allowed Gullit to get on with it as regards probing and creating havoc further forwards. He reserves his energy to punish you rather than waste it defending, he never gives the ball away and he's very difficult to pin down."

As John Toshack once said, he has everything but a short back-and-sides, you cannot plan for him, you cannot mark him. In fact, being the great team man that he is, Gullit almost welcomes man-to-man marking. "I'm playing and he isn't," he says, "which means they have one man less, so your team should profit. In Italy they follow you everywhere, you even have to look over your shoulder in the loo at half-time."

The ploy is less popular in this country and did not work with Gullit for two very good reasons, according to Shreeves. "Firstly, he's too clever and, secondly, he's physically too strong. Because he's tactically aware he'll go and play outside right for five minutes, which disrupts the other team's shape."

There will not be a cooler customer tomorrow. Only when you've been voted the World's Player of the Year, and appeared in as many European Cup finals as Gullit has, can you say of an FA Cup semi-final: "It means nothing." It is not his intention to sound disrespectful but, as he says: "It's not an achievement, you don't get a medal for it. The only thing that matters is to play in the final - and win it."