Football: All aboard the Gullit train

The Ruud reawakening: Shepherd and Hall gamble on football becoming an affair of the heart again
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The Independent Online
IF EVERY dog has its day then Friday belonged to the fair creatures not so long ago categorised as canine. The womenfolk of Tyneside were maddened, if not quite barking mad, when the chairman of Newcastle United derided them in the black and white of the News of the World six months ago. They were in more contented mood on Friday as they swelled the ranks, significantly, at St James' Park. From the seats of the Exhibition Stand, they screamed their approval as Ruud Gullit emerged to take his first public bow as Newcastle's manager. And in the aisles of the Gallowgate Suite the female office staff at St James', having taken temporary leave of their duties, clapped and swooned as the dashing, dreadlocked Dutchman held court with the media.

The most telling press conference question was directed not at the new manager in Toon but at the gentleman sitting to his right at the top table. "Do you hope Ruud Gullit's popularity will rub off on the board?" Freddie Shepherd was asked. The chairman of the Newcastle board leaned forward and delivered his statement of the obvious. "I hope so," he said.

With one swivel of the manager's chair, it seems, Shepherd and Douglas Hall have got out of the doghouse. They may have had a rude awakening on 15 March, the morning their ill-considered words and deeds became news to the world, but in reawakening the managerial career of Ruud they will ensure they sleep a little more securely now.

The erstwhile errant boys of the Newcastle board have put sex back on the agenda at St James' Park. To one half of Tyneside's gender divide, they have delivered the sexy Ruud Gullit. To the other half, they have brought, it is hoped, the sexy football of Ruud Gullit.

Not everyone on Tyneside approved of the crude manner in which Kenny Dalglish was ultimately cuckolded as manager. But, having endured so much celibate soccer with the Scot in the past 19 months, both the faithful and the unfaithful of St James' have been happy to embrace the new man presented to them on Friday.

It seemed symbolic, not to mention heavily ironic, that a hotel in Wembley was the venue for Gullit pledging his vows to Newcastle, wooed by a pounds 2m two-year contract, on Thursday morning. It was beneath the old Twin Towers in May that the Toon Army fell irreversibly out of love with Dalglish. Where 12 months previously Gullit's Chelsea had found the back of the opposition net in 43 seconds, Dalglish's Newcastle fed the ball back to their goalkeeper in five seconds.

"Attack! Attack! Attack!" the Geordie voices implored. But all Newcastle could do on FA Cup final afternoon was defend, defend, defend. "We were negative?" Dalglish retorted, when one post-match inquisitor raised the subject of his team's limited ambition. "You'll need to justify your question." Yet the justification had been evident for 90 numbing minutes. The black and whites had been truly negative for all to see. The Toon Army retreated North-eastwards with mutinous mutterings in the air.

Dalglish probably would have been sacrificed then, had Shepherd and Hall not needed a quiet summer in which to engineer their return to the board. Instead, staggeringly, Dalglish was allowed to spend pounds 14m in the transfer market before starting the season on borrowed time. Six to ten weeks was the breathing space he was reckoned to have been given. But then his already-strained relationship with Freddie Fletcher, Newcastle's chief executive, stretched to breaking point over the question of Keith Gillespie's future. And when his players were booed off St James' Park on the opening day, after failing to beat a Charlton team reduced to 10 men for 65 minutes, Dalglish's Newcastle days were clearly numbered.

There were, in fact, only 11 more. On Thursday night, having prematurely submitted his programme notes for the home match against Liverpool this afternoon, Dalglish was in the lounge of a Durham pub lamenting his fate in the company of the local press. "It seems to be the time for exam results," he said, "and I appear not to have done very well."

Guiding Newcastle into the Champions' League, to that famous victory against Barcelona and to their first FA Cup final for 24 years probably merited an A star. But transforming a team that missed the title by four points in 1996 into one that avoided relegation by the same margin in 1998 was such an unqualified failure the chance to re-sit was ultimately denied. Thus, as Dalglish returns to the fairways around Southport with Alan Hansen and prepares a handsome compensation claim, it is examination time for the players he has left behind.

Gullit intends to take a seat high in the Milburn Stand this afternoon to assess the first team he has inherited. Terry McDermott having departed in Dalglish's wake, Alan Irvine has been placed in charge for the day. "I have to see what the players can do and look at what system might suit them," Gullit said. "I need to see the players we have here already before thinking about bringing any in."

Gullit, it seems, has been promised pounds 20m to spend on a squad that already comprises 54 professionals. The first pounds 5m he invests will take Newcastle's outlay on players in the six years and six months since Kevin Keegan's managerial arrival to pounds 100m. Keegan spent pounds 60m and Dalglish pounds 35m, yet neither could deposit any first-class silverware in the cobwebbed trophy cabinet at St James'.

Gullit was not even born when Newcastle last won a major domestic prize, the FA Cup in 1955, and was a six-year-old Amsterdam schoolboy when they lifted the Fairs Cup in 1969. A lasting place in Geordie folklore will be his if he ends the 29 years of hurt. Not that he craves such idolatry.

"It's not my goal to be a hero," he said. "It's my goal to be successful for myself. For me the satisfaction of winning something is the smile on the faces - of the players, the board, the fans. The silverware is just the cream."

In his last job, of course, he was the cool cat who got the cream for Chelsea - in the club's first cup for 26 years. It may ultimately have been a Bridge too far for him, but he succeeded in putting smiles on faces with his seductive brand of football too. In the 63 Premiership matches Chelsea played under him, they scored 110 goals, virtually double Newcastle's tally in Dalglish's 56 league games as manager.

Gullit averaged 1.7 goals for, 1.3 against and 1.6 points per game; Dalglish 1.2 goals for, 1.08 against and 1.3 points. It is worthy of note, however, that neither's record can match that which Kevin Keegan boasted in 143 Premier League games as manager-cum- messiah. He won half-a-point a game more than Dalglish (1.8), averaged marginally more goals for than Gullit (1.769 to 1.746), and, most revealingly, fewer goals against than either - (1.02).

Kevin's cavaliers were not so cavalier after all - not so cavalier, at any rate, as Kenny's roundheads. They won smiles with their sexy football, too, which is the very least that will be expected of the Ruud boys at St James' Park.

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