Football: Exotic mix of charisma and know-how

In Ruud Gullit, Newcastle have got the complete opposite to the dour Dalglish. By Adam Szreter
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The Independent Online
WHEN RUUD Gullit was dismissed as manager of Chelsea for allegedly attempting to hold the club to a sizeable ransom in February, it seemed hard to accept that he would be lost to the English game forever.

In the space of little more than two and a half years the former Dutch captain transformed a club that had often promised but rarely delivered into FA Cup holders and title contenders, winning the hearts and minds of all but the most hardened cynics.

Gullit's influence on the English game was enormous, as a player and as a manager. When Glenn Hoddle signed him from Sampdoria in 1995, he became the first foreign "superstar" to choose to play his football in this country. At 33, even though he was clearly past his dazzling best, there was still enough speed and skill left to make him stand out from every crowded midfield and give the fans here a glimpse of the riches their Italian counterparts had been treated to for years.

He became a firm favourite with BBC television viewers in his role as guest pundit on Match of the Day, often alongside Alan Hansen whose broad Scottish accent must have tested Gullit's talent for languages to the limit. Always outspoken as a player - he walked out on the Dutch national squad on more than one occasion after arguments with the coach - it was only a matter of time before the former European Footballer of the Year moved into management himself and when Hoddle left Stamford Bridge for Lancaster Gate, Gullit was the obvious man to replace him.

Of all English clubs, Chelsea seemed tailor-made for Gullit. He never made any secret of his desire to enjoy himself away from football while he was in London, and having taken in the local nightlife in his first season, he moved into the fashion world in his second, launching the "Ruud" range of leisurewear without ever seeming to let his mind wander too far from his main objective.

Once installed as player-manager Gullit persuaded Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola, all high-profile Italian internationals, to join him as he set about dragging Chelsea up to the standards he had grown accustomed to, at Milan in particular. It could be said that signings of this sort were inevitable once Rupert Murdoch's money began filtering through to the Premiership, but Gullit's presence in England was a symbol of assurance to anyone with an irrational fear of fish and chips or freezing cold winters.

The floodgates then opened, not just to foreign players but foreign managers like Arsene Wenger, Christian Gross and more recently Gerard Houllier, all now free to subject a hitherto sceptical audience to the kind of continental methods that Gullit was using at Chelsea.

When Chelsea won the FA Cup at the end of his first season in charge, Gullit became the first manager from overseas to win a major English trophy. He was also the first black player to manage a club at the highest level in England.

Last season he seemed to have carried on the good work. Chelsea were second in the Premier League, through to the last eight of the Cup-Winners' Cup and the semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup, but then Gullit overplayed his hand.

He may have had the supporters, half the female population and even most of the media in his pocket, but Gullit had evidently not come across anyone like the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, in Italy. Bates refused to play ball and Gullit was out on his ear.

For a time Bates was cast as the villain of the piece, but Gullit himself often seemed to be merely passing through England on his way to bigger and better things in Italy or the Netherlands.

Now Newcastle have met his price and Gullit evidently feels he still has a point to prove in England. It is just a shame for all concerned that Newcastle played at Chelsea in the Premiership last Saturday. Still, there's always the Cup.