Football: Gullit has relationship without commitment

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The Independent Online
Newcastle United 1 Middlesbrough 1

IT WAS not so much the "F" word as the "C" word that troubled Ruud Gullit in the aftermath of his team's latest stuttering step towards their end-of-season date with Manchester United at Wembley on 22 May.

The Newcastle manager has banned talk of the FA Cup final among his players and staff while they still have Premiership matches to nominally contest, imposing a pounds 10 fine every time the occasion is mentioned. "I had better be careful," he said. "It has already cost me pounds 30."

With a chuckle and a swish of his dreadlocks, Gullit smoothly swerved past the question of his team's less than impressive form as the big day looms. But the Dutchman had to do some pretty shifty ducking when the "C" word unexpectedly cropped up.

Gullit was clearly caught off guard by the inquisitor who asked whether he had signed the contract that has been waiting for his autograph since he replaced Kenny Dalglish eight months ago. "Er, yes, I have just signed a contract," he said. "With Adidas."

With another laugh and a hasty press-room departure, Gullit duly completed another impressive verbal sidestep. The question of his commitment to the Newcastle cause, however, cannot be avoided indefinitely.

For the time being, the Toon Army could not care that their leader happens to have a home address in the Amsterdam area. They would care even less if, three weeks hence, Gullit manages to deposit an actual exhibit in that great Geordie folly, the trophy cabinet at St James' Park.

But Newcastle have been a club in transition for more than two years now, since Kevin Keegan's departure, and their team remains seriously unsettled, with Gullit simultaneously preparing his players for the Match That Shall Not Be Mentioned while lining up signings to replace many of them.

Of the 16 men in his squad on Saturday, only two, Robert Lee and Warren Barton, played in the last Tyne-Tees derby at St James' Park two seasons ago. With a growing list of expected summer recruits, among them Clarence Seedorf, the chances are that Newcastle will have an altogether new look again when Middlesbrough return next season.

Of those playing for places in the Cup final, let alone beyond, Robert Lee and Steve Harper did most to advance their respective causes on Saturday. Duncan Ferguson was not so impressive in his first Premiership match of the year.

"It's like pre-season for him," Gullit said. "His performances are going to be up and down because he has been out for four months."

It remains to be seen whether the flagging Scotsman will be up for the Cup, though Alan Shearer is clearly on a high, having scored seven goals in his last six games for club and country. The latest was the fifth of the batch to be dispatched from the penalty spot, after Robbie Stockdale had been penalised for a mistimed challenge on Didier Domi in the 63rd minute on Saturday.

It was just as well for Newcastle that their captain had a kick like a mule when he stepped up to face Mark Schwarzer. Otherwise, Robbie Mustoe's subtle finish on the hour would have won this donkey of a North-east derby.

Goals: Mustoe (60) 0-1; Shearer pen (63) 1-1.

Newcastle United (4-3-1-2): Harper; Barton, Beharall, Dabizas, Domi; Lee, Hamann, Speed; Maric (Solano, h-t); Shearer, Ferguson (Ketsbaia, 64). Substitutes not used: Hughes, McClen, Given (gk).

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Vickers, Pallister, Gavin; Stockdale, Summerbell, Mustoe, Townsend, Gordon; Ricard (Armstrong, 39), Deane. Substitutes not used: ; Campbell, Maddison, Baker, Beresford (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Newcastle: Speed. Middlesbrough: Mustoe, Townsend.

Man of the match: Lee.

Attendance: 36,784.