Football: Gullit primes Newcastle to defy critics

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The Independent Online
WHILE ALEX Ferguson was playing his get-out-of-gaol card yesterday, Ruud Gullit was busy telling the world not to bank on Manchester United winning their trophy-chasing version of Monopoly.

There are those even on Tyneside who think the Football Association, as well as introducing penalties to decide its Cup final this year, might as well allow the red-shirted and red-hot favourites to ascend the 39 steps to the Royal Box to collect the trophy before kick-off time at Wembley on Saturday.

Without a win in six matches since their semi-final victory against Spurs and without a clean sheet in their final 14 Premiership fixtures, Ruud's boys are just about the most unfancied FA Cup final underdogs since Sunderland bit Leeds down to size in 1973 - the last occasion on which a team from the supposed North-east football hotbed won one of the game's major trophies.

Not that Gullit has ever heard of Bob Stokoe's trilby, Ian Porterfield's goal or Jimmy Montgomery's double save. Asked yesterday at Newcastle's pre-Wembley press conference whether he was aware of how long the trophy cabinet downstairs at St James' Park had been empty, he shrugged his shoulders and swished his dreadlocks. "No," he said. "I live for now. This is the moment for me. It was the same when I was at Milan and Chelsea. They had not won trophies for a long time."

At Milan, though, Gullit happened to be part of the best team in Europe. He and his colleagues proved as much by winning the European Cup twice. At Chelsea, when he became the first foreign coach to lift the FA Cup two years ago, his team faced Middlesbrough, not Manchester United, in the final.

Newcastle, in fact, have not won a major trophy since the 1955 FA Cup final. Jackie Milburn, whose statue stands outside St James' Park, was the hero of that 3-1 win against Manchester City - seven years before Gullit was born.

If the Toon Army are fearful of their stuttering team's chances against Manchester United, though, their manager is anything but petrified. "I don't want to talk about Manchester United," he said. "I want to talk about my team.

"There are reasons why we did not finish the season well. I have already said it: my players have been saving themselves for the final. Today in training I saw a different team, very focused.

"We have a very good chance of winning the Cup final. That is the vibe that is going through the team. We have a very good chance and we are taking it with both hands."

Newcastle had a chance 12 months ago, of course, though they did not exactly set about grasping it with both hands. Kenny Dalglish's team set out their intentions from the start against Arsenal, taking all of nine seconds to work the ball back to Shay Given; the previous year Gullit's Chelsea had the ball in the back of the opposition net in 42 seconds.

"Last year was a bad experience for us," Alan Shearer said, reflecting on an afternoon he spent up front in not-so-splendid isolation. "It hurt. It hurt badly. First is first in football; the rest is nowhere."

So can the team that finished 13th in the Premiership (with a line-up Gullit refused to even hint at yesterday) realistically expect to beat the team that finished first ? "There's a firm belief in this camp that we can go to Wembley and win," Shearer said. "Everybody's expecting Manchester United to win and that can work in our favour. All right, they haven't lost for 31 games, but they have to be beaten sometime.

"Manchester United are only humans, and humans can have bad days." As Manchester United's captain duly discovered yesterday.