Football: Gullit sets the Toon in a mood swing

`Nobody wants to get injured any more. They come in on one leg now because they all want to be part of it'
IT WAS a happy Maric who faced the cameras at Newcastle United's training ground on Friday lunchtime. It was a happy Gullit too. Silvio Maric was, he said, "delighted" to be unveiled in black and white. "My favourite bird is the magpie," the Croatian midfielder chirped, without prompting. And Ruud Gullit was glad to have another new recruit under his managerial wing. Slowly but surely, the dreadlocked Dutchman has got the Magpies of St James' Park flying once again.

It has taken six months, but a record of just two defeats in 10 games since the turn of the year and a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup confirm that upward mobility has been restored. "It's incredible what we have done in such a short space of time," Gullit said, looking back on his half-year as Newcastle United's manager and looking forward to Arsenal's visit to Tyneside today.

"I'm not saying we have achieved anything, because we haven't yet. There is still a lot to be done. But we have changed a lot very quickly. We have had difficult times but finally we are getting the structure right. With the players we have sold and the players we have brought in we are getting the right attitude, a positive attitude. That is the key."

Attitudes have even changed among the players who have not been placed on the Gullit conveyor belt. Six weeks ago Dietmar Hamann was complaining of being overlooked by a boss he was convinced did not rate him and telling the German press he was desperate to move home. At Ewood Park on Wednesday night he was the fulcrum of the smooth-functioning Newcastle team that brushed aside Blackburn Rovers' challenge to claim an FA Cup sixth-round tie at home to Everton. "Yes, there were some problems," the former Bayern Munich midfielder said, "but they have all been sorted out. I am happy to stay at Newcastle for weeks, months and years. There is a very good spirit in the team now."

Steve Howey is happy to stay too. The longest serving player at St James' Park looked certain to leave for Liverpool at the end of the season until Gullit made him aware of how much he was valued by the new regime at Newcastle. Hence the central defender sat happily between Gullit and Maric on Friday, having signed a four-year contract that will treble his wages. "A big part of my decision was Ruud Gullit being here," Howey said. "He's just starting to build a team the fans can be proud of. Everyone talks about the Keegan years. But I honestly believe we can go on to another level. I really do."

Even the formerly disgruntled members of the Toon Army have had a change of mind. When the Magpies' form took a mid-winter dive, with successive Premiership defeats against Leeds, Liverpool and Chelsea, there were rumblings about Gullit's "semi-detached" style of management. Now, no one is complaining about his Dutch bungalow approach: living in Amsterdam and working on Tyneside.

The Toon Army are simply happy to see the colour returning to their beloved black and whites. They never turned against Kenny Dalglish, not openly at any rate, but the negativity of the team he built stretched their loyalty to the limit. They very nearly snapped on FA Cup final day, when Newcastle went backwards from the kick-off. After five seconds the ball was in Shay Given's arms. Twelve months previously it took Gullit's Chelsea all of 42 seconds to score.

The irony at Blackburn on Wednesday night was that Gullit took Newcastle within two ties of a Wembley return with eight of Dalglish's players. Of the starting XI, only Louis Saha was a Ruud boy. And the 20-year-old Frenchman, who struck the winner from Hamann's sublime crossfield pass, is, for the time being at least, merely on loan from Metz as cover for Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer. There may have been a lot of movement on the playing side at St James' of late but it has been mainly in the outward direction. Eleven of the players Gullit inherited have moved out, either permanently or on extended loan. As yet, only three new men - Ferguson, Maric and Didier Domi - have moved in.

Gullit has been proving his coaching worth by getting the best out of the players Dalglish left at his disposal, in particular Hamann, Howey and Gary Speed. It was a measure of the progress he has made that Newcastle won so impressively at Blackburn without Ferguson, Domi, Alan Shearer, Stephen Glass, Andy Griffin and Robert Lee, and with Maric still waiting for a work permit. Shearer and Ferguson have only played one and a half games together, though the former has recovered from flu and is expected to lead the forward line today and the latter may return, after a groin operation, in the FA Cup tie against Everton next Sunday.

Arsenal's visit to St James' Park, though, should tell Gullit how far he still has to go. Six weeks into his new job, he was horrified by his team's performance at Highbury in October. They were lucky to escape with a 3-0 defeat. "I was pleased we lost in the way that we did," Gullit said before he made his departure, "because it confirmed everything to me. I must go through the team like a battering ram. It is not good enough."

Battering is one thing, bartering quite another. Negotiations for incoming transfers have not gone smoothly for Gullit. He has missed out on a lot more players than he has signed, among them Ibrahim Ba, Taribo West, Matt Jansen and Dion Dublin. But in Maric he has acquired a young man who was on Alex Ferguson's wanted list last summer. "I talked to him," Maric said, "but Croatia Zagreb would not let me go at the time. When I got my second chance to come to England, with Newcastle, I told the club, `I must go'. And here I am."

Short of match fitness after waiting for a month for his work permit to be stamped, Maric might not be blooded by Gullit this afternoon. But the 23-year-old Croatian international, who favours an attacking midfield role behind two strikers, is not an unknown quantity to the Toon Army. He was in the Croatia Zagreb team beaten by Newcastle in the Champions' League qualifying round last season - by the Newcastle of old, that is. "When I came here this morning," Maric said, "I asked, `Where is Batty? Where is Pistone? Where is Albert? Where is Watson? Where is Beresford?' They are all gone."

The bad attitude that hung around Newcastle's training ground has gone too. "It's incredible, but I don't have any injuries now," Gullit said, with not a little irony. "Nobody wants to get injured any more. They come in on one leg now because they all want to be part of it."



Duncan Ferguson (Everton) pounds 8m

Didier Domi (Paris St Germain) pounds 4m

Silvio Maric (Croatia Zagreb) pounds 3.5m

Louis Saha (Metz) On loan


Stephane Guivarc'h (Rangers) pounds 3m

David Batty (Leeds) pounds 4.4m

Steve Watson (Aston Villa) pounds 4m

Keith Gillespie (Blackburn) pounds 2.35m

Bjarni Gudjonsson (Genk) pounds 250,000

John Barnes (Charlton) Free

Alessandro Pistone (Venezia) On loan

Philippe Albert (Fulham) On loan

Des Hamilton (Huddersfield) On loan

Carl Serrant (Bury) On loan

Stuart Elliott (Hartlepool) On loan