Football: Gullit shapes his image of the future

Glenn Moore meets the manager helping Chelsea match performance to aspirations
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The Independent Online
Stamford Bridge reopens this afternoon and the sense of change for any visiting Southampton fans who have not been to the ground for a few years will be overwhelming. The rusting East Stand, which almost bankrupted Chelsea, is still there but the rust has gone. To the north is a gleaming monument to Matthew Harding; to the south, where the Shed once bayed, is a state-of-the-art cantilever complete with creche, two- storey club shop and a hotel due to open in November. Only the west side is unfinished, but the dingy, unloved old stand is gone and a new one is rising from the ruins.

The concrete and steel transformation is dramatic but it is matched by the human one. Chelsea, for so many years a team whose glorifying self- image was at odds with their pedestrian, relegation-haunted football, have finally begun to match their aspirations. A revolution in personnel and style begun by Glenn Hoddle has accelerated under Ruud Gullit, and Chelsea have become the team to watch.

Last week's dissection of Barnsley was the latest flowering of this team of talents, but Ruud Gullit was equally pleased at the less eye-catching victory over Wimbledon on Wednesday. Both are matches the "old Chelsea", the one that regularly vanquished football's aristocrats only to fall to its paupers, would have lost. The Chelsea of old would also have followed a stunning victory with anticlimactic defeat.

Gullit's desire to change such habits was apparent when we met over lunch at a Heathrow hotel near the club's training ground. "Last year we lost a lot of points against the so-called smaller teams," he said. "We also found it difficult to close games up when we were ahead. We have learned a lot from last season.

"I don't know if we have the strength to win the title; we will have to see. The most crucial time is the winter, the period after Christmas when you have played so many games. I want to see how we cope with that. In January last year we were only seven points back from the leading team. Then came that crucial period. We were struggling with with injuries, we did not have cover for every position."

Gullit, who has bought six players this summer for pounds 11.3m, added: "Having a bigger squad will help. No one will play week in, week out. You can't. Last year players were tired but we had to keep playing them."

This is a relatively new concept in England for managers and players. Joe Kinnear said recently that he attributed Wimbledon's success last season to being able to keep a settled side. That is true given the club's limited resources, but the sheer number of games did appear to leave his players too exhausted to give their best by April.

Gullit has already used 17 players in three games, and even Gianfranco Zola has discovered his place is not guaranteed. Possibly only Alex Ferguson has both the luxury of a similarly deep squad and the inclination to rotate it.

"I am happy with my squad; with it we can cope better with different situations," Gullit said. "But I can't say I have finished buying - you never can, there may be an opportunity like last year with Zola. I can't say to the chairman, `Yes I would like to buy him but I can't because I told the journalists I would not buy anyone else.' Everybody says now you will have headaches picking the team, but I am happy to have them. Many coaches would."

The defensive system has been changed this year, as the coach, Graham Rix, felt it was "too exposed on the flanks" with wing-backs and a central three. "In my first year we played very good football with three at the back," added Gullit, "but we gave away so many chances, so many goals. As a coach you have to think about that. Sometimes you have to give away some of the sparkling football to be more consistent in the back. With four we were able to play Manchester United in the Charity Shield and give away just one, to Paul Scholes early on."

The defensive frailty at Coventry on opening day underlined that there is more to be done, but clean sheets against Barnsley and Wimbledon have pleased Gullit as much as the eight goals scored.

The Dutchman is in his third season in the English game but familiarity, far from breeding contempt, has increased his status. When he came some critics suggested he was here to enjoy London's music scene rather than its football and that his fragile knees would soon give away under the strains of the Premiership. He has suffered injuries but his impact has been immense and those critics are now silent. The photogenic Chelsea manager has also proved telegenic and generally media friendly.

One wonders what Gullit really thinks of the press, but in public he calls the pack "lovely boys" despite the constant references to the alleged "rift" with Gianluca Vialli and supposed delay over the signing of a new contract. Both obsessions seem misguided. Last season Mark Hughes and Zola were clearly a more balanced partnership than either player was with Vialli, while Gullit is so obviously settled in London that a contract extension is a matter of when, not if.

Gullit himself seems unconcerned, though he has been quick to refute speculation linking him with Feyenoord and the Dutch national side, while Colin Hutchinson, the club's chief executive, noted that Gullit is so relaxed about money he did not even bother to collect his wages for two months.

"He didn't come here for the money," Hutchinson said. "He could have gone to Japan for that. You have got to look at the bigger picture. He does not have to deal with the president every day as he would in Italy; his exchanges with Ken Bates are just on a social level. Gwyn [Williams, the assistant manager] does all the contracts and administration.

"The system works well," Gullit said. "I had a meeting at Wembley once with Graham Taylor and Jack Charlton. We talked about managing and Jack said, `I wanted to know everything. If somebody needed a new broomstick I wanted to know.' He said, `I could never do the job like you do it but I don't think I could do it my way now, there are so many things around it, sponsors, television, stadiums.'

"My way is the right way," Gullit said. "You must have a focal point but it is good to give people responsibility. I don't want to concentrate on where the kit is, whether it has been stolen [as it was in pre-season]. It may have been like that in the past but it is just tradition.

"I have enjoyed management more than I had thought, but I don't think I would want to be a national team manager. You do nothing but for six games a year. There is all that travelling here and there to see players, getting fat, sitting in an office. I can't do that, I am too young. Maybe when I get older."

Before then he will probably move on to one of the established European football houses, a Milan or a Barcelona. This he tacitly admitted when, in discussing a failed bid by Real Madrid for Frank Leboeuf, he said: "We are not at the same level as Real Madrid or Milan. Chelsea will never be the same because we do not have that history. We may be able to compete with them but we do not have that name, that impact, like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Milan . . ."

While he may not finish his management career at Chelsea, his playing days will probably end there. Gullit will celebrate his 35th birthday on Monday and, after the battering his body received at the hands of Serie A defenders, he knows he does not have many years left. Injury has kept him out this season but he is back in training and played a half against the Chinese national team in a recent friendly.

"Of course if I was not the manager I would play much more. I miss the sheer enjoyment of playing but there are also times when I think it is a pain. The hard work during the week is a pain. I am a player who has to be physically fit, I can't sit down all week and play on Saturday like Paul McGrath. If the team needs me, I will play."

Hobson's choice for Chelsea fans: lose and see Ruud play, win and he stays on the bench. It is another headache other clubs can only envy.

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