Football: Gullit: The ego is stranded

Betrayal at the Bridge? Mr Vialli and Mr Zola, the vanguard of Chelsea's Latin revolution, now perhaps the leaders of the contras; Andrew Longmore plots an extraordinary week of accusations and conspiracy theories
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The Independent Online
WITH big players and big business come big dramas. Never has an off-field football rumpus been so eloquently expressed. On Thursday, the innocence of Gianluca Vialli and the gruff bonhomie of Ken Bates allied with the voice of reason, Colin Hutchinson, to produce a plausible condemnation of Ruud Gullit; the following morning, in the bowels of Scribes, the west London dining club, Gullit played the role of injured party to perfection. If it was an act for the cameras, last week's Oscar nominations were premature.

As a parable of modern football, the saga takes some beating. This was no run-of-the-mill managerial scuffle, but a stylish post-Bosman Euro assassination meticulously played out in front of a forest of transmission aerials and barricades of photographers. Typical Chelsea melodrama. We had to wait for the book to find out the reasons for Kevin Keegan's abrupt departure from St James' Park. But that was parochial nonsense in comparison. The answer then lay closer to the City than Newcastle United, and so it may be with Chelsea; stability and continuity is everything when the stock market is watching.

On either side of the divide lay men well versed in the art of publicity; Vialli asking the media for their patience one minute, Gullit thanking them for their support the next, emotional Blu-Tack on which to hang their propaganda.

Gullit overplayed his hand. That much is clear. Gullit began his Scribes soliloquy by listing his palmares as a coach: an FA Cup in his first season, a semi-final of the Coca-Cola Cup - the second leg will be on Wednesday - quarter-final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup and second place in the Premiership. But his initial demand for pounds 2m a year - pounds 3,365,000 before tax, according to Hutchinson - might have raised an eyebrow at Old Trafford where Alex Ferguson is paid a third as much. When Gullit said that all he needed was an offer and he would have accepted, it was the classic cry of the ruined gambler. For the first time in his life, Gullit misjudged his worth.

But money, Gullit believed, was not the real issue. The first signs of unease had come at a 40-minute meeting with Hutchinson on Thursday 5 February. "It was a very good atmosphere, at least in the beginning; the end was a little strange," Gullit recounted. "We talked about players and staff, about what would happen with development and about bringing in new players like Brian Laudrup and Jaap Stam [the pounds 10m-rated defender at PSV]. Then Colin asked me what I wanted for my contract. I asked for the same as when I first signed for the club. When I became player-manager I was paid only for being a player, not a manager. But Colin said nothing. I thought it was all part of the bluff, but I felt strange. Why no offer? I already had the feeling there was a different agenda." Gullit was angered too by the suggestion that he should hang up his boots. "I wanted to decide when I stopped," he said. "It's a matter of pride. I was not going to be told by them." Not even the morning after an inept display against Arsenal in the first leg of the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final.

According to Hutchinson, Gullit was told at the end of that meeting that his demand was too high and that the club would "need to actively pursue lining up a replacement". Gullit said he knew nothing about that threat. On the following Monday, two days after an unconvincing victory over Barnsley, Vialli was offered the position of player-manager. He took "all of five minutes" to accept, according to the club. Gullit was seemingly unaware of developments. He had been expecting to meet Laudrup for transfer talks, but the Dane had rung to say his wife was unwell and would travel instead on Wednesday. In the event, Laudrup arrived on Tuesday evening and, as Gullit later found out, was met by Hutchinson, Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, the last brought along as a persuasive tongue. Mr Zola and Mr Vialli, Gullit termed them - as if the formality might put distance between them. Vialli and Zola, the vanguard of Gullit's Latin revolution, now perhaps the leaders of the contras. They had been prominent, after all, in the team meeting from which the manager had been excluded two weeks ago.

Last Thursday, the action quickened. Gullit had a meeting with Hutchinson after training but walked out before he was told the news of his successor. Gullit said that he found out about his sacking on Teletext. If so, his antennae, usually so acute, had not been functioning properly. Ian Porterfield, one of Gullit's predecessors, twice turned up at press conferences not knowing who he was supposed to have signed. He did not last long.

On Thursday evening, the phone at Gullit's flat barely stopped ringing as allies rallied round. Gullit denies claims that unrest within his own dressing-room forced his dismissal, though there is a temptation to implicate Vialli in the ultimate act of revenge. All those hours of plotting on the bench. Clearly, the Italian had the ear of the chief executive, who had even canvassed Juventus for an opinion on Vialli's coaching potential, and his veiled reference to honesty being "the key" to good relations between a manager and his players hit hard at Gullit's seemingly arrogant style. But Gullit had attracted most of the foreign legion to the club himself. It would be unlikely that they would turn on him. Though his rota system of picking teams was unusual, it seemed to be working, at least in the early part of the season when Chelsea produced a brand of attacking football to match anything in their history.

In a rare moment of candour, Gullit eloquently voiced the difficulties of the player-manager. "I was a player first, that's the main difference, so I was leaving out people who were my friends. That hurt me but you have to be honest with everyone. I felt bad leaving Vialli out and Dennis Wise. Wise came round to my house and I explained to him what I wanted for Chelsea, for him and me. He understood because he's a professional. Vialli's a professional. If I go to another club, that side of it would be easier because I would be going in as a manager only." Vialli will face the same baptism.

The more rational explanation is that the coup began downstairs, among the backroom boys who had exhibited a loyalty to the club way beyond the figures on a pay cheque. Two of the friends who did not call Gullit on Thursday night were Graham Rix, the coach, and Gwyn Williams, the assistant manager. A month before, both had been guaranteed a further one year's employment to allay fears of instability should Gullit leave. Gullit mentioned changes in "organisation". Under Vialli, the backroom team will remain unchanged. Italian v Dutch; English v Dutch; a Vialli vendetta. The permutations are endless.

"Next week, they will say 'the players didn't like him' or something," Gullit said. "Then it will be that I was a 'greedy bastard'. But I know for sure that it was not the money and it was not the players. What I want to know, from the club, is the real reason for this." Another footballing conundrum to go in the locker with Kenny Dalglish's exit from Liverpool.

What marks this dismissal out from the rest, signals a new era in footballing industrial relations, is that failure was not the cause. Gullit was punished for his success. There was a legacy of disappointment at Newcastle before Keegan went, but Chelsea are on the verge of unprecedented glory. "That is why I cannot believe it," Gullit said. Success, in his eyes, has always been reflected in his bank balance.

The hand of Bates is apparent in the swift execution of the job. Even the expanded Bridge, with its 160-roomed four-star hotel, its fish and chip restaurant, its new Shed Bar - "owned by the chairman's stepson, so it's got to be a success" as the tourist guide said - and penthouse suites, the finest of them requisitioned by Bates himself, could not house the egos of Gullit and his chairman. The Chelsea Village was simply not big enough for the both of them.

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