Football: Long live the culture clash club

Ian Ridley says the Gullit goodbye may be a setback for the loadsamoney era
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The Independent Online
ABOUT the only thing Ken Bates and Ruud Gullit agreed on last week was: "The King is dead, long live the King." Like nature, English football abhors a vacuum. Just when you were beginning to think, in these post-Eric Cantona days, the season was a little slow news-wise, along comes Chelsea - and out goes Gullit.

The last few days have been like an avidly followed court case. First the prosecution outlined its view. Once you heard that, you thought he must be guilty. But the case continued. After the defendant's plaintive testimony, you could only conclude that he was innocent and the villains resided elsewhere.

So who was right, who wrong? There have been errors of judgement and conduct on both sides, and clearly there are different versions of the same events, but then such is the way a domestic game full of potential constructive dismissals often behaves. The wider issue is how uncomfortable the English game remains during its transition into the European era; and how inconsistently it spends its new-found riches.

Loadsamoney English football may be soft but not so soft that it will pay the pounds 3.5m a season Chelsea said Gullit would cost them. He claimed it was pounds 2m - as only a basis for negotiation - but Chelsea countered that his figure was tax-free.

The money seemed mostly a smokescreen, anyway. If it is not, we look forward to the club spending the saving on the new improved training facilities - Chelsea rent theirs from London University - that such players as Crystal Palace's Attilio Lombardo and Michele Padovano have rightly said were missing in the English game.

Actually, since they happily shell out for fading Frenchmen and merely promising Norwegians, Chelsea would probably have paid up had they been happy with their man and Gullit, already rich, would surely have compromised anyway. If Alex Ferguson, in the strongest of positions at Manchester United, can do so, it should be good enough for Gullit.

The whole affair may have had something to do with Bates calling time on what he deemed a transient professional in danger of becoming too big for the club he himself heads and has been dedicated to. But it appears equally significant that Chelsea wanted more for their money.

The leaked propaganda from Stamford Bridge suggests that Gullit was arrogant, cold and selfish and that the real work with the team was done by his assistant, Graham Rix. The players had excluded him from a crisis meeting recently, alarmed at his selection policy as a result of the 5-3 humiliation by Manchester United in the FA Cup.

Which all seems at odds with the charismatic figure that sweated through training and then exchanged banter with his players over pasta in the canteen. Many of them - Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Graeme Le Saux - had signed largely because Gullit was in charge.

And with a manager who did not endear himself to his players, it was all the more remarkable that the club had reached second place in the Premiership, the semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup and the quarter-finals of the European Cup-Winners' Cup - competitions which they still hold a healthy interest in and will take part in over the next three weeks. It could be the first time that a coach has been sacked for getting results.

But Chelsea wanted - they said - more of an old-fashioned manager again, one willing to scout players and opposition, devoting more time to the job and giving up playing. The former may be a response to being outwitted by Ferguson, the latter a probable knee-jerk response to Gullit's ageing frame giving away a goal at Arsenal in the first leg of the Coca-Cola semi-final.

Then again, Chelsea knew what they were getting 18 months ago. Why, then, have they appointed another player-manager in Gianluca Vialli? Just as Gullit's appointment provoked amusement in Holland as the poacher turned gamekeeper, so Vialli's combined role has baffled Italy, where it is not permitted in the professional game.

"Vialli is a born leader, he can do well in this dual role," said Azeglio Vicini, the former Italian national team manager and now head of the country's coaches' association. "Or to put it another way, in England, where tactics have not evolved as much as they have here, someone with his personality can do well."

Personalities, and the clashing of them, is usually at the root of much falling out in football throughout the world. Of all the civilised footballing nations only England has such haphazard hiring and firing of unqualified personnel. This, too, is a culture clash.

Chelsea were happy to trade on Gullit's name until their envious hierarchy decided he was getting too much for too little. Had there been proper procedures in place - which Gullit himself realises in taking a Dutch coaching badge that will also enable him to work in Italy, perhaps with Milan, and even Scotland, maybe with Rangers - then some of these points of conflict would probably never have arisen.

Then again, there is not yet a course in place that helps one to handle Ken Bates. As Gullit has found out, you know when you've been Kenned. Which brings us to the Vialli appointment. As tough as Bates appears, he can be soft after all.