Football: Magpies close ranks behind Gullit

Trouble on the Tyne: Pressure intensifies on the Newcastle manager but fans blame the media for so-called `crisis'
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NOTHING PERSONAL, but Ruud Gullit must have been hoping to pick up the tabloids this morning and find a major footballing figure implicated in sexual or financial shenanigans.

The Newcastle United manager's problem is not just his team's grisly form - three matches, three defeats - but the absence of alternative dramas to deflect the glare. Last night's match at Villa Park was the week's only Premiership game, there are no other managers being linked with the sack and no revelatory autobiographies being serialised.

Thus the spotlight is on St James' Park and the media coverage is developing a momentum which usually ends in a manager's departure. Yesterday the maelstrom built through newspaper back pages and breakfast television through to national and local radio phone-ins. Today comes the analysis with features like this and, though the broadsheets will move on, local media and those tabloids with regionalised sports coverage will continue to feed the fire.

Until Saturday, when Newcastle play Wimbledon at home, there is little Gullit and the Newcastle board can do except sit tight. He is making the right signals - cancelling his trip to South Africa to manage the World Stars XI in Nelson Mandela's farewell match and bringing the team in for training yesterday morning despite a late return from Southampton. Meanwhile his agent, Phil Smith, led the counter-attack by insisting his client had not tendered his resignation while the club asserted it was "business as usual".

Since Newcastle appear to have lurched from crisis to crisis ever since their stock exchange listing provoked Kevin Keegan's resignation in January 1997 this perhaps reflected the situation more accurately than they would care to admit.

However, the mood among the Toon Army suggests the crisis is perceived rather than actual. When Radio Newcastle, picking up on Smith's claim that Gullit was as popular as Keegan, ran a phone-poll on the subject, a string of callers responded with the suggestion that the poll should be: "Is Radio Newcastle anti-Newcastle United".

The crisis is, they suggested, a media witch-hunt. For every fan like Neil Mitchell, who told Gullit via yesterday's Newcastle Journal, "when you go back to Amsterdam you'll find plenty of bikes - I suggest you get on one," there are many more supporting the Dutchman.

On Sunday, with Newcastle 3-1 down, the Toon Army were singing his name.

Yesterday, Mark Jensen, editor of the respected Newcastle fanzine, The Mag, said: "The fans I've spoken to are behind him. Obviously we were gutted that we lost again but we believe he can sort things out if all the players are fit.

"The situation has been magnified by the way we have collapsed in the last two games. The team don't seem to be pulling together and he may have to leave a few people out. But realistically we didn't expect to be challenging at the top this season, he is still dealing with the problems created by Kenny Dalglish."

Dalglish, added Jensen, had sold the right players but not replaced them with better ones. The question now is whether Gullit is repeating the error.

Restricted financially (Keegan had spent pounds 60m, Dalglish pounds 35m), he has cut the wage bill and raised pounds 26m in sales. This puts in perspective the pounds 31.7m he has spent but his signings are of dubious quality.

Silvio Maric, in particular, has been dreadful while Alain Goma, Didier Domi and the new goalkeeper, John Karelse, were poor at The Dell. As for Duncan Ferguson, he may have achieved cult status at Everton and Newcastle but his fitness [seven games in 10 months for the latter] and goalscoring record [39 in 123 Premiership appearances] are woeful for a player commanding a pounds 7m fee and pounds 40,000 a week.

Kieron Dyer has impressed but the flimsiness of central midfield makes the transfers of David Batty and Dietmar Hamann look ill-advised.

The exiling of Rob Lee who, like Alessandro Pistone and Des Hamilton, has not even been given a squad number, has exacerbated this problem and highlighted the imperious Gullit's questionable man-management. Lee's exclusion has been interpreted as a by-product in the power struggle between Gullit and Alan Shearer, his captain, centre-forward and, unhealthily, his putative successor.

Smith added fuel to this yesterday when he said "maybe an inspirational performance or two from the captain would help" but, surprisingly, this view was echoed by Jensen.

"There does seem a problem," he said. "They are two dominant personalities and they appear to rub each other up the wrong way. Shearer is frustrated because he does not have a proper striking partner. He is still a great player but he is not a Ronaldo, he needs service. He is looking to blame other players when you want him to lead from the front and show an example. I'm behind Ruud Gullit but for me Rob Lee has been the best Newcastle player over the last decade. I think he could do a job and hope Gullit can include him. I'm sure Rob Lee would bury the hatchet for the sake of the club."

In a comment piece Newcastle's Evening Chronicle said last night that Gullit should stay, but must make peace with Lee and listen to Shearer.

However, the paper's match report from The Dell invoked the spectre of a relegation battle.

Premature? The last time the club lost their first three matches of the season, in 1959-60, they finished eighth. Then again, Blackburn Rovers' fate last season shows the damage which can result from a bad start and Newcastle have flirted with the drop in the last two seasons.

Gullit's position is not helped by his refusal to set up home on Tyneside or sign a contract. His partner, Estelle, and daughter, Joelle, live in Amsterdam and Gullit shares his life between them and a Newcastle hotel. There is a suspicion, not generally shared in Newcastle, that Gullit feels the job beneath him and is merely killing time while waiting for something more glamorous.

That is presumed to be in the capital or in Italy. However, unless he makes a success of Newcastle no Premiership club is likely to meet his price while, and this must be galling, Gianluca Vialli is above him on Serie A's wanted list.

Meanwhile Gullit's semi-detached situation merely adds to the instability of a club which has seen acrimonious changes at boardroom level and a protracted takeover talks with the cable company NTL.

The fixture list offers little solace. After Wimbledon, Newcastle face Sunderland at home, then Manchester United and Chelsea away. Two more defeats and the maelstrom will become a hurricane which even Gullit could not withstand.