Football: No club can hold these two egos

Gullit resignation: Blaming Shearer for the Sunderland defeat was Ruud's Tyneside suicide note
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DURING THE last seven years, the board of Newcastle United have made one inspired decision during the course of endorsing their managers' outlay of pounds 125m on players.

What it decidedly was not was installing Ruud Gullit at St James' Park. Hindsight may be a cheap commodity, but if ever there was a case of bringing in a vintner to run a beer festival this was it. The reaction from most observers at his resignation yesterday must have been along the lines of: "How come it took so long?"

A couple of weeks ago, when I spoke with him before the 4-2 defeat at Southampton, Gullit said: "You smell blood, don't you?" and laughed at the absurdity of it all. It was not in the least bit convincing. He probably suspected then that the time would not be long before the floor of that distinguished club would be awash with the red stuff. Blood, not wine.

It is in no way to stereotype the Geordie supporter to suggest that, when it comes to their football, on Tyneside they demand an intensity of approach that few can match: a belief that the man with whom they have entrusted their club is utterly consumed by the job. A Bobby Robson - who was asked but declined, before Gullit and may now step into the breach - or a Keegan, perhaps.

And Wor Kev was indeed one of Sir John Hall's brainwaves though, ultimately, the board even managed to alienate him. Kenny Dalglish? Well, possibly, though you had your doubts. But Gullit, that master of sangfroid, a lover of chic London and the cultural quarters of Amsterdam? Never a chance. There were many of us who, even at the time a year ago, believed you would no more ask Gullit to manage Newcastle than ask Bernard Manning to open a WI fete. Yet, they went ahead and are now repenting at considerable cost, financially, and in terms of their club's performance, and perhaps, most humiliatingly of all, that once-distinguished club's tattered reputation.

Gullit is a proud man, and it was hard not to feel sympathy for him on Wednesday night as the once revered footballing maestro gloomily surveyed his team crumpling to ignominious defeat against their most avowed rivals, Sunderland. On that saturated St James' Park pitch they went down, literally as well as figuratively, like so many Norman Wisdom characters. In a sense, it reflected everything that has happened since Keegan refused to bow to the demands of the city men, back in January 1997.

The world's great players can conduct themselves with a certain haughtiness on the pitch; it rarely lends itself to management, where, as his predecessor at Stamford Bridge, Glenn Hoddle, found with England, an entirely different kind of finesse is required. The refusal to name Alan Shearer in the starting line-up on Wednesday was the final act of either desperation, in the hope that his team would secure a first Premiership victory of the season without the England captain and hence make a defiant point, or merely one of extreme petulance.

When he went further and intimated that Shearer and the other substitute Duncan Ferguson were in effect responsible for the defeat, that was provocation which no amount of bridge-building by an embarrassed board could defuse. His refusal to give the former club captain, England player and Shearer's best dressing-room buddy, Rob Lee, a squad number this season was never going to help a reconciliation between the two. Either way, the city did not have room for two mighty egos. The impasse between the two could not be allowed to fester, and in the end, Shearer, that politically astute animal, who has stood back and generally been non-committal where the events at St James' Park are concerned, has won some kind of victory.

It is doubtful whether he actually wants to turn to management himself at this stage, so Newcastle will perhaps turn to an available father-figure like Bobby Robson, while they search for a successor. However, Shearer as player-coach would not be an altogether surprising development.

Gullit had arrived, it should be stressed, with an ominous warning from his previous employers, Chelsea. Let there be no mistake; Gullit had reinvented Chelsea by becoming a magnet for the sort of talent, like Gianfranco Zola and a certain Gianluca Vialli, that the London club could not have previously imagined being enticed to Stamford Bridge, even by Hoddle. His team won an FA Cup final. The future looked bright, apparently, although there was evidence that Vialli was being treated with some disdain.

If there is one legacy that Gullit can be truly proud of, if this really is the end of his affair with Britain, then it is that he has unwittingly produced a potentially fine manager in Vialli, a character who appears to be able to concentrate on manage-ment while living contendedly and quietly in an alien nation. Gullit never appeared to manage that satisfactorily and certainly not in the North-east.

Despite their efforts, Chelsea were unable to pin him down to a new contract. According to their chairman Ken Bates, he demanded pounds 2m a year, net of tax. Bates simply lost patience.

Nobody could accuse the Toon Army of that. They have been faithful until this week, when other fans might have had their suspicions aroused about Gullit's long-term commitment by his constant travelling back to Amsterdam to be with fiancee Estelle, and his initial disinclination to live locally, although ironically he was in the process of having a dockside apartment built. But one thing the Newcastle faithful can never be accused of is rushing into judgement.

An FA Cup final appearance and pounds 25m-worth of new recruits retained their enthusiasm initially. But one point from a possible 15 can try the most vociferous of supporters, and his days were numbered. Like Nicolas Anelka before him, he attributes much of the problem to the media. It is a convenient target from a man who has never found humility an easy virtue. If his family has been hounded as he asserts, that cannot be condoned, although it is difficult to commiserate unduly for a self-made celebrity who has profited handsomely from his exposure. He leaves with a ready-made epitaph ringing in our ears. It came after the defeat at Tottenham. "It was not my fault," he bleated. Unfortunately, he is learning that in football it doesn't really matter whose fault it was. Sometimes you just have to take the blame.