Football: Past about to catch up with Gullit

Pride is at stake for the Newcastle manager as former protege brings title-chasing Chelsea to St James' Park

IN KEVIN KEEGAN'S heyday as the manager of Newcastle United the players trained in front of adoring crowds so large that a mobile hot- dog van was in daily and profitable attendance. Yesterday, as Ruud Gullit put the current squad through their paces, there were just 18 supporters in attendance.

As a snapshot of the club's decline it was an eloquent picture but also a false one. Given that United have won two of their last 11 League games, and that it was pouring with rain on Tyneside yesterday, it was amazing that anyone came to watch at all. That one lad did so wearing little but a white shirt and black trousers beggared belief. But then, as with so much to do with the put-upon Magpies these days, not everything in black- and-white makes sense.

The chaos in the boardroom is well documented. Already this season they have sacked Kenny Dalglish two games into a pounds 15m investment, then invited back Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall, the shamed directors, provoking the angry resignation of Denis Cassidy, the club chairman.

In the dressing-room there is uncertainty. To the players, according to Warren Barton, "The first thing Ruud told us was there was nothing wrong with the team. What was missing was confidence." To the press he said: "I have inherited a relegation team."

Yesterday he continued his "mission" to change that, introducing his third new signing to training, Louis Saha, on loan from the French side Metz. Gullit, who took over at the end of August, also admitted an interest in Crystal Palace's well-regarded young forward Matt Jansen and said it could take "a year" to get the team he wants. Five players have left and several more will follow, with the disaffected Alessandro Pistone and Dietmar Hamann likely to lead the exodus.

In the stands there is similar confusion. A crowd which has become, at times, tetchy and mutinous, reacted to last week's early deficit in the FA Cup tie with Crystal Palace by roaring the team to victory. And on the horizon is the potential takeover of the club by NTL, a Hampshire-based media company involved in cable television.

Today, Gullit's new team face his old one, Chelsea, at St James' Park. Chelsea, who sacked Gullit in acrimonious circumstances in February, are second in the Premiership, Newcastle are 13th. Though Gullit spoke carefully of looking forward not back, he made it clear he felt it was his team chasing the title, not Gianluca Vialli's. It had been "easy" for his successor, he said, as "my" players, tactics and rotation system were all in place.

"He has done exactly what I was trying to do, he tried to play 4-3-3 and lost all his games and went back to my system," Gullit added. "I also see he said rotation was a good idea. It is my vision, my ideas, they are still practising them. I put [Chelsea's] team together, I am proud of that and the success they've had. Now they have to go for the title, that was my goal, anything else would be a loss."

Gullit's words are unlikely to soothe the atmosphere in the boardroom and dug-outs today but they do highlight the core difficulty in assessing the two clubs. Is Chelsea's success a compliment to Gullit's team-building or due to Vialli's own tactical nous and man-management skills? Similarly, are Newcastle's struggles down to Dalglish or Gullit - who inherited a squad containing 16 internationals?

At Chelsea, Vialli, crucially, has introduced Marcel Desailly and Albert Ferrer. He has also kept a largely settled defence. The team has subsequently become much harder to beat. Would this have happened under Gullit? At Newcastle the jury is still out on the Dutchman but there is an undercurrent of optimism.

Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag, a long-established club fanzine, believes the club is progressing. "I feel bringing Gullit in was a huge step forward," he said. "The players he brought in at Chelsea are the framework of their current team and I feel he'll do the same here; the board appears to have learned the lesson from the Dalglish reign that you have to buy quality. I hope once the takeover is sorted out, and I suspect that it will go through, things will improve. It takes time - people have got to be realistic."

At times like this it is worth reflecting on how far the club has come. Without a championship since 1927, or a trophy since 1969, they were floundering in the old Second Division when Sir John Hall and his son, Douglas, persuaded Keegan to come back in early 1992. Had Newcastle not won their last two matches that season they would have been relegated instead of Plymouth Argyle. They were promoted to the Premiership the following season and, in the five years since, have finished third, sixth, second, second and 13th, the latter being combined with a first FA Cup final appearance since 1974.

That is the rosy view. The other notes that Keegan, after spending pounds 60m, blew the title in 1995-96 while last year's League performances were dull and the Cup final display abject.

Even so, to take the decision to sack Dalglish so soon after giving him pounds 15m to spend was rank mis-management and his replacement by Gullit has yet to be justified. Gullit's big advantage, he freely admitted yesterday, is in the transfer market. "Players want to play for me because of the success I have had," he said. "So far everyone I have approached wants to play for me."

But signing personality managers, then giving them carte blanche in the transfer market, is an expensive way to run a club and Newcastle desperately need him to be successful. With Middlesbrough and Sunderland booming they are in danger of becoming the region's third club.

Plans are underway to avoid this dreaded prospect. Though the takeover has worrying implications for the game in general - as with Manchester United and Sky - it ought to lead to an injection of cash for Gullit. This will ease the short-term burden created by the club's bold response to the block on building a new stadium on Town Moor - they have embarked on re-building St James' Park to lift capacity to 51,000.

However, Sir John Hall's original concept of a Newcastle Sporting Club representing "the Geordie nation" on the lines of Barcelona and Catalonia, has effectively been abandoned. The Newcastle Falcons rugby union club, Eagles basketball club, and Riverkings ice hockey club continue but are increasingly divorced from the football organisation.

Other expansion plans have also had mixed success, with both the academy for young players and the state-of-the-art training complex awaiting planning permission. The youngsters should be able to move in soon but the first team's new home is not much beyond the architect's drawing board. Meanwhile, they use borrowed facilities adjacent to Durham County Cricket Club's impressive Chester-le-Street headquarters.

As a consequence, Gullit's press conference - which yesterday attracted four television crews and various radio and written media - is held in the foyer of the local council's leisure complex, which shares the site. Thus, while Louis van Gaal holds court at the Nou Camp under photographs of great Barcelona triumphs, and a picture gallery featuring every one of the club's many Spanish internationals, Gullit faces the media under signs directing visitors to the kitchen and the public toilets.

None of this helps. When teams are struggling these are the things players and coaches complain about. Similarly fans are quicker to object to the likes of Hall and Shepherd if the team are losing.

"Everything relates to what happens on the pitch," added Mark Jensen. "At Manchester United the off-field developments like the takeover are just a diversion because the team are still in the Champions' League. People respond to success."

How far away is this for Newcastle? Gullit, preparing the public for the worst, said yesterday: "I hope, in a year, this will be my team. I have just begun here, it is a big job. Chelsea are much further advanced than we are. They have been a long time together and have had success already. I do not have to prove anything in this match."

All the same, both he and Vialli would very much like to win it, and not just for the sake of three points.

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