Football: Relaxed start to the reign of Ruud

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THE CHANGE of guard at Newcastle United was nothing if not brutal. Kenny Dalglish's autobiography had been rudely removed from the souvenir shop at St James' Park and not far away the statue of Jackie Milburn sported a new haircut. Dreadlocks, of course.

Ruud Gullit's coronation as the new manager yesterday gave not the slightest hint of the turmoil that has rippled through Newcastle like waves of nausea for the past two years. The press conference started on time, the principal actor delivered his lines with slick precision and supporters filled half a stand to welcome the new man aboard. "Crisis? What crisis?" as Jim Callaghan would have said.

Even Gullit, appropriately dressed in an immaculate black suit with black and white accessories, seemed to overlook the fact that Newcastle have been the bad news story of the Premiership for some time now. "The organisation is very good," he said, which will come as a surprise to even the most blind-eyed private in the Toon Army. But it was his first day as successor to Dalglish and initial impressions can be misleading.

"I know only rumours," he continued. "When you live in the south it is difficult to know what is going on properly in the north. This club wants to grow." He then added his only hint of criticism: "Maybe it wanted to grow too quickly."

The growth pains have been all too excruciatingly apparent since 1995- 96 when Newcastle looked to be heading for their first championship in 70 years only to blow up. Keegan went acrimoniously without winning a trophy 20 months ago and despite the sugared words of the club's chairman, Freddie Shepherd, yesterday - "He will always remain a friend and will always be welcome at Newcastle" - it will probably only take a letter from Dalglish's solicitor for Thursday's parting of erstwhile manager and club to follow an identical route.

Gullit, who has agreed a two-year contract with the option of an extra 12 months, was scrupulously anxious not to offend, refusing to compare the chalk-and-cheese styles of Newcastle under Keegan and Dalglish for fear of being perceived as critical of either.

He preferred to dwell on the route out of no-man's land rather than wonder how the club had got there. "The big disadvantage is that I don't have a chance of a pre-season," he said, echoing the concerns of supporters who have wondered why Dalglish left two games into a new campaign when a parting at the end of the old one would have been more appropriate.

"I have to watch all the boys and learn how they play and what is their best position. I prefer good, attractive football but I have to see what system suits the team best."

To assist in that he will let what remains of the coaching staff pick the team for tomorrow's home game against Liverpool, preferring to take an overview in the stand. All 29 professionals, he said, would be given a chance to impress him.

Would Gullit have money to spend on players? Shepherd, one of the disgraced directorial duo of last spring, was a lot more circumspect than he was when mocking the club's prize asset, Alan Shearer, and deriding supporters. "We will not let the opposition know what we have or haven't got," he said.

Yesterday Gullit was emphasising the positive. Would Newcastle seem small and parochial after his time in London and Milan? "People who do not like me might suggest that," he replied, a twinkle in his eye. "I hope you're not one."

Not a chance. On this occasion Gullit had his audience in his hands and even the female half of the St James' Park office staff had somehow managed to find time to be present at the press conference. They had not been there for Dalglish's ordination: "We didn't fancy Kenny," they said

The most devastating change was saved to last, however. "I hope we will be friends and have a successful time together," Gullit said to assembled members of the media. It is rumoured that last night several reporters hardened by 20 months of Dalglish were being treated for shock.

Football, pages 28-31