Football: The departing hero - Aloof and ruthless, yet his appeal was m agnetic

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The Independent Online
WE KNEW it would have to end one day, so there can be no regrets about Ruud Gullit's leaving.

Two-and-a-half years was more than most of us expected him to stay when Glenn Hoddle pulled off the transfer coup of the decade by signing the dreadlocked one. There is not a football fan in the country, no matter his persuasion, who cannot say that he did not feel just a little bit more proud about the English game for Gullit's involvement in it.

Probably no other footballer in the world could have done more, by his mere presence, to lift the profile of the English game abroad. He was a godsend to the Premiership and doubtless their paymasters, Sky Television, too. If Hoddle, as a manager, never achieves another thing in the game, we will remain indebted to him for having had the ambition and the nerve to bring the great Dutchman to England.

It is a mark of Gullit's standing in the game that he should have become the first black manager in the Premiership without anyone ever commenting on the fact. Furthermore, that it should have been at a club where ten years earlier another black player - Paul Canoville - was hounded out because of racial abuse.

Yet, despite his apparent popularity with the public at large, Gullit had his detractors here, and for reasons that had nothing to do with racial prejudice. But, perhaps because the game comes so easy to him and he has not had to work at it like most people, he is not as passionate as some would like. "Look, there are a lot of other things in life," he once said. "When I am at home, I don't even think or talk about football. It's not my whole life. I like it, I like playing it. I do not like talking about it."

If he was not commenting on a match for television, Gullit rarely went to games. He left the scouting to other people. In fact, he had to be persuaded to go and watch even his own team's play, other than the First XI, of course. And yet, in other respects, he is the ultimate professional. When Chelsea won 6-1 at Tottenham recently, one might have expected someone as laid-back as Gullit to be putting his feet up in the dug-out. Not a bit of it. Even at 4-1, he was up on his feet cajoling his players, urging them on to greater heights and shaking his head with frustration when they failed him.

"If a game is boring on TV, I always turn over and watch a film instead, he said. "It's not that I'm disinterested, it's just that football has to be good. I see it as a fast-moving game of chess, in which I'm required to think two or three steps ahead. That's the fascination for me."

Players want to play for him like few other managers. His appeal is magnetic. While Hoddle succeeded in luring Gullit to England in the twilight of his career, it is doubtful whether even he would have sufficient cachet to attract some of Serie A's leading players like Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli ,and certainly not a player who had still to approach his peak like Roberto Di Matteo.

He is definitely one of life's winners, usually to the exclusion of qualities one might expect him to hold more dear. A fully paid-up member of the beautiful game he may be, but his experience with Milan, where he won European Cups and numerous domestic trophies, taught him that it is no compensation for failure.

Consequently, he could be ruthless in his determination to succeed. Probably no other manager in England could have got away with leaving out Vialli - so soon, too, after hoisting aloft the European Cup - as often as he has.

There have been stories that he is cold and aloof with his players. "As far as he is concerned," said his assistant, Graham Rix, recently, "he is treating them no differently from the way he was treated when he was a player in Milan at the top of his career and found himself left on the bench."

He encouraged his Chelsea players to express themselves and to think for themselves. While tactically he may have got it wrong in the first leg of the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Arsenal the other week - and got away with it - there have been plenty of occasions when he also got it right. Most memorably, perhaps, en route to last season's FA Cup victory, when in the fourth round against Liverpool his half-time tactical switch turned a 2-0 deficit into 4-2 victory.

Gullit has obviously enjoyed his English experience. In Italy he found it difficult to escape attention, even in a city as large as Milan. Privacy is respected even less there than it is here, and there has been minimal intrusion into his private life, including his relationship with Johan Cruyff's daughter. "It's because I lived my life so seriously over there," he has said, "that I now feel so free over here, living in London, going to gigs and the cinema and just having fun."

All good things, though, must come to an end some time.