Gullit the deep thinker

Stan Hey assesses the likely impact of a master on the English game; while a fellow Frenchman heightens Newcastle's ambition and a Dutchman reinforces Chelsea's resolve
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The Independent Online
WITH his first touch of the game Ruud Gullit controls the ball in an instant. He is on the edge of his own penalty area. But he shimmies past a challenge, and two strides take him clear of any would-be tacklers. He looks up briefly, before booming the ball 70 yards cross-field straight to the feet of Mark Stein, who moves in on goal. The match is less than a minute old and already the sell-out crowd, which has been swarming around Plymouth Argyle's Home Park ground like wasps around a Devon cream tea, are getting a return on their money.

Chelsea's pre-season tour of the West Country may have been designed to mix hard training with leisure - the squad stayed at the St Mellion golf course - but once the news had spread of their acquisition of Gullit on a free transfer from Sampdoria the tour assumed the nature of a pilgrimage. Fathers brought their sons and daughters from miles around so that one day these children could say: "We saw Gullit play."

That reaction will be mirrored around the Premiership grounds of England this season, for Gullit, whose magnificent physique and twirling dreadlocks are dramatic enough prologues even before he touches a ball, is probably the most prestigious import to the English game since Osvaldo Ardiles arrived at Tottenham with his World Cup winner's medal.

Gullit has never reached that height, but his glittering baggage includes Holland's 1988 European Championship win, and his two European Cups and three Italian championships with Milan. But he will be 33 on 1 September, so we must wonder if this last glass of wine can still be savoured, or whether it has been spoiled by the bitter sediment of time. Moreover, with Jurgen Klinsmann proving to be no more than an incidental tourist, Gullit's arrival, on a two-year contract, asks questions not just about how he will play, but also whether he will stay.

First, that vignette from Chelsea's match at Plymouth 10 days ago was repeated several times, most notably when Gullit angled a 60-yard pass into Argyle's defence, leaving Mark Stein with nothing more than a touch to put the ball past the goalkeeper. Yes, it was only a team relegated to the Third Division last May, but Gullit also dwarfed his Chelsea colleagues with his touch, his passing and his movement. Against that, however, must be placed the role that his manager, Glenn Hoddle, and indeed Gullit himself, have settled upon.

Sitting just behind the central defenders Frank Sinclair and Erland Johnsen, Gullit is essentially replicating the position that Hoddle himself enjoyed during the games he played for Chelsea. At its best, it allows the team's best passer to transform defence into instant attack. At worst, it leaves a ball player trying to do the job of an experienced tackler.

After the Plymouth game, escaping the night heat in the cool, whitewashed corridor outside the dressing-rooms, Gullit looked a picture of serenity in his Chelsea leisurewear, and Italian designer running shoes, with laces fashionably undone. "My main priority before the start is fitness," he said, emphasising he has had a week's less training than his team-mates because of the bureaucracy of moving from Italy. With his subsequent appearances, culminating against Feyenoord in Rotterdam last night, Gullit has increased his playing time from 65 minutes at Plymouth to the full 90.

His last, downbeat season in Italy, when he was recalled by a penitent Milan for the first eight games, and then dumped back to Sampdoria now seems to be both mentally and physically behind him. So do Chelsea represent more than just the British Gas executive-style wage he is reported to be getting?

"The reason I came to Chelsea is that it is one of the English clubs managed by English players who have played abroad," Gullit explained passionately. "Glenn Hoddle, like Kevin Keegan, wants more than just kick-and-rush football. Because if you keep possession of the ball, you can dictate the game, and wait for the right moment to attack. Most of the Premiership teams play more on the ball now, which is one of the reasons the rest of Europe has become so positive about the English game."

In theory, Gullit's new position as sweeper-cum-playmaker should fit in perfectly, for deep in his cv is the detail that he played as a "libero" for his first professional club in Holland, Haarlem. Indeed Bobby Robson, then of Ipswich, almost signed the strapping 18-year-old. Now manager of Porto, he retains an undimmed admiration for Gullit after his team played Chelsea two weeks ago. "I think Ruud is a sensational buy. He's sheer class," Robson said. "He can pass from anywhere, and if he sticks to that free defender role he's a two to three-year investment."

Joe Jordan, once of Milan himself, but now managing Bristol City, had a close-up view of Gullit in a friendly last Sunday. "If you were a neutral, you'd just be overjoyed at the things he contributed to the game. He made a mockery of the idea that such a position is just defensive, because he can still destroy you with one pass, or bring the ball out himself." Gullit is more modest about his reincarnation. "As a forward for Milan, I had more moments when I could rest, but as a defender you are always on alert, moving sideways or backwards. I'll always be looking for the pass, or the break upfield, but my first priority is defence. I think I can say that I know how a striker will move or react," Gullit said with a wide grin of understatement.

With that he was off into the summer night with his new team-mates. There are journalists in Holland who say, brutally, that Gullit is finished; that he has only come to London to indulge his passion for Caribbean culture. They still speak of the bitterness created by his walk-out from the Dutch World Cup squad last year, after disagreeing with the coach over his role.

But the children who clamoured for his autograph, their parents who queued around the stadium, the swollen ranks of Chelsea season-ticket holders and the thousands of other fans excited by his arrival on our shores plainly want to believe that Gullit's immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.