Lessons of great import

Gullit v Juninho: How players at Chelsea and Middlesbrough have caught the continental drift By Ian Ridley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE flood of imports to the English game this season flows on. Some come for the money, some may come for the challenge. Some may even come for the shopping. Above all that, today's principal pair at Stamford Bridge rank among the most valuable.

It is not just in 90 minutes once or twice a week that wise foreign acquisitions can enhance a team. Beyond any concerns about season-ticket and merchandising sales, the likes ofChelsea's Ruud Gullit and Middlesbrough's Juninho can bring much to a club through influence and example.

Gullit's has been immense. His is a relaxed presence, at 34 having achieved all there is in the game, save for a World Cup winners' medal with Holland, which might even have been his in different circumstances. It emerges in his openness as a rounded, secure character and his deportment both on and off the field.

"He is such a big personality," saidthe Chelsea striker Gavin Peacock. "Very influential in the dressing room. He speaks his mind, and is on the same wavelength as the rest of the players. He is always approachable. Because he is so fluent in languages, he can give and take all the banter. It really is a privilege to be around him."

But how exactly does he influence a team? "Players are always asking about his days at Milan," Peacock said. "And he will tell you how they did it there. He talks about diet and fitness and, as well as listening, you find yourself watching him in training to see how he makes space, which is one of the strong points of his game.

"You also pick up points about stretching and flexibility," Peacock added. "Sometimes at the beginning of training, Peter Shreeves [Chelsea's assistant manager] will say 'right, let's see how Ruud warms up' and we'll take it in." This correspondent remembers Gullit's Dutch pioneering an extended pre-match exercise routine, which began an hour before kick-off, at the European Championship in 1988.

"A lot of what he has he is naturally blessed with," Peacock explained, "which isn't to say he doesn't work hard. But it's like the gaffer, you can't quite put your finger on some of it. Ruud is very strong and quick, a magnificent athlete." Indeed, his supposed porcelain knees are standing up to the rigours of the Premiership. Though Chelsea's successful run of the last few months began with him injured, his presence has clearly permeated.

Managers frequently seek to send their own persona on the field, so is it fair to say that Gullit is Glenn Hoddle's? "That may be," Peacock said. "I guess when he retired as a player at the end of last season he wanted an influence on the pitch. They do have the same ideas, on the way the game should be played."

One recalls the pair's first encounter, Gullit's first game in London: as a 22-year-old, he was playing for Feyenoord against Tottenham in a Uefa Cup tie. After 45 minutes, Spurs led 4-0 on the back of a breathtaking performance from Hoddle. Gullit's respect for him had begun, so too Hoddle's awareness of an emerging talent whose career he would follow. Come to think of it, should Hoddle be lost to England, perhaps Chelsea have a ready-made replacement.

Juninho is at a different stage, at 22 still finding his twinkling feet in an alien environment. "I think we are about to see the best of him," the Middlesbrough assistant manager, Viv Anderson, said. "He's had three months in a hotel, still learning the language, but he's now getting settled in a house with his family."

According to Anderson he has still managed to have a considerable effect on the team, if only sporadically, quite apart from the message in his very signing that Middlesbrough intended to compete with the elite. "His skill does rub off on the other players," Anderson added. "Technically they can learn a lot from him."

Such as? "Well, his movement with the ball; his balance is excellent. As a defender myself, I notice that sometimes he pushes the ball ahead of himself and you think you can just nick it off him. But his feet are so quick and he has such good acceleration that you can be dumped on your backside and out of the game with him past you."

Like Jurgen Klinsmann, Gullit may have found the idea of a last clog dance in London attractive; Juninho attracted by the burgeoning prosperity of the Premiership. But while others arrive with mixed motives and probably fleeting contributions, their effect has been wealth well spent.(Graphic omitted)