On the Bridge with a master

Ian Ridley talks to Ruud Gullit's right-hand man about the Chelsea revolution
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The Independent Online
Ah, those were the days, when nostalgia wasn't so popular. The sighing for the Seventies that seems to go on now - those flying collars and wingers, silly sideburns and colourful characters who could all play - ignores the odd inconvenient reality. On the terraces it could be attritional, on the pitch brutal.

Few fixtures encompassed all of the above more so than Leeds v Chelsea. The cultures of Elland Road and the King's Road were more than the World's End apart. "They hated each other, kicked lumps out of each other, didn't they?" says Graham Rix, a Yorkshireman then, an Arsenal player and now Ruud Gullit's right-hand man at Stamford Bridge, as succinct summary.

Little, it seems, has changed. "Leeds will be steaming in, tackling for everything, the crowd will be booing Gianfranco Zola and Luca Vialli, calling us southern softies and all that," says the approachable Rix, now 39, by way of preview to today's encounter. Little except the positions and outlooks of the two clubs.

As the Seventies began, the Don Revie era was in its pain- inflicting pomp, though Chelsea prevailed after a replay in a spiteful FA Cup final between the two clubs in 1970, when Leeds finished second in the old First Division, Chelsea third. It was a prelude to the championship for one, in 1974; decline for the other, leading to relegation in '75.

Now it is Leeds who look at life from the drop zone as George Graham seeks to arrest a decline of their own last witnessed a decade ago, off the pace also in the overseas-player revolution which sees Chelsea in the vanguard. Graham - once memorably described as the hapless victim of Norwegian generosity - will surely have to overcome his scepticism of all but solid old Scandinavians if Leeds are to lift themselves into the modern era. Tomas Brolin, solid in one sense, seems exception in another. The nearly-fit Tony Yeboah cannot be single-handed saviour.

With their Italian trinity of Zola, Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo now assembled amid a host of non-English first team-squad players - 13 at the last count, with the full signing of the Norwegian goalkeeper Frodas Grode, and comprising eight nationalities - Chelsea seem also to have acquired something not usually associated with them.

Their 5-1 defeat at Anfield may have obscured it, but Chelsea's away form has been the basis of their recent ascent. Before this weekend's matches, their record of 12 points from seven matches was bettered only by Newcastle United and Liverpool. Quite an achievement for a team who used to leave their stomach for the contest at Staples Corner. A new steeliness in their make-up?

"There are two kinds of courage in football," says Rix. "There is putting your head or foot in and there is sticking to your principles, playing with the pressure, not getting carried away by the taunts of the public. The likes of Zola, Vialli and Franck Leboeuf have the character and belief in themselves that comes from having seen it all. They have a mental toughness that maybe this club has lacked at times."

It seems appropriate that Chelsea's training ground is sited next to Heathrow Airport. Here this crisp winter's morning Rix is working late with the juniors on one pitch while the current, and frequent, flyers warm down on the next after a training session he has laid on, Gullit becoming simply one of the players once it has begun. Are we not in danger of divorcing one from the other? "It's untrue and I think we have disproved it," says Rix. "Even with all the foreign players who have come in, we have had Jody Morris and Mark Nicholls, at 17 and 19, making their full debuts this season. By bringing in the best, we have set our standards high. Young lads are thinking `I've got to be a bit special to get in this team', and that's how it should be. We shouldn't settle for mediocrity.

"On the Tuesday after Zola signed, we were playing an eight-a-side possession game and his technique and the zip in his passing just took your breath away. The next day we did it again and all the home-grown players were trying things as well, to show him what they could do."

There have, of course, been casualties: John Spencer has gone, and Gavin Peacock (on loan) and Craig Burley may do so. But Rix cites Steve Clarke, 10 years with the club, as Chelsea's most consistent player of the season so far. "We've told him not just to kick it, that he's better than that. Most players are." Michael Duberry, he adds, is keeping out overseas defenders, having blossomed in the 3-5-2 regime of "keep the ball, pass it, show good imagination" established by Glenn Hoddle and skills work that goes down to under-12 level.

But is not the danger, at the other end, in being expensively saddled with fading, though talented, footballing tourists, especially in London, with no resale value? "All the boys have been selected carefully for their character and adaptability, on the field and off," says Rix. He himself believes that his experiences as an overseas player with Caen have helped in dealing with players, notably Leboeuf in speaking French, although "at work" English is the only tongue encouraged.

None has adapted better than Gullit, first as player, now as head coach. "It helped our relationship that he was injured for the first two months," says Rix. "I could pick his brains and know what he was thinking. We are on a similar wavelength, notice the same things in a game, and he trusts me. Sometimes Rudi needs calming down a bit. Now he is playing again, he is thinking as a player. That's great during the game but at half-time you have to be cool. He's not complicated. His team talks last two or three minutes." Ah, this erudite, in-depth foreign coaching. "His attitude is low-key: play with a smile on your face. He concentrates on what we do well rather than the opposition because he believes that we will give anybody a good game."

It has been true, with Manchester United beaten at Old Trafford, but Rix also accepts that a recent Chelsea problem has been the capacity for defeat by the lower orders, as Bolton illustrated in the Coca-Cola Cup. "We are trying to instill it into them that if you do not have the right mental approach in the Premiership, you can get beaten by anybody. It's as simple as that."

So how near are Chelsea to muscling in on the elite of the North? Rix points to some canny coaching at the pre-season Umbro tournament."As an experiment, Ruud had us man-for-man all over the pitch against Ajax and we slaughtered them. The players started believing how good they could be.

"Also, for me, the signing of Zola was interesting. Coming shortly after Matthew Harding's tragic death, it sent out a statement that we mean business. We are building a team, a club, a stadium to compete with the best. That was the legacy Matthew would have wanted."

With Chelsea, the view from the Bridge has these last 25 years always seemed to take in false dawns but certainly, as Gullit laughs and talks of music, the atmosphere in the training ground canteen (pasta, chicken, fresh veg on the menu, though the white bread rolls raise these eyebrows) is more buoyant than the dour days a decade ago. Then Elvis Costello sang "I don't want to go to Chelsea" for all football reporters.

Today, going to Elland Road and back will tell us a little more but, whisper it north of the King's Road, these could be days to pine for in the future; days of Graham rather than Brian Rix.

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