Physical attraction for Gullit

Ian Ridley discovers Chelsea's new coach preaching a surprising gospel
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The Independent Online
ON the Sunday morning after the FA Cup final of 1995, Chelsea's top brass - the manager, Glenn Hoddle, the chairman, Ken Bates, and the managing director, Colin Hutchinson - met at the Marriott Hotel at Heathrow for a discussion on the way forward.

The need, they concluded, was to raise the profile of the club and recruit a better quality of player. Hoddle named Ruud Gullit and Paul Gascoigne and Hutchinson promptly travelled to Rome to talk to both. One agreed to come and today he begins phase two, post-Hoddle, of Chelsea's attempt to stretch themselves towards the elite.

Gullit takes Chelsea to Southampton today because Sky television have decided that this Che Guevara and his revolutionary band, which now includes Frank Leboeuf, Roberto di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli will provide colourful viewing. His job, though, is to show that this is no celebrity XI in keeping with Chelsea's history but rather a committed outfit capable of challenging, too, the club's history of under-achievement.

It may come as a surprise to Alan Hansen, Gullit's fellow BBC analyst at Euro 96 who was sometimes at odds with him in debates about realism and fantasy in the game, but the new player-coach has devoted much of the pre-season to the physical, having identified what he believes was a flaw in the team's mentality.

"Last year we lost at least 12 points through stupid late mistakes," he says. "I think in 17 games we were 1-0 up. So that means something was not functioning. I think I know why and I have tried to anticipate that and change. We can do more on our physical conditioning and I see now that the team can play better in certain phases of the game. The most important part is always the last 20 minutes. In that part we have to be more concentrated and we have to improve."

It also had much to do with Chelsea's inability to kill off a game, as familiar faults of fragility and nervousness surfaced once they were in the lead. Gullit believes his experiences in Milan may help. "In Italy, the idea was that if you went 1-0 up, you came back, you waited, you held," he says. "But we Dutch players said: 'No. Make the second. If it is 2- 0 then you can get the cigars out. Fight for the two then the game is over.' "

In taking over from Hoddle when he became the England coach, Gullit aimed to continue and develop the 3-5-2 strategy, his priority to strengthen the spine of the team. Hence the signing of international sweeper, central midfield player and striker. Leboeuf has pedigree and of all the exits from Italy that of di Matteo, a 26-year-old at his peak, has pained the nation most. The doubt is the durability of the 32-year-old Vialli.

Echoing the big noises from the north, Gullit plans to rotate his squad so that key players remain fresh for the biggest games. "I don't have 11 players, I have 20 and everyone can play," he says. "Now with the development of football you must be stronger, it is faster, demands more of you and you can't play in every game. The idea is that every position should be doubled."

It is a difficult concept to explain to the English player, whose pride lives or dies with the announcement of the starting line-up. Gavin Peacock and John Spencer, for example, are reported to be unhappy and seeking transfers.

Perhaps the Gullit charisma that secured the "name" transfers - and which was amply evident over lunch for the media last week as Chelsea seek to alter their attitude of surly suspicion - will talk them round. The players are apparently beginning to adapt to such edicts of the coach as being sensible on intake of sausages and the non-use of mobile phones on match days.

Optimism is high. Peace has broken out in the power struggle between Bates and his probable successor Matthew Harding - "at the moment" says Hutchinson - and the redevelopment of the South Stand to include a megastore to enable them to compete with the Premiership's top tier financially, rather than just relying on Harding's millions, is going ahead.

But it is summertime and the living is easy. Optimism has burst all too easily before at Stamford Bridge once autumn arrives; 26 years and counting since the last trophy, though Hoddle took them to the Cup final a year before his Heathrow summit. Gullit has lived with the demand - insistence indeed - for success at Milan, he says. After the raising of profile, comes for him the challenge of raising silverware for London.