Even now, six months into his Chelsea career, you still perform a double- take as Ruud Gullit approaches. Maybe it was because our meeting was on the back of Chelsea's best display of the season, in which they dumped Newcastle United out of the FA Cup thanks, largely, to an inspired performance from you-know-who, but his happy demeanour is such that he would make the Cheshire Cat look depressed.
It is hard to believe, really. With great respect to the perennial sleeping giants of West London, if you had predicted three years ago that the former Dutch captain would play for an English side, you would have put money on Manchester United, Liverpool, or Arsenal.
But to leave Italy for a two-year contract at Chelsea? "I let my heart speak for once," he says, grinning and understanding how odd, at least in theory, his decision sounds. "The first impression is usually right, and my first impression of Chelsea was very sharp. I needed a new challenge.
"I loved many aspects of playing in Italy, and could have stayed for another couple of years, but you have to know when enough is enough. I'd won everything playing for Milan and Sampdoria, but I needed to go.
"That's why my motives for playing in the Premiership for Chelsea are probably different from, say, Dennis Bergkamp or David Ginola. My concern is not to win a whole lot of cups, but just to do something different and face a new challenge."
Yes, but why Chelsea? "Well, it was Glenn Hoddle," he explains, opening up a package to reveal a pile of reggae CDs sent to him by a record company. "He's my type of player. In Holland we couldn't believe how little England played Hoddle. If he'd been Dutch, or Italian, or French, he would have won a hundred caps. From the start I knew Glenn's intention, otherwise I wouldn't be here now. 'This is the way we're going to play,' he said, and that was the challenge."
Did he know anything about Chelsea? "I'd heard of two players, but knew absolutely nothing about the club." You mean to say you don't know the words to "Blue is the Colour", Ruud? Gullit gives a quizzical look at such double Dutch. But I thought you chaps know everything about the English game?
"That's normally true, but not me," he replies, lifting his hands in a semi-apology. "I never supported a team as a kid, not even in Holland. I never collected autographs, or had posters on my walls. For me it was the beautiful game itself. If a game is boring on TV, I always turn over and watch a film instead. 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."
Of course, others suggested different reasons when his surprise move was first announced. One of the most popular theories suggested that the 33-year-old was injury-prone and a shadow of the man who, arguably, in the late 1980s, was the most gifted footballer in the world. Chelsea were merely providing a lucrative field in which to graze in the twilight of his career.
"First you need to ask yourself if you can still do something," he answers. "The truth is that I left Italy as still a good player. If I didn't think I could meet the challenge I wouldn't have done it. It was the same when I left Milan for Sampdoria. They all said I had knees of crystal and couldn't play two games in a week. Then I had a great season with Sampdoria, we won the Italian Cup, and everyone said: 'What's happening, how can this be?' I feel so fit and good right now, which is why I must take advantage of my situation."
What, then, were his first impressions of Chelsea? "Well, I have to admit, when I saw Stamford Bridge for the first time, it was before the start of the season, and the place was in a mess. I did begin to wonder, but as soon as I played there I knew everything would be OK."
And off the pitch? "It was a bit like the first round of a boxing match at first. I could see that the players were all sizing me up and seeing what I was like. But as soon as they realized that I was one of them they were OK. I don't go on about my career, but when they ask me about Milan, as they quite often do, I explain the Milan way of doing things."
Six months on and Chelsea, led by the Hoddle and Gullit way, are fast becoming an attractive force in the Premiership. The game knows it, the crowd sees it, but, most important of all, the team realises it. This, for Gullit, is as satisfying as anything else he has achieved in his career. "We are getting better all the time and I'm enjoying seeing it happen.
"Every day I'm very happy to be a Chelsea player because I'm having fun. The foundation's now being laid. Success will definitely follow, but it will still take some time yet. For me, winning something is always the dessert. The creation of this is the main course.
"You can see on the faces of the Chelsea players that they are doing something now that gives them so much pleasure. They know they're better now than a few months ago, and they understand that there is much more to the game than just kicking the ball into the box and hoping that somebody might score."
Is that how Gullit judges the English game, then? "Not any more, no. England is learning. It used to be so different to Holland. Here the youngsters seem to be taught about the physical side, but in Holland they only focus on the technical aspects of the game.
"Rule one for the youth coach is never to win cups, but to simply get the youngsters into the first team. He has to make them better players and if an individual is good enough to play for the senior team ahead of the rest he will stay in the youth team so that the others will learn from him. At Chelsea, too, the youngsters are now concentrating on technique and skill, and you can see how much they are enjoying themselves as a result."
But what about the Premiership? After all, Gullit was widely reported to have said to an Italian journalist that he thought there were only three decent players in the whole League.
"No, that's not true," he insists. "I never said that. Neither did I say, by the way, that I wanted to become a manager of an English league club. I have no idea what I will do because I'm enjoying myself too much at the moment to think about it. Actually, I think there are many skilful English players." Such as? Gullit laughs. "I'm not going to say who because I'll get into more trouble if I leave anyone out."
With perfect timing Dennis Wise appears with some match-day tickets for his Dutch colleague, and can't resist a dig. "Talking more bollocks, are we Ruud?" he asks, displaying an impressive range of vocabulary. "We're all shit and Ruud Gullit's the greatest."
Do you get on well with your new teammates, then, Ruud? Gullit laughs again. "They all know me well enough by now to understand these things," he answers. "No player has ever asked me if I said it, or why. Instead they just poke fun at me. But I enjoy their company. I play a lot of golf with them and I sometimes go out to the pub with them. It all provides the freedom I get out of playing my football in England.
"It's so different to Italy. If you are playing on a Saturday, after a Wednesday game you go home and prepare for the weekend. Here, you go out for a few drinks. You can't do it in Italy. You have to be professional, go home, sleep and focus on the next game. The Italians wouldn't believe the players here on the day of a game, talking about tickets and using their mobile phones.
"It's because I lived my life so seriously over there that I now feel so free over here, playing for Chelsea, living in London, going to gigs and the cinema and just having fun."
Just about the only hiccup, so far, in Gullit's adventure at Chelsea were the accusations, mainly from one Vinnie Jones, that he dived in order to get the Wimbledon player dismissed. Gullit gives his side of the story.
"If someone wants to hit you in the face, and you see it coming, what do you do? You try and avoid it, don't you? It's the same in a game. When someone's coming at you with both feet, you have to go up in order to avoid the tackle. If you don't he'll break your legs.
"Even when you jump, they still hit you, but it's not so bad. I said to him: 'If I stay on my feet what do you think will happen? You'd break my leg. Would you be happy then? I don't want you to get the red card, but I don't want a broken leg either.'
"He accused me of diving when he didn't even hit me. But his attitude was wrong, so you have to punish this attitude." Apart from that, then, it all seems to have gone exceedingly well for Gullit. He likes the football, and he likes the life.
In which case, I wonder, does he wish he had come to England eight years ago, rather than joining that tin-pot outfit from Milan? Gullit gestures dramatically with his arm. "You can't say that, you know," he replies. "What happened happened.''
Then he leans forward in order to share a secret. "Let me put it another way. In Holland, we have a saying: 'If your grandma had a penis, then she would be your grandpa"."
First we had Eric Cantona's seagulls and sardines, and now we have this slightly less cryptic offering from Gullit. He's been smiling for the past hour, but now Gullit's roaring with laughter as he ambles off, clutching his CDs by his side.Reuse content