TO TAP the mood on Tyneside you only had to listen. On Saturday Newcastle's supporters had brayed defiance at St James' Park, chanting "Ruud Gullit" repeatedly, on Wednesday they just booed. In four days the Toon had turned turtle.
Gullit, the man brought in a year ago to recapture the aura of the Kevin Keegan years, had lost his public and, in all probability, his job. Yesterday they were not talking of if he will leave the club but when, and the smart money was on Tuesday after Bank Holiday Monday's anticipated humiliation against the European champions, Manchester United, at Old Trafford.
Or at least it would have been if bookmakers were prepared to accept bets on Gullit becoming the first Premiership manager to be sacked. To them it was a fait accomplis, their books had been closed and attention had moved on with Newcastle being quoted at 7-2 to be relegated and 300- 1 to win the Premiership title.
On Radio Newcastle 90 per cent of the callers were calling for Gullit's sacking, the headline in Newcastle's Evening Chronicle read: "It doesn't get any worse than this," and on the streets the message was equally bleak. "It's time for Gullit to go," one supporter said close to the ground. "He's spent pounds 35m," another added, "and we've just got worse." After one point from their last 15 and 12 league games without a win, no one had the conviction to argue.
The only words coming out of St James' Park yesterday were that he would be in charge at Old Trafford. After that? Newcastle will have a 12-day gap before they meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, which provides a window to sack and appoint a manager. That is, if the Newcastle directors still smarting from hiring and firing Kenny Dalglish a year ago have the will.
Rumours on Tyneside yesterday suggested Gullit will go next week and just the manner of his departure is in question. The St James' Park board, it is said, would like to sack the dreadlocked Dutchman but are holding back in the hope he will resign and they will not have to pay off the remainder of his lucrative contract. If that is so, they are likely to wait in vain.
Gullit's decision to drop Alan Shearer, the Tyneside idol who cost pounds 15m, for Wednesday's 2-1 defeat by Sunderland was not the gesture of a man on the brink of resignation but a call of defiance to either back the manager or desert him. Some called the team-sheet a suicide note, another interpretation would be that it laid bare the rift that has existed between the two largest personalities within the club.
First Rob Lee, Shearer's closest friend at the club, was denied even a squad number by Gullit, then the manager flexed his muscles by dropping a player who is supported on Tyneside with a vehemence that is matched only by the derision heaped upon him by opposition supporters.
There were no half measures in Gullit's snub of the England captain. Shearer learned he was not in the side when he read the team-sheet pinned to the dressing room wall and even when a substitute was required it was to pounds 7m Duncan Ferguson - who is said to be a Shearer ally - that the manager turned rather than the talisman whose name was being chanted from the stands. You do not get much bigger and more blatant rebuffs than that.
If Newcastle had beaten their bitterest rivals the manager would have been strengthened and the reported battle of wills between himself and his star player would have been won. Instead they lost to Sunderland and Shearer's position has been enhanced. One man has to go and, as the England captain was promised a management role when he signed a five-year contract recently, it will be Gullit who leaves.
On Wednesday Gullit was not cowed in the slightest in the aftermath of a wet and miserable night. "I will carry on to take Newcastle where they should be," he said, looking relaxed despite the reaction of the crowd. "I think I am still entitled to the job. I don't want to be in this position but, whatever we do, it doesn't happen for us.
"We've worked very hard and every time we think it's going to work for us, it falls apart. We have been 1-0 up in four games but we haven't been able to finish the job. I hope this run does not continue long because it is not good for me and not good for Newcastle United. Are you questioning my heart? I'm putting everything into the job."
Asked about his dropping of Shearer, Gullit merely pointed out that Newcastle were drawing 1-1 when Shearer was introduced as substitute. "Draw your own conclusions," he said.
The conclusion of Frank Gilmore, the chairman of the Newcastle United Independent Supporters Association, is that the next two matches will seal Gullit's fate. "Most newspapers were saying Sunderland was his do- or-die game," he said. "But I think something will definitely happen if, after the next two games, we only have one point.
"If we get nothing from these two games, then the alarm bells are going to sound and the board of directors are going to have to do something. You cannot let it go on too much longer because then you will have too big a job to get back into it.
"Up until last night, I would have said the fans were behind Gullit but the decision to leave out Alan Shearer was controversial. I have to ask: `Would we be worse off without Gullit?' Who is available to take over?"
Those questions were being asked all over Newcastle last night and the likely answer is that Shearer will become coach next week with the available former England coach Bobby Robson assuming the mentor's role as general manager. Either that or the current rancour will be allowed to fester.
Meanwhile, a club with claims of greatness but who have not won a championship since 1927 or the FA Cup since 1955 will continue to underachieve.
SHEARER V GULLIT: A GEORDIE GULF IN THE MAKING
29 July 1996: Alan Shearer joins from Blackburn for a world record fee of pounds 15m.
27 August 1998: Ruud Gullit appointed Newcastle manager.
13 September: With Aston Villa, Internazionale and Parma linked with Shearer, Gullit says: "He is very much part of my plans."
4 October: Following a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, Gullit says Newcastle are "pretending to be a big club", sparking reports that Shearer could be sold to pay for new players.
October 6: Shearer says "you can never say never" when asked if he might leave.
24 November: Following a 1-0 defeat at Everton, Gullit says: "It is important that the player wants to stay. If the player does not want to stay, for whatever reason, well..."
29 November: Shearer replies: "I couldn't understand why he said it and we had a chat... I said: `Look, this speculation has got to end'."
May 22: Newcastle lose FA Cup final to Manchester United.
July 19: Shearer signs contract extension until 2004. "What I am saying is I am here for the rest of my career and hopefully more than that as well," he says. "Management certainly interests me," he adds. Gullit says: "We're looking for a lot of goals from Alan."
August 7: Shearer is sent off on opening day of season during 1-0 loss to Aston Villa.
August 9: Newcastle lose 3-1 at Tottenham. "There was no commitment out there and I blame the players," Gullit says.
August 14: Before trip to Southampton, Gullit calls on his captain to pull the team out of the doldrums. "I have seen a lot of good thing this week, especially from Alan Shearer. I am hopeful he will be the one who gets us out of this situation." After 4-2 defeat, Gullit is asked if he might consider quitting. Gullit says: "I will have to think about it."
August 16: Gullit announces he will stay. Shearer does not offer his backing, saying the club has asked players not to comment.
August 17: Gullit says he would walk away if the pressures affected his family too much. On more rumours of a split with Shearer and his players, he describes the aftermath of the defeat at Southampton. "There were no phone calls and no accusations - just an open discussion."
August 21: Shearer is suspended for the 3-3 draw with Wimbledon. Gullit blames defensive lapses.
August 24: On the eve of the Sunderland derby, Shearer says: "My relationship with the manager is strictly professional, but as far as I'm concerned, there's not a problem." Gullit responds: "It's time that he said something. He's the captain, that's one of his jobs."
August 25: Shearer is left on the bench for the 2-1 defeat to Sunderland.
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