You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
(“The Gambler” – Kenny Rogers)
The Olympiastadion, Munich, 25 June 1988. Holland are facing the Soviet Union in the final of the 1988 European Championship. Just over half an hour has elapsed and the game remains scoreless. On the sidelines, managerial greats Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovskyi watch on pensively from the sidelines. A Dutch corner is cleared away at the near post but then swung back towards the far post where it is headed across the area. The Dutch number 10 is unmarked and bullets a header past Russian keeper Dasayev – a header that feels more like a shot with the power generated. Wheeling away in joy, dreadlocks flowing in the air, the Dutch captain rushes away to celebrate with his teammates.
Holland are on their way to finally winning a major tournament final after the successive heartbreaks of the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals. A second goal for the Dutch becomes one of the greatest tournament final goals of all-time as Marco van Basten volleys in from a near-impossible angle, causing Rinus Michels, who has seen it all, to hold his head in disbelief. Holland are champions and the Dutch captain, scorer of that all-important opening goal, lifts the European Championship trophy and writes himself into footballing folklore.
Wembley Stadium, London, 26 June 1996. England are facing Germany in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship. A nation is whipped into a frenzy as kick-off commences, fueled by the chance of getting to a first major final since 1966 in front of its own fans, and backed by rousing renditions of “Football’s Coming Home”. As people settle into their seats around the country, opening beers and snacks, England win an early corner. Paul Gascoigne, resplendent with bleached hair, whips it to the near post where it is nodded on by Tony Adams before being headed in by England’s number 9. It is the England striker’s fifth goal in five games and is celebrated with his trademark single-arm salute.
Unfortunately, unlike Holland, England are not on their way to a European Championship trophy. An equalizer from Kuntz just over ten minutes later sees the game go to penalties where, despite England’s number 9 again scoring the first, a miss from Gareth Southgate sees English dreams in tatters.
Ruud Gullit and Alan Shearer – two of the best players of their respective eras.
Following on from June 1988, Ruud Gullit’s career reaches great heights. Having joined AC Milan the year before, along with Marco Van Basten, he is joined by the third Dutchman of the great trio Frank Rijkaard post the Euros. Together they help to power AC Milan to European supremacy with European Cup success in both 1989 and 1990. The first final sees them overpower Steaua Bucharest 4-0 with Gullit grabbing two of the goals. A later move to Sampdoria was followed by a trip to the Premiership in July 1995, as Gullit went on a free transfer to London and Chelsea under Glenn Hoddle as part of the “foreign revolution” along with the likes of Gianfranco Zola.
While Gullit was settling into life in London’s West End in the dog days of 1995, England manager Terry Venables was being informed by the English FA that he would not be granted a contract extension ahead of Euro 96, with them instead wanting to see how England did before committing. As Gullit strode around Chelsea’s midfield, talks commenced at Stamford Bridge resulting in Glenn Hoddle being publically announced as Venable’s successor. So going into Euro 96, Gullit was playing for Chelsea, Shearer was playing for Blackburn and Chelsea were looking for a new manager. Time for change all around.
Firstly, Chelsea solved their managerial vacancy by appointing Ruud Gullit as player-manager. Then, despite contact from both Manchester United and Real Madrid, Newcastle shocked the footballing world by announcing the world-record signing of Alan Shearer from Blackburn for £15M. Shearer was returning to his hometown club to lead the line under Kevin Keegan. The 1996/97 season saw Shearer score 25 goals, making him the Premiership’s leading goalscorer and pushing Newcastle to second place, behind only Manchester United. It also saw Gullit lead Chelsea to an FA Cup Final victory, 2-0 over Middlesbrough, and sixth place. The FA Cup win made Gullit the first non-British manager to win a major British trophy and gave Chelsea its first trophy for 26 years. Both Shearer and Gullit were making significant waves.
The 1997/98 season proved frustrating for Shearer, as an ankle ligament injury sustained pre-season saw him limited to just 17 games and two goals – an absence that was reflected in Newcastle finishing 13th. Shearer did however play a part in an FA Cup run, scoring the only goal in the semi-final against Sheffield United before a final loss to Arsenal.
However, the much bigger news was erupting down south in London that season. With Chelsea sitting second in the table and in the semi-finals of the League Cup and in the last eight of the Cup Winner’s Cup, the shock news came from Stamford Bridge that Gullit was sacked, to be replaced by his own player – Gianluca Vialli.
When Gullit had taken the Chelsea job, his first signing had been Vialli on a free transfer from Juventus. Yet he had often left Vialli on the bench behind starters Mark Hughes and Gianfranco Zola. In Chelsea’s FA Cup final victory, Gullit brought Vialli on for the last two minutes only, which felt to many like a sign of his swansong with the Blues. As the next season played out, Vialli continued to be rotated in and out. In the background, Chelsea were talking with Gullit about his managerial renewal. Suddenly an agent with a close connection to Chelsea management let Vialli know that “Chelsea are wondering, if they don’t renew, whether next season you’d like to be a player-manager.” The next day saw the astonishing news that Gullit was sacked, with a hastily arranged press conference touting Gullit’s high wage demands as the catalyst. The news reportedly reached Gullit through that ancient medium of Teletext. Chelsea owner Ken Bates stuck the final knife in with the comment “I didn’t like his arrogance – in fact, I never liked him”. Ouch.
The 1998/99 season kicked off on August 15 and saw Newcastle held to a 0-0 draw at home by newly-promoted Charlton. The following week saw Newcastle travel to London and earn a 1-1 draw at Chelsea but then they were hammered 4-1 at St James’ Park by Liverpool. Five days later saw the surprise news that Kenny Dalglish was no longer Newcastle manager, just three games in. Rumours whirled as the club said that Dalglish had resigned while he insisted that he had been fired. Unfortunately for Dalglish, his time had seen him follow the hugely popular Keegan and his swashbuckling brand of attacking football. Dalglish’s approach to games was more pragmatic, resulting in the 13th place finish, and he had also started to rebuild the team, moving on fan favourites such as Ginola, Ferdinand and Beardsley. Cult hero Asprilla found himself relegated to the bench. It was all too much for chairman Freddy Shepherd, who called time on Dalglish’s 18-month tenure.
So two games into the season and Newcastle were in need of a new manager. A secret trip by Newcastle hierarchy took them to Amsterdam for talks with none other than Ruud Gullit. A Stock Exchange announcement followed confirming Ruud Gullit in charge and immediately rumours swirled about the relationship between Gullit and Shearer – Gullit was said not to like Shearer and fans were afraid of a Shearer exit. But on the positive side, given Dalglish’s dour time in charge, there was excitement about Newcastle possibly returning to “sexy football” as Chelsea had been described under Gullit. The jury was out – but Gullit was in.
Initially, Gullit got Newcastle back to winning ways. While losing his first match in charge to leave Newcastle with just two points from 4 games, Newcastle then went on a run of four wins out of five. But the momentum could not be sustained and the Magpies settled into a season of mediocrity, eventually finishing 13th for a second season running. Elsewhere, Newcastle went into the Cup Winner’s Cup on the back of Arsenal taking a Champions League spot, but were eliminated in the first round by Partizan Belgrade. Their League Cup campaign was equally unsuccessful, with elimination in their second game by Blackburn Rovers. It was the FA Cup where again Newcastle enjoyed another successful run to the final, before again ending up on the losing side, this time 2-0 to Manchester United.
Meanwhile, all was not calm behind the scenes. Gullit made moves in the transfer market, including buying Spanish defender Marcelino from Mallorca for £5.8M which saw him make only 20 appearances in a year and a half before being placed in the reserve team and finally leaving in 2003, having not been in the main squad for two years. Gullit also brought in striker Silvio Maric from Dinamo Zagreb for another £5.8M, who ended up making 23 Premier League appearances and never scoring before being moved on to Porto. Supporters were further infuriated by Gullit falling out with several senior players – most notably club captain Rob Lee, a club staple for the previous seven seasons. An England international, Lee was dropped from the first XI, stripped of the captaincy, refused a shirt number and even made to train alone.
Rob Lee has since spoken of his time under Gullit. In an interview with The Guardian in 2000, he discussed how he was not one of Gullit’s “Lovely Boys”. He felt that Gullit resented being disagreed with and that Lee, as captain, had an obligation to put forward squad viewpoints even if they conflicted with Gullit’s views. He began to freeze Lee out and didn’t want him being near the rest of the squad.
Unfortunately for Gullit, he miscalculated the support for Lee within the Toon Army. Metro FM, the local radio station, ensured that listeners were constantly reminded of Lee’s treatment as did the local press. Lee’s seven years of service counted for a lot to them and they were appalled at his plight. Those close to the situation felt that Gullit did not really understand Newcastle as a club and community, and that he had the ego of a past great player that made him feel like he was invincible.
The conflict did not only apply to Rob Lee. Gullit was joining a team containing a legend in the making in Alan Shearer. Newcastle is a one-team town and their supporters take huge pride in local lads made good, be it Paul Gascoigne, Chis Waddle or Shearer himself. Raised in the Gosforth area of Newcastle, Shearer was Newcastle through and through. Since making his debut for Southampton in 1987, he went into the 1998/99 season having scored 208 goals in 392 games, as well as his heroics for England. He was the number one man at Newcastle and everyone knew and respected that. Gullit was not used to being the supporting actor during his playing and managing career.
And so began the fateful 1999/00 season. And what a woeful start it was for the Magpies. The first three games saw losses to Aston Villa, Tottenham and Southampton, conceding 8 goals in the process. Things started to look better in the fourth game as Newcastle took a 3-1 home lead over Wimbledon, only for them to let in two late goals, including a 90th-minute equaliser, to leave them with one point from four games and second bottom of the table. All eyes, therefore, turned to Newcastle’s next game – at home on a Wednesday night against fierce local rivals Sunderland – the Tyne-Wear Derby. The one game that matters to Newcastle fans more than any.
The opening game of the season had seen frustration get the better of Shearer, resulting in a red card for a 71st-minute challenge. That had meant he missed the Southampton game through suspension, but was available again for the derby to the relief of the Geordie Nation. A light training session on Tuesday saw Gullit’s assistant coach, Steve Clarke, wander over to Shearer. To the shock of the assembled squad, he handed Shearer a bib for the session, signifying he was not one of the starters for the next day’s match. To his credit, Shearer took the bib without any reaction.
Harry De Cosemo’s excellent book about Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle, Sliding Doors, takes up the narrative. As the squad questioned Gullit on his decision and why Clarke was delivering the news, he replied “Nobody told me I wouldn’t be starting games”.
In effect, Gullit had decided to gamble his future on a power struggle with local hero Shearer. The heat was on all at the club following their poor start – but on Gullit more than any. In effect, he was showing that he was in full command still and that the poor start was due more to the players, including Shearer. He would show the world that no one had a god-given right to start each week under him – he called the shots. Gullit was going all-in on a wet Wednesday night in the North East.
If dropping Shearer to the bench wasn’t enough of a gamble with the emotions of all Geordies, Gullit then compounded the pressure on himself in the pre-match press conference by stating “This is not different to any other derby, it’s all the same. This is a derby of the region, not the city. In the city, it is even worse, because everyone lives in the same city.” To claim to Newcastle fans that a game against Sunderland was nothing special showed an immense lack of understanding of the rivalry. And to finish off the gamble, he replaced Shearer with a 20-year-old striker signed the year before from Darlington, Paul Robinson, a Sunderland ticket holder as a boy and making only his second start ever in the Premiership. Talk about putting pressure on yourself!
August in Newcastle – technically a summer’s evening but the night of the derby saw driving rainfall onto St James’ Park as 36,000 packed the stadium. Shearer warmed up alongside fellow bench-mate Duncan Ferguson – both showing no outward emotions. Apparently, even Sunderland boss Peter Reid was taken aback by Gullit’s starting eleven. BBC cameras couldn’t help focusing on Shearer even as the kick-off commenced, with John Motson saying “Well, Ruud Gullit said it was a night for big hearts. I would think his heart might be pumping with somewhat of a gamble in his choice of team”. Game on.
As expected, the game exploded at a furious pace. Sunderland started on the front foot and an early cross saw big Niall Quinn collide with the Newcastle keeper. As the keeper received attention, a chant of “Shearer, Shearer” started to boom around the stadium. The coverage showed the crowd making angry gestures towards the Newcastle bench as Shearer came out to warm up, reminding them of what they were missing. But just a minute later, young Robinson slipped a ball through for Kieron Dyer, who shot Newcastle into the lead. As the players celebrated, the camera turned to the Newcastle bench where Gullit stood impassively. “Oh there’ll be relieved there” added Motson.
And so half-time saw Newcastle go in one goal up, but fans remained nervous given that they had lost leads already this season. The second half saw no abatement of the torrential downpour and after some sparring, Robinson was replaced by – no not Shearer – but big Duncan Ferguson. Straight away Sunderland earned a free-kick out wide – the ball was swung in and there was Quinn with a glancing header to equalise. For the fourth match running, Newcastle had surrendered a lead. Immediately the chant of “Shearer, Shearer” rung around St James’.
Then finally, with about 20 minutes left, a huge roar boomed out as Shearer stripped off and came on for Maric. By now, any passes along the ground were spraying up plumes of water and stopping short of targets. Five minutes later, Shearer was dispossessed near the halfway line and a cross to Kevin Phillips put him through against the keeper, who made himself big to stop the shot, only for Phillips to gather the rebound and chip it into the corner. Newcastle were behind.
As the camera panned to Gullit standing in the rain, the co-commentator added “well, some people said when they saw the starting line-up of the side at the beginning of the game that it wasn’t so much a team selection as a suicide note. Only time will tell that”. Ouch!!
Newcastle tried to get back into the game but to no avail and the final whistle saw those soaking wet fans who had stayed to the end boo off the Magpies. Gullit had replaced a club legend with an inexperienced 20-year-old in the battle for local bragging rights – and it had backfired disastrously – also leaving Newcastle with just one point from the opening five games. His fate seem decided and so there were two options open to him – admit his mistake or go down swinging. Ruud decided upon the latter course of action.
Facing the immediate post-match questioning, former player Garth Crooks put it to Gullit that it appeared that tonight his gamble had not paid off. With no hesitation, Gullit fired back:
“No, I didn’t gamble, because it paid off and when the two came on then we get some goals against so it was going all well, it is not a gamble, it is just what you see. We were one-nil up.”
“You left Shearer and Duncan Ferguson out of the side, something like £24M on the bench, what was the consideration behind that?”
“I think Robinson did very well in the last game and we also did well, we were one-nil up, everything was okay and then in the second half we conceded a goal again from a free-kick, standard situation, and then you have to go back to your basics again, I tried to do that. And then they scored another one.”
“Are you considering your future here Ruud?”
“I’m always considering my future everywhere I go, I am”
“You’re a high profile figure, speculation will always follow you, but there is no suggestion you might change your mind and walk away from Newcastle United?”
“I feel that I am still the coach of Newcastle and that’s the most important thing”
Next up was Sunderland manager Peter Reid who didn’t exactly help Gullit when asked about his reaction to seeing Shearer missing from the pre-match team sheet:
“Obviously their manager, he picks the team, but I must say hand on heart I was pleased that Shearer didn’t start”.
According to Shearer, when he saw the post-match interview he stormed into Gullit’s office the next morning, only to find Duncan Ferguson already there “taking strips of paint off the wall”. And by Saturday, it was all over. Gullit officially resigned as Newcastle boss, blaming media scrutiny into his family rather than a run of 12 games without a win.
Newcastle next turned to ex-England manager Sir Bobby Robson – a Geordie worshipped by the locals – who immediately reinstated Shearer and brought Rob Lee back in from the cold. Form steadily improved as the season progressed, with Newcastle eventually finishing a respectable 11th and reaching a FA Cup semi-final. As for Gullit, Newcastle proved to be his last high profile managerial post. He briefly took over at Feyenoord in 2004 but didn’t last the whole season before being dismissed and then later had a troublesome season in charge of the LA Galaxy. He did enjoy success, however, as a media pundit for various outlets over the years, often using his trademark “sexy football” analogy.
The final lesson of this whole episode – managers and players often enjoy hero status – and with that often comes egos. They are used to getting their own way and it is inevitable that every now and then two egos are going to clash. But as the saying goes – you should be careful about picking your battles. In dropping Shearer for a Tyne-Wear Derby, Gullit may not have realised that he was literally risking his future – or maybe he did and he just didn’t care anymore. He wanted to make a statement and show that no one is bigger than the club. And make a statement he certainly did.
On that rainy night in the North East, Ruud Gullit went all in. Maybe folding might have been the better tactic in hindsight but that wouldn’t have been his style. Two egos entered the game, only one was left four days later. Never underestimate the love for a local hero and the importance of a local derby.