Mid-table in the orange order

Ruud Gullit was an iconic figure during his time in England but Rutger Slagter reveals exactly what his fellow Dutchmen think of him

When Johan Cruyff went to Barcelona his name was better known worldwide than the name of his new club. When he left the recognition was about equal, according to Cruyff himself. The same could be said for Ruud Gullit and Chelsea. Manchester United and Liverpool have been household names in Holland for years. Some fanatics had known about Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Wimbledon. A couple of years ago I read somewhere that Glenn Hoddle was moving to Chelsea. I knew Hoddle.

Dutch pundits, who considered England part of football’s third world, were surprised when Gullit signed for Chelsea. Remember this was June 1995, a year before the European Championships, when the joke was on the Dutch.

Gullit wanted the chance to work on a new team, to build something from scratch. This is the usual excuse for Dutch players when Barcelona, AC Milan or Juventus are no longer interested in their services. The fans at home chuckled. They hadn’t yet forgotten that Gullit had abandoned the national side in 1994 just before the World Cup finals, having disagreed with manager Dick Advocaat over the team’s tactics. When Gullit played for AC Milan against Ajax Amsterdam a couple of months later in the Champions League he was treated with contempt by the Dutch crowd.

As always in football, success changes attitudes and the laughter quickly subsided, especially after Gullit took over from Hoddle as Chelsea’s player/manager. Bringing Chelsea their first silverware in over 25 years earned him respect as a manager on both sides of the North Sea. The fact that the first foreign manager ever to win the FA Cup was a Dutchman was an added bonus in Holland, although the Dutch are rarely modest about their own abilities (a ticker-tape parade for their World Cup winners is already planned).

That said, there wasn’t the same Gullit mania in Holland, where people have heard deep philosophical football thoughts for years, notably via Cruyff. In Holland Gullit is not God, although there are plans to marry into His family, thanks to his relationship with Estelle Cruyff. They appreciate him as one of the best Dutch players ever, just behind Cruyff and Marco Van Basten, but on the same level as Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard, and with the potential to become a really good manager.

That’s not enough to get worshipped in Holland, though Gullit’s laid-back, relaxed coolness is a nice touch, some might even say a relief, after watching Louis Van Gaal for a couple of years. Van Gaal, on the other hand, wouldn’t wear a disco shirt while working as a pundit next to Jimmy Hill.

Fashion statements aside, Gullit the manager proved to be a success, so the Dutch were stunned by the news of the coup at Chelsea. Even those diehards holding a grudge were offended: “He might be a phony, but he’s our phony.”

It is obvious that the money was just an excuse for the sacking, as Gullit said, “a stick to hit me with”. After such a successful period, Gullit could have raised his price. However, he asked for the same, expecting to get an offer. But winning the FA Cup and laying a claim to a place in the Champions League seems to have depreciated his value.

Although Gullit is still wondering what went wrong, he is looking to the future: “I had a great time at Chelsea. Because the ending was so sudden and strange it hurts, but I will move on.” Rumours about coaching the Dutch national side, PSV Eindhoven or Feyenoord, two of his former clubs, can be discounted, so Gullit can concentrate on getting his Dutch coaching diplomas. In one of the first classes after his sacking, he would have paid extra attention. The topic was ‘how to negotiate’.

From WSC 134 April 1998. What was happening this month