Gullit gets out of Toon
On Sunday, Newcastle and Sunderland meet at St James' Park to contest the Tyne-Wear derby. Eleven years ago, the same stadium played host to one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the North East's premier match as Ruud Gullit dropped his captain Alan Shearer. It was a bewildering decision that exposed the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the club, and led to Gullit's departure from Newcastle after they were beaten 2-1 by their local rivals.
A tempest of Shakespearean proportions had enveloped Tyneside in time for kick-off on August 25, 1999. With the rain teeming down, the unfortunate soul playing the role of King Lear - exposed in the storm, the inner turmoil of his dressing room played out in the heavens - was Gullit. Despite Newcastle taking the lead, it was almost inevitable that the fates would conspire against him, and just like the best tragic heroes of the Shakespearean tradition, his was a downfall decidedly of his own making.
On that fateful night, Alan Shearer's name was not on the team-sheet pinned to the dressing-room wall. Nor was it on the team-sheet submitted to the referee. This was no administrative error; it was a show of power, and one that backfired spectacularly. Gullit had committed the cardinal sin of crossing a bona fide Geordie hero and within three days he had left his post.
Defeat to Sunderland represented the nadir of Gullit's Newcastle career, but his demise was a death of a thousand cuts, most of them invited by a flawed approach to man-management and an inability to engender respect or affection from his players. Although he did lead Newcastle to the FA Cup final in 1999, only to be beaten by Manchester United, discontent had already become an insidious presence in the dressing room in his first season at the club.
That much was demonstrated by the figure of Rob Lee. An England international and a veteran of seven seasons with Newcastle, Lee was a popular figure among supporters but after being dropped by Gullit and replaced as captain in December 1998, he had only one more conversation with the Dutchman. Lee was more effusive after Gullit's departure, memorably complaining that "Ruud's ego was as big as Amsterdam, and he didn't even try to disguise it".
In a moment of gross insensitivity, Gullit refused to give the midfielder a squad number for the start of the 1999-2000 season and Lee discovered that Kieron Dyer had inherited the No. 7 shirt from a press officer. "I'm stunned and I'm hurt," he said. "I won't be pushed out of this club." Lee would not play for Newcastle again under Gullit, and The Guardian's Michael Walker wrote that the manager's treatment of the player was "politically naive and smacked of pettiness." It certainly set the tone for what would follow in the early stages of his second season.
Stuart Pearce, who moved to West Ham on a free transfer, was another victim of Gullit's clumsy approach, while the perceived bullying of Paul Dalglish, son of previous manager Kenny, helped further foster an air of discontent among the playing staff. With his weekly trips back to Amsterdam, Gullit was hardly cutting a particularly content figure himself and his public criticism of his players was beginning to grate. It soon became apparent that he was also engaged in a tussle of egos with none other than Shearer.
An unhappy team could be tolerated if results were forthcoming, but Newcastle were in sharp decline. A 4-2 reversal at Southampton ensured the Magpies had suffered three consecutive defeats at the start of the season and when asked if he would consider resigning following defeat to the Saints, Gullit replied: "You never know."
After losing against Shearer's former club, the testy relationship the captain shared with his manager was dragged even further into the spotlight. Though Shearer, in public at least, was adamant "there is no grudge", experienced Newcastle Evening Chronicle journalist Alan Oliver saw the situation in a different light altogether. He wrote: "[Gullit] has got to bring Shearer into his little group. Newcastle is the biggest city in the country with just one football club. That club is big enough for both Shearer and Gullit. But if the manager cannot see that he may as well carry out his threat to quit."
But Oliver was wrong - the club was not big enough for the both of them. That much was demonstrated when, following a 3-3 draw at home to Wimbledon, Sunderland visited a restless and rain-soaked St James' Park for Newcastle's fifth game of the season.
Exiled to the bench was Shearer - the darling of Tyneside, the man who turned down Manchester United in order to represent the club he loved, the player who would later eclipse Jackie Milburn and become Newcastle's all-time record goalscorer. In a lovely piece of understatement, Sunderland manager Peter Reid said he was "pleased" to see the team-sheet.
Also named as a substitute was £7 million striker Duncan Ferguson, meaning Newcastle's attack was comprised of Silvio Maric - a Croatian who would leave the club after making 12 starts and scoring no goals - and Paul Robinson, whose greatest performances would come at Hartlepool where he scored seven times in 31 appearances in the 2003-04 season. If Gullit was seeking to make a very public point about who held the power in the Newcastle dressing room, he succeeded, but at some cost.
Though Newcastle took the lead when Robinson played in Kieron Dyer after 27 minutes, a bemused home support could only watch through their fingers, and the rain, as Sunderland battled back. Seven minutes before future Wearsiders chairman Niall Quinn equalised from a Nicky Summerbee free-kick, Robinson was replaced, though it was Ferguson who took his place and not Shearer. The captain was finally summoned from the bench in the final quarter of the game but shortly after his introduction, Kevin Phillips scored at the second attempt. Though Kevin Ball struck his own crossbar in injury time, Sunderland held on, and Newcastle had lost the 119th Tyne-Wear derby.
Gullit was unapologetic, and further widened the rift between himself and Shearer with his post-match analysis. "No one complained when we were 1-0 up," he said. "When we put him on in the second half we lost. What conclusion do you draw from that? You saw what happened when Shearer and Ferguson went on. That's when the game slipped away from us, so make of that what you will." That conspicuous bout of finger-pointing reportedly resulted in a subsequent training-ground confrontation with Shearer.
The striker would later admit: "I'd never been dropped in my career before that match so to find myself on the bench for such an important game was a big shock. There was a big possibility that I would have had to leave Newcastle had Ruud Gullit stayed as manager."
But that was never on the agenda. One week after receiving an approval rating of 83% in a local poll, Gullit suffered a slump of Richard Nixon-esque proportions, with 90% of Newcastle fans demanding his removal in the wake of the Sunderland defeat. Three days later, the Toon army had their wish as Gullit fell on his sword, having not so much lost the dressing room as thrown it away with all the care of a recalcitrant litterer.
Gullit's lengthy resignation statement pointed at poor results and, most notably, intrusion into his private life as reasons for his departure, but the only passage dealing with his playing staff was conciliatory, and gave no indication as to the deep-lying tensions that had undermined his efforts. He wrote: "I would like to thank the Newcastle players for their efforts and their professionalism and wish every individual a very fruitful career."
Revisiting his resignation in an interview with the News of the World in 2004, though, Gullit was more forthcoming. "The problem was that he [Shearer] had too much power," he said. "In the end, it became a battle I could never win. He was England's favourite, England's captain and he was playing for his hometown team. All of that meant he was bigger than the club itself. I told him to his face, 'You are the most overrated player I have ever seen', but he didn't reply. Maybe that's why they call him Mary Poppins, because he is so innocent, but I know how powerful and ruthless he can be."
In a battle of wills and egos, Gullit had been destroyed. The Guardian summed up the incident perfectly: "If the Labour party manifesto for the 1987 election was the longest suicide note in history, Ruud Gullit's was one of the shortest. 'Sub: Shearer,' it said."
What happened next? Gullit did not return to management until 2004, when he took charge of Feyenoord for a solitary season, and he subsequently had a spell as LA Galaxy head coach. Shearer, meanwhile, cemented his status as a Geordie icon, scoring a record 206 goals for the club prior to his retirement in 2006. Rob Lee was restored to the team by new manager Sir Bobby Robson and spent another two-and-a-half years at Newcastle.