PL25: Death of a Ruud Boy (1999/00)

The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. On a stormy night in Tyneside in the 1999/00 season, a former World Footballer of the Year signed his suicide note at St James’ Park.

Life at Newcastle United during the ‘90s was never dull. From being on the brink of relegation to the third tier of English football in 1992, to a spectacular collapse in the title race in ’96 and the subsequent shock resignation of Kevin Keegan in ’97. After taking over as manager in the post-Keegan era, Kenny Dalglish had guided the team to another 2nd place finish, and the following season recorded a memorable victory over Barcelona in the Champions League. An FA Cup final appearance also followed, but having gutted the side crafted by Keegan with the sales of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola among others, and replaced them with veterans such as John Barnes and Ian Rush, as well as losing Alan Shearer for half of the 97/98 season, a disappointing league finish of 13th left King Kenny under pressure.

The start to the 98/99 season was no better, and after drawing at home to Premier League debutants Charlton Athletic and away at Chelsea, Dalglish was given his marching orders. Fed up with dour, defensive football the Newcastle board decided to appoint a manager that would bring a fresh approach to the team and herald the return of attacking, attractive, nay sexy football. That man was Ruud Gullit.

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In his one full season in charge at Stamford Bridge, Gullit had won the FA Cup and taken Chelsea to 6th place, their highest league finish since 89/90. The following season a disagreement with Chelsea owner Ken Bates over payments led to his sacking. He was replaced by Gianluca Vialli. In the match following his appointment at St James’ Park, Newcastle were soundly beaten 4-1 by Liverpool, Michael Owen scoring a first-half hat-trick. In that game, misfiring World Cup winner Stephane Guivarch scored his only goal in a Newcastle shirt but was quickly frozen out by Gullit. The Magpies’ form under Gullit was inconsistent to say the least; a 5-1 victory at Coventry and 4-3 win at Derby were highlights, though home hammerings at the hands of West Ham and Leeds exposed those famous defensive frailties. Another 13th place finish in the league was glossed over with another FA Cup final appearance, but again Newcastle were brushed aside by a superior team.

Heading into his first full season in charge, Gullit splashed the cash to bring some European flair to Newcastle’s backline, spending a combined £11m on Alain Goma, Elena Marcelino and Franck Dumas, while promising Ipswich Town midfielder Kieron Dyer was snapped up for £6m. More departures of the old guard followed as Stuart Pearce and Phillipe Albert both left the North-East, following the sales of Barnes, Keith Gillespie, Steve Watson and David Batty the previous season. The Dutch manager was keen to stamp his authority on the club, and when he awarded Dyer the #7 shirt at the start of the season, previously worn by fans favourite Rob Lee, the backlash was quickly forthcoming. Lee had been told in no uncertain terms that he didn’t feature in Gullit’s plans, and was left to train with the youth team. Other senior players, including Alan Shearer, Shay Given, and Duncan Ferguson didn’t support the decision, and a rift soon appeared in the dressing room.

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An opening day defeat to Aston Villa, which saw captain Shearer harshly dismissed for an elbow on Ian Taylor – a decision the Villa midfielder greeted with astonishment – set the tone for the opening month of the campaign. In their next game, Newcastle took the lead at White Hart Lane, only for Tottenham to score three times without reply. A televised trip to Southampton saw another collapse. Shearer’s first half penalty saw Newcastle lead at the break, but four goals in twenty second-half minutes, including an exquisite volley from Gullit’s former teammate Mark Hughes, condemned the Magpies to defeat. It looked as if a much needed win was headed Newcastle’s way in their next game as they led 2-0 then 3-1 at home to Wimbledon, only for a Gareth Ainsworth brace to peg them back at 3-3. The midweek visit of Sunderland took on even greater importance than usual.

Gullit, however, didn’t see what all the fuss was about. “I’ve played in big derbies, Milan, Amsterdam, London” was his response when asked about the importance of the fierce Tyne-Wear meeting. Tension between Gullit and Shearer had been bubbling under throughout the Dutchman’s reign, and despite the striker scoring 22 goals during Gullit’s time in charge, the manager didn’t feel Shearer was ‘at his best’. The storm clouds were gathering above St James’ Park, and on Wednesday 25th August 1999 the heavens opened.

Sunderland manager Peter Reid needn’t have bothered preparing a team talk ahead of the match. Ruud Gullit’s team selection did the job for him. With Rob Lee missing, academy product Jamie McClen stepped into midfield playing behind a front two of youth teammate Paul Robinson and Croatian Silvio Maric. Regular strike partnership Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer were named on the bench. In a game that was widely recognised as win-or-bust for the Newcastle manager, his two most effective forwards were dropped to make a statement. No-one was bigger than Newcastle United, unless that someone was Ruud Gullit.

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Naming a Sunderland supporting 20 year old to lead the line in their biggest match of the season ahead of Shearer was Gullit’s final arrogant roll of the dice. If Newcastle won, the necessity of ‘big-game players’ in a local derby could be dismissed as hokum – Shearer’s days in the North-East would be numbered, and Gullit would finally hold complete power over the dressing room. If they lost, his position would surely become untenable. The biblical downpour ahead of kick-off, which endured the entire 90 minutes, perfectly encapsulated the atmosphere at St James’. Whatever the result, a change was coming.

Sunderland had the best of the opening stages, but when Robinson slipped a through ball into the onrushing Dyer to chip over Thomas Sorensen it looks as though Gullit’s gamble might pay off. Newcastle went in at half time ahead, just as they had in their previous two games. In the second half Sunderland pushed for an equaliser, and Ferguson was sent on to replace Robinson. Another jab into Shearer’s ribs. The big Scotsman was as surprised as anyone: “It was adding insult to injury – it was really was a disgrace. I wasn`t even fit at the time and the manager knew it. It was obvious he was trying to make a point about Alan.” Sunderland promptly equalised. A Nicky Summerbee free-kick was glanced in by Niall Quinn, and the Magpies early season jitters took hold. Peter Reid smelt blood, and urged his side forward looking for a winner.

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Gullit had the same idea, and Shearer was finally sent on with 18 minutes remaining to try and earn Newcastle’s first win of the season. Two minutes after his introduction, Kevin Phillips found space in the home side’s area and looped the ball over the agonising reach of Tommy Wright. 2-1 to the visitors. Newcastle surged forward looking for an equaliser that wasn’t forthcoming. The defeat left them rock bottom, in serious trouble and with the dressing room in disarray. In the post-match interview Gullit defended his decision to leave the £23m strikeforce on the bench, noting that Sunderland only equalised after Ferguson’s introduction and the winner was scored with Shearer on the pitch. Needless to say, the Dutchman’s comments didn’t go down well with the benched pair. The captain arrived early the following morning for showdown talks with Gullit, only to find an incandescent Duncan Ferguson slamming the door to the manager’s office, having offered his considered thoughts on those post-match comments.

Immediately after the game coach John Carver went to speak to Gullit, and found him writing on a pad of paper. “What are you doing?” asked the Geordie. “You know what I’m doing” replied Gullit. On 28th August the Dutchman handed in his resignation to the Newcastle board, citing an ‘invasion of [his] private life’. In truth he had lost the trust of the dressing room, and the majority of fans had lost faith in him. His assistant, Steve Clarke, was installed as caretaker manager for one game. A 5-1 defeat at Old Trafford left Newcastle joint bottom with Sheffield Wednesday, with one point from their opening six games. Four days later, Bobby Robson was appointed as manager.

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Robson’s first game ended in a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea, but after his unveiling at St James Park, a stadium he had frequented as a boy, his side beat Sheffield Wednesday 8-0, with Alan Shearer scoring five. Rob Lee was restored to the first team squad, and Newcastle recovered from their dreadful start to finish 11th in the league, recording impressive victories against Manchester United and Arsenal along the way. A third Wembley appearance in three years ended in a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, with Lee scoring Newcastle’s equaliser. Robson went on to enjoy another four fruitful years on Tyneside, restoring the Magpies as Premier League title contenders and taking them into the Champions League in consecutive seasons at the start of the 21st century. Shearer completed ten seasons in the number 9 shirt, and broke Jackie Milburn’s all-time goals record for Newcastle, notching the final one of his 206 goals in black and white away at Sunderland.

Gullit took a break from management to work as a pundit, but returned to the dugout in 2004 to take charge of Feyenoord. After one underwhelming season he left De Kuip, having short spells at LA Galaxy and Terek Grozny. He is now assistant to Dick Advocaat as part of the Netherlands national team coaching set-up.  He still maintains he was right to drop Shearer for the Tyne-Wear derby, though the two have patched up their differences and are often seen sharing awkward banter on Match of the Day.

Manchester United ran away with the league in 99/00, losing only three games all season and wrapping the title up before the Romans had even realised Jesus was missing. An 18 point gap to second placed Arsenal in the final table demonstrated their utter dominance across the season. Unsurprisingly Sheffield Wednesday were relegated, along with newly promoted Watford and Wimbledon – the beginning of the end for the Crazy Gang, who were relocated to Milton Keynes within two years. Sunderland secured their best ever Premier League finish in 7th place, with Kevin Phillips winning the European Golden Boot after his 30 goal season. None of them will have been as bittersweet as the one that won the Tyne-Wear derby and simultaneously changed the fortunes of Newcastle United.

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