Six hours into a marathon of live football and the strain on the sofa is starting to show. The savaged remains of barbecued chicken are piled high, half-eaten noodles congeal in a takeaway tub, chocolate wrappers litter the coffee table, crisp packets the floor. Parked on several yards of faux leather upholstery, with feet up and heads disappearing into cushion crevasses, are three of the most expensive backsides the English game has ever seen. No point in asking these gentlemen to tidy up. They are – can’t you tell? – working.
“What a save!” roars Gary Lineker – for this isn’t any old bunch of overgrown schoolboys, it’s Match of the Day’s finest, hard at it in BBC Sport’s spanking new Salford HQ. He adjusts a thick-rimmed pair of Eric Morecambe specs (who knew?) and settles back next to a recumbent Alan Shearer. And who is that, texting like a teenager at the end? Only the former European Championship winner, double European Cup winner with AC Milan (below), once the world’s most expensive footballer and twice voted world player of the year, Ruud Gullit.
To be fair, it has been a long day. They have watched every minute of every Premier League game in preparation for Match of the Day. Lineker may be used to the 400-mile round trip from his Surrey home and Shearer the commute from his native North East, but hats off to Gullit for clocking up the air miles. The former Chelsea star has arrived via the lunchtime flight from Amsterdam. Once all the BBC had to do was persuade Alan Hansen to get in a cab from Southport. Now they have to call upon a flying Dutchman.
It’s a long way to come for a spot of punditry. A flying visit? “In and out, yes. That’s what I do. I go tomorrow morning.” How is he enjoying Manchester? “That’s a little bit of a downside,” he admits with refreshing frankness. “If you come here it’s only work, which is a pity. I live in Amsterdam, but I still have a lot of friends in London. When the BBC did it in London, I was always visiting my friends. The first time I did it with…you know, the guy with the chin?” Jimmy Hill?
“Yes, with Jimmy Hill. And with the famous… what’s his name again?” You mean Des Lynam, pipes up his BBC minder. “Yes. I was still playing. I did the European Championships in 1996. I was there when Gary did his first show. He was so nervous! It was a long time ago.”
Gullit doesn’t appear to have aged in the interim, give or take a slight stiffness in his walk and a crop instead of the dreadlocks. But it was a lifetime ago when he first revealed his natural ability to coin a phrase, rhapsodising about “sexy football”. Where did that come from?
“Oh no,” he groans. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life! I used it to describe Portugal. I loved it when I saw them play. It was with a bit of vavavava, like va-va-voom!” Va-va-voom may be thin on the ground on Sunday when Gullit makes his FA Cup debut for the BBC, as Arsenal play Hull in the third round.
It reminds him of his finest hour in English football, with Chelsea in 1997, when he became the first foreign manager to lift the trophy (right). Since then, much has changed – only two British managers, Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp, have won the FA Cup.
In many ways what Gullit did as Chelsea manager, bringing in foreign stars with a touch of class to bolster a rump of British beef, changed the English game for ever. “When I arrived, people couldn’t believe I was playing for Chelsea. It was only Jürgen Klinsmann who was here and Eric Cantona. The English were looking to get to a European level because they were out of it.”
England, of course, are still “out of it”, and arguably further away from winning a tournament than they were when Terry Venables guided them to the semi-finals of Euro 96. Much of the problem with the national side is said to be the lack of home-grown talent in the Premier League.
“Yes. But the problem is people want instant success, so there’s less patience for home-grown. I think they need to do something about it. In Italy they’ve already said they want at least two home-grown players in a team. I think it’s a start. Because in my day, there were only three or four of us [foreigners] allowed.”
Then England might win something? “I don’t know, but you will have greater possibility.”
It’s a remarkably cautious answer from someone whose straight- talking in the past has caused him grief – not least with his current companion on the sofa, Alan Shearer. In 1999, as Newcastle United manager, Gullit accused the Geordie hero of not playing to his potential and dropped him. Days later, Gullit was out of a job.
“We Dutch are very outspoken. We have our heart on our tongue. That doesn’t mean always that you are right, it means that you are honest. We like an argument in Holland. We think if we clear, immediately, the air, it will all go in the right way. That’s how we are. For me, if somebody has an issue with me, I want him to tell me.” It’s a novel, perhaps naive, approach: some say it cost him his job at Newcastle. Was he right to drop Shearer? “Of course!
And in his way, he was right. And for that reason we always had respect for each other, even though we were very p***** off, both of us.”
So you’re friends now? “Yes – we have a lot of fun. At the World Cup his wife said, ‘I can’t believe you two! You’re laughing, playing golf, texting each other, it’s unbelievable.’ You know how men are, we can have an argument, I can punch you and someone will say, ‘Hey, don’t do it, that’s stupid,’ and we can shake hands and have a beer. I don’t think women do that.”
His most recent coaching job lasted just five months in 2011 as the manager of Chechen side FC Terek Grozny in the Russian premier league. They had won only three games when he was reportedly fired by the president of the republic. Is it true? “Yes – because he was also the chairman of the federation.”
Gullit was mystified when the president criticised him for partying with his players. “I do things my way – it’s why you hire me, OK? I wanted the players to do something together so I organised a restaurant and later on they could go out with each other to get a good vibe. That was used as ‘he’s only organising parties’.”
Now 52, he says he wants to return to management, but has enough to keep him busy, what with his TV work and motivational speaking, not to mention six children (by three ex-wives) and a new girlfriend. Does he ever have time to play football any more?
“I used to play with my friends, but after all my operations I can’t do that any more. My knees won’t allow it.” Not even a kick around with his youngest son, 13-year-old Maxim? “He loves football, so sometimes I play with him. I go in goal. So I guess I’m still playing… You can’t get it out of your system. It’s the boy, you know. Never kill the boy in the man.”