Monday, 30 June 2014


The following match report was written at a St James' Park temporarily engulfed by the rosy glow of Ruud Gullit's sexy football. I had been reading a lot of George Plimpton's sports stuff and influenced by the great man's oblique approach to things, chose barely to mention the game at all. The handful of compliments I received for the piece all began with the words 'Everyone else hated it, but...'

Newcastle United 2  (1)  Nottingham Forest 0 (0)
Shearer 11, pen 89

As the travelogue cliche would have it, the Premiership is a land of contrasts. No two men illustrate this notion better than  Ruud Gullit, manager of Newcastle United and his counterpart at the City Ground, Dave Bassett.

There is something cheeringly old-fashioned about Bassett. He reminds you of one of those uncles who were always willing to take you for a kickabout in the garden on Christmas Day when all the other adults were slumped in front of the Queen's speech surreptitiously belching.

At the press conference following this entertaining game, the Forest boss sported a club blazer and grey flannel slacks. His face had the pinkish hue of the freshly scrubbed; his neat blonde hair was sharply parted and held firmly in place by manly unguents.

Bassett is a man of actions. At rest is not his natural state. When stationary he has the perpetual air of someone who is on the verge of breaking into a trot, or doing a couple of dozen squat-thrusts. Though answering the questions of the assembled journalists at St James' Park with courtesy, candour and no little humour Bassett never quite dispersed the feeling that he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.  When he left he did so through the front entrance, hustling quickly across the room giving off an odour of talcum powder and shaving cream. As he passed he la-la-la-ed a merry tune, as a jaunty traveller might when entering a strange pub toilet.

 In a film you feel the role of Dave Bassett would be taken by Kenneth Connor. Ruud Gullit, on the other hand, would definitely play himself, if only because no actor will ever be found who is quite glamorous enough for the task.  On Saturday Gullit sauntered confidently into media reception wearing a chocolate brown suit, matching suede shoes, a cafe latte-coloured shirt and a bronze shot-silk tie.  Dave Bassett had swigged Lucozade straight from the plastic bottle, the Magpies' manager had a glass of sparkling mineral water. 

Like all stars the Dutchmen has the habit of appearing far larger than he actually is. Given that the Newcastle manager is actually pretty big to begin with, this means that his appearance can make even a sparsely populated room seem suddenly overcrowded. From amidst the throng Gullit's stellar presence had created in the St James's press room someone put it to him that at times during the match things "had been quite hairy" for the home side. Gullit frowned, thought for a moment, then shook his dread-locked head, "What is that, hairy?" he inquired politely.

Presumably it was the idiom which had confused him rather than anything he had witnessed on the pitch. For while it would be a mistake to say that victory flattered a Newcastle team for whom Alan Shearer, whether scoring, flattening defenders, or subjecting the linesmen to torrents of invective, seemed like a player rejuvenated, it was certainly true to say that Magpies'  Irish goalkeeper Shay Given did more than enough brilliant work to fully merit the sponsor's man-of-the-match award that came his way.

 "Technically, and tactically also, things could be improved," Ruud Gullit observed, "But on the pitch and in training we are giving very positive vibes".

"Some of our finishing today was crap" said Dave Bassett.


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