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06 October 2018

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Russia

Echoes of Newcastle as Ruud Gullit Bites Terek Bullet




Chechnya, it seems, was not quite ready for sexy football. And to nobody’s great surprise the unlikely link-up between Ruud Gullit and Terek Grozny has come to an abrupt end.

The finale was as comic as it was sudden: Handed an ultimatum via the club’s official website, Gullit had to engineer victory away to fellow Russian Premier League strugglers Amkar Perm on Tuesday evening.

In the 90th minute, with the score at 0-0, a botched attempt to head a free-kick behind saw Sergei Omelyanchuk score an own goal, pushing Amkar into mid-table and sending the Dutchman flying home.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the hardline leader of the Chechen Republic and president of Terek, is notoriously hard to please. A poor sequence of results, which left the team with 12 points and nine goals from 13 games prompted an online tirade from the club’s management.

Gullit, it was claimed, had left the team in a worse state than ever before. He had mysteriously failed to invest the funding made available to him in signing top class players, though he himself claimed it was difficult to persuade stars to head eastwards. And despite the former AC Milan legend’s claims to have instilled discipline into the squad, it was felt he was found wanting as a man-manager as well.

But the charge which stuck out is one which might be familiar to Newcastle United fans of a certain vintage; it was Gullit the playboy who really got up Chechen noses. Not that he was doing this locally.

Russian provincial cities rarely enjoy a glamourous nightlife, and largely Muslim Grozny is hardly the place to buck that trend. Instead Terek based themselves in the spa resort of Kislovodsk, and the controversy centred on a team-bonding trip during the recent international break.

Given Russia’s legendary capacity for alcohol consumption – the World Health Organisation rates the country’s alcohol-related mortality rate as the worst in the world – it may seem odd for a Russian club to fire someone for spending too much time in the bar, or going out clubbing.

After all, the national team’s World Cup playoff defeat to Slovenia was allegedly preceded by a late night binge, and while Guus Hiddink’s contract was not renewed there were no repercussions for the players uncovered in an expose on TV show ‘Chelovek i zakon’ (The man and the law), screened on the state-backed Channel 1.

But Chechnya is a unique part of Russia. Mostly Muslim, and with Kadyrov enthusiastically endorsing tradition Islamic dress and the sober traditions of a deeply patriarchal society, it is not the place to be seen to flaunt a libertarian lifestyle.

And suddenly, it all starts to resemble Newcastle in 1999, where the latter stages of the Dutchman’s tenure were marked with disquiet about his team selections and man-management – particularly the exclusion of Alan Shearer for a derby defeat at home to Sunderland – but spiced with questions about Gullit’s private life. In his resignation statement he hit out at a city where it became impossible for him to go out for an evening without being harassed by journalists – a strong hint that rumours of a party atmosphere were gaining traction.

Again, Tyneside is hardly renowned for its tee-total stance. But it is a city where people are not willing to be taken for a ride – or left feeling that they might have been. Champagne football at St. James’ Park would have been toasted from Bill Quay to the Bigg Market; propping up the Premier League pooped the party in an instant.

And so, the irony is clear. Ramzan Kadyrov, regarded by many as a Kremlin-backed bogeyman bringing an iron rule to a troubled territory, suddenly starts displaying the traits of Newcastle fans a decade or so ago. Whether beside the Tyne or the fleet-flowing river Terek, Gullit finds that the laid-back persona which makes him a hit in the TV studio does not translate into satisfying the demands of passionate supporters seeking a footballing messiah.