The divine prophecy of Graeme Souness

The divine prophecy of Graeme Souness

It was with a certain sence of self-prophecy of self-prophecy and a heavy helping of style that Graeme Souness controlled the ball on his chest. Shoulders as far back as his body would allow, his chest almost caught the ball, as it seemed to linger there for what seemed an unnatural span of time. A yard-and-a-half outside the ‘D’ of the Wembley penalty area, the ball had arrived to Souness out of the dark night sky via a cleared header from the edge of the six-yard box by Dany De Cubber, the Club Brugge midfielder.

It was the 1978 European Cup final and Ernst Happel’s Belgian champions had set out to envelope Bob Paisley’s Liverpool within a matrix of defensive strangulation. Souness was the man who picked the lock. As the ball eventually dropped to his feet it bounced back up at him fast. In the blink of an eye Souness had controlled what was an awkward situation, by not just taking the sting out of the ball with his left foot, but by switching it on to his right foot, with only one touch.

The ball didn’t stay there long, as Souness coolly delivered a side-footed diagonal pass towards the right-hand side of the Club Brugge penalty area, straight into the path of Kenny Dalglish. With one touch of the ball himself, Dalglish sent it spinning past the despairing hand of Birger Jensen with a sublime chip that broke Club Brugge resistance and retained the European Cup.

Souness did this with limited space to spare. In the split-second after he released the ball to Dalglish, René Vandereycken was staring directly into Souness eyes, while the Scottish international was also busy fending off the close attention of Julien Cools with his right arm. That concept of time standing still, then suddenly being thrown into fast-forward was typical of Souness. His playing style was very much the punch you never saw coming, literally as well as figuratively upon occasions. 

It was just the second time in his career that Souness had started a game in European club competition. His first had been a masterclass.

Signed from Middlesbrough in January that year, Souness had missed the deadline to be allowed to play in the quarter-finals against Benfica, but was eligible for the semi-finals against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Nursing an injury, he made only a cameo appearance as a substitute during the 1st leg at the Rheinstadion, in a 2-1 reversal.

In the second leg at Anfield he replaced the legendary Ian Callaghan in the starting line-up, and instead of an understandable beginner’s sort of performance, Souness directed the evening like a seasoned European adventurer.

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On a night when Paisley deployed Ray Kennedy further forward, pretty much in the striker role he used to play for Arsenal and in his early days at Liverpool, before his manager transformed him into a left-sided midfielder, Souness prompted and probed, he bewildered and dismantled Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The massively experienced and World Cup-winning Rainer Bonhoff had no answer to Souness that night and Liverpool ran out convincing 3-0 winners, with Kennedy netting the first goal with just six minutes on the clock. Dalglish and Jimmy Case ensured the tie was over in under an hour. In the litany of great European performances Liverpool have had, this one unfairly falls under the radar. Souness was born for the European stage.

As Souness left the Wembley turf with the first major winner’s medal of his senior career, the understanding he had already created with Dalglish, in just four months at Anfield together, was there for the watching world to see.

The next time the two would line-up together in a competitive game of football would be 32 days later and 7,150 miles south-west of Wembley; in Mendoza, Argentina, against Holland at the World Cup finals, in that iconic 3-2 victory against what was another Ernst Happelled side once again.

Souness had watched helplessly from the sidelines as his nation self-capitulated against both Peru and Iran. The win and performance against Holland was a bittersweet glimpse of what might have been for Scotland at the 1978 World Cup. Had Ally MacLeod brought Souness in after the loss to Peru, instead of after the draw with Iran, then things might have turned out differently for them. For the next eight years, Souness would be one of the first names on the Scotland teamsheet. For the last four of those years, he would also be the captain.

At the start of 1978, Souness hadn’t even been sure he would make the Scotland squad for Argentina. He’d grown frustrated at Middlesbrough. Jack Charlton’s departure as manager at the end of the 1976/77 season had been the final straw, after the rich promise of successes to come, which the mid-1970s had certainly offered at Ayresome Park, had eventually subsided. Souness was falling into an anonymous mid-table no-mans-land when Liverpool came knocking for his services. Souness’s inner drive for success and achievement could no longer be contained at a drifting Middlesbrough.

While in early 1978, Middlesbrough had been a place Souness had become desperate to leave, it had been his salvation in late 1972, and a destination away from a different kind of frustration in North London with Tottenham Hotspur.

Souness arrived at White Hart Lane as a confident 15-year-old; sure of himself enough to believe he could handle life on his own, not only south of the border, but a long way south of the border. A professional contract came his way, as did an FA Youth Cup winner’s medal in 1970, but so did conflict with his manager; the legendary double-winning manager Bill Nicholson.

Souness would be at his manager’s door on a regular basis stating his case for a place in the first team, insisting he was the best player at the club. Set against that were instances of him going AWOL through reported homesickness. London proved more difficult to cope with than he’d ever envisaged. Souness would return to Tottenham, but that elusive breakthrough into the first team would not come his way. A solitary substitute appearance in the European Cup Winners’ Cup away to Keflavík would be his only game in a Tottenham shirt.

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A short summer 1972 spell in the NASL with Montreal Olympique, in which he was named in the league’s All-Star team, did nothing to help pave his way into Nicholson’s first team picture. Middlesbrough was his escape. A future Tottenham midfield of Souness alongside Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa would instead become one of the great what-ifs of the club’s past.  

At Anfield, Souness thirst for success would be quenched many times over. Five league titles, three European Cups and four League Cups, he was handed the captaincy during a difficult period of the 1981/82 season, a campaign when Liverpool found themselves in 12th place on Boxing Day 1981, yet champions by the following May. Images of Souness tossing the league title trophy through the air to a young Ronnie Whelan are among the most evocative of his career.

Souness scored the winning goal against Everton in the 1984 League Cup final replay, yet despite the domestic successes, it was in Europe that he continued to peak. He owned the 1981 European Cup quarter-final at Anfield against CSKA Sofia, scorer of a spectacular hat-trick in a 5-1 first leg victory and was a crucial component in an injury-ravaged side when they overcame Bayern Munich against the odds in the semi-finals, on their way to beating Real Madrid in the Paris final.

Yet it was his 1984 swansong that topped the lot. On the back of the League Cup winner against Everton, the title was won for the third successive season. Rome then beckoned and the European Cup final against AS Roma at their Stadio Olympico. This last success in a Liverpool shirt was achieved through the pain barrier. Not once, but twice did Souness lead his team into bear-pit atmospheres. Before Rome came Bucharest.

A violently contested semi-final first leg against Dinamo Bucharest at Anfield had ended with Liverpool holding a narrow 1-0 lead. It also ended with Lică Movilă’s jaw being broken, however. Souness, having been on the receiving end of a number of uncompromising challenges from Movilă, and also having witnessed similar challenges against his fellow midfielders from the very same player go unpunished, took his own retribution in an off the ball exchange out of view of the officials. The recriminations rumbled loudly, as the aggressors took up the unrealistic role of the innocent victims.

The second leg was set against a backdrop of intimidation from the very moment Liverpool’s flight landed in the Romanian capital. Souness stood up to the test though, both on and off the pitch. In the face of severe provocation he was the essence of calm assurance and controlled aggression. After just 11 minutes he had provided the pass for Ian Rush to open the scoring. The backdrop of intimidation ebbed away bit-by-bit from there onwards. The experiences of Bucharest served as the perfect rehearsal for the final in Rome.

Eight years on from Liverpool’s first European Cup success, this was a very different visit to the familiar surroundings of 1977. Whereas Liverpool were embraced with open arms eight years earlier, in 1984 only hostility was on offer for the team and fans alike. Just as in Bucharest, however, Souness was fearless in the face of the provocation.

As the Roma players lined up in the tunnel before the game, Liverpool substitute David Hodgson started an impromptu rendition of the Chris Rea song ‘I Don’t Know What It Is, But I Love It’. The rest of Hodgson’s teammates soon took up the tune too and the Italian side were left to stare in disbelief at this collective of fearless, almost blasé opponents in all red.

Souness strode into the cavernous Olympico in a no-lose situation. Roma, on home soil, instead of walking into their coronation as European champions to be, had it all to lose and fear striking through their very core.

Souness was again the director on a night of measured patience. He led a sizeably reconstructed Liverpool to glory. With the likes of Ray Clemence, Terry McDermott, Ray Kennedy, Jimmy Case and Phil Thompson now gone, he was more responsible than ever, with a new generation emerging around him in the shapes of Bruce Grobbelaar, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Craig Johnston and Mark Lawrenson, all of whom were first time European Cup finalists.

Despite having three European Cup successes to their name, Rome in ‘84 was seen by many to be a bridge too far for Liverpool and their mixture of talented youth and ageing legends. They were facing a Roma of Falcão, Bruno Conti, Toninho Cerezo and Francesco Graziani. All of this, just two years after they’d been some of the biggest stars of Spain 82.  


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Souness and Liverpool were more Italian than the Italians that night, as they controlled the pace of the game and subjugated the predominantly partisan crowd. As nervousness took hold of Roma players and fans alike, it was the Liverpool players that had control of the pitch and their fans who dominated the Roman night sky.

Having initially held the lead, the game played out to a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes. It would be the first European Cup final to be decided by a penalty shoot-out. In classical Liverpool fashion, they were unprepared for penalties. One practice session at Melwood had seen the first team soundly beaten by the youth team. They did it when mattered most though.

After Steve Nicol missed the very first kick of the shoot-out Liverpool shoulders relaxed, and it was instead Roma that lost their way. By the time Souness stepped up to confidently strike home the fifth penalty the pendulum had swung Liverpool’s way. With Grobbelaar unnerving the players in all-white, it was Conti and Graziani that wilted under the pressure.

Souness, with his facial expression set to defiance, lifted the European Cup one-handed, pointing with his other hand towards the travelling Kop in the midst of the most incredulous audience imaginable. It was a fitting farewell. At the age of 31, Souness was looking for a new challenge and financial security. Serie A was the place to be in the mid-80s and he had just delivered a watching Italian nation the perfect display of his talents.

Sampdoria, one of Italy’s great underachievers, would be his destination. Teaming up with Trevor Francis and the emerging talents of Pietro Vierchowod, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Souness helped create the springboard that would propel the club to its eventual Scudetto in 1990/91.

Sampdoria’s very first major trophy was won with Coppa Italia success in 1985 and Souness was again instrumental, scorer of the only goal at the San Siro against AC Milan in the first leg of the final. The fourth place finish the club also attained that season was their highest league finish for over a quarter of a century.

While Souness’s second season in Italy didn’t quite match the heights of his first, his own personal form never dipped. It was a season that ended with a trip to his third World Cup finals.

Just as he was at Spain 82, Souness was once again the Scotland captain at Mexico 86. The World Cup would remain the great unfulfilled concept for him though. The frustrations of Argentina 78, when he’d been held back until the final group game against Holland, had been followed in 1982 by the calamity of Málaga and the game against the Soviet Union when Scotland gifted their opponents a place in the second stages of the tournament.

By Mexico 86, the Scotland squad was a more workmanlike one compared to the previous two he’d been involved with. It was also led by Alex Ferguson, who had picked up the job in the aftermath of the tragic death of Jock Stein at Ninian Park, on the night that Scotland booked a playoff spot against Australia. Narrow defeats to Denmark and West Germany saw Ferguson ring the changes for the final group game against Uruguay. Despite those losses, Scotland went into the Uruguay game still in with a chance of reaching the knockout stages. Souness would be one of those Ferguson dropped for the game.

Souness himself admits he struggled with the humidity of Mexico and that his form reflected that. Ferguson is reported to have shown great humility and reverence when he informed Souness of his decision to omit him from the team. It was the first and only time Souness had been dropped in his career and it was also an unusual departure for Ferguson from his often blunt manner with players.

Read  |  Once upon a time in Argentina: the story of Ally Macleod and his Tartan Army

Yet Souness might well have been the right man for the occasion against Uruguay after all; on a day when despite the South Americans being down to 10 men from the very first minute, Scotland could not break the 0-0 deadlock. One goal would have sent Scotland through. He would never play for his nation again, retiring from the international game at the age of 33.

As one chapter closed, a new one opened. With the opportunity to extend his stay in Italy available, Souness opted to return home instead. Home to Scotland and into the player-manager position at Glasgow Rangers.

Rangers had been a club in marked decline since the late-70s. The title had eluded them since 1978 and they hadn’t even finished in the top two since 1979. Celtic had continued to challenge, but there had also been the rise of the New Firm’of Aberdeen and Dundee United, while Hearts had contrived to throw the league and cup double away in 1986. Rangers had become an ineffective bystander for much of the decade.

The Souness revolution soon took hold. With the complete backing of his board, not just financially but aesthetically, Souness basically had a blank canvass to work from. He reversed the age-old trend of English clubs picking off the best Scottish players and began picking off England internationals from smaller English clubs. Ibrox Park soon became as likely a destination for coveted English players as Anfield, Goodison, Old Trafford, Highbury and White Hart Lane was.

Terry Butcher and Chris Woods started an exodus that was in part facilitated by the European ban on English clubs after the Heysel disaster. Many others would follow.

Rangers stormed to the title in Souness’s first season in charge. It was often as tempestuous a time as it was successful and he had no qualms in upsetting his rivals or the Scottish football authorities. If the SFA had breathed a sigh of relief at the departure of an abrasive and forthright character from their domestic game in the shape of Alex Ferguson, then they weren’t properly prepared for the arrival of Souness. His debut against Hibernian ended in just over half an hour with two yellow cards, and the tone was set.

Run-ins with both the SFA and the Scottish Football League were regular occurrences and on-pitch disorder in one Old Firm game even resulted in a breach of the peace and court proceedings being brought.

The controversies reached a peak when Souness swooped to sign Mo Johnston from under the noses of Celtic. Johnston, just weeks after posing in a Celtic shirt, was unveiled as a Rangers player instead and their first high-profile Roman Catholic signing, after a breakdown in the proposed deal to return to Parkhead. It was a historic and divisive moment. Souness was once again opting to do the hardest things, rather than circumnavigate them.

More titles were won in 1989 and ‘90, while Souness seemed to have permanent possession of the Scottish League Cup. His side was well on the way to winning the title again in 1991 when Liverpool came calling for the second time. The pull of Anfield and a desire to escape his constant battles with the Scottish football authorities meant Souness accepted the call. In a way, the move came as something of a surprise, as he was widely thought to be too interwoven into the very fabric of Rangers to make the break. Souness even owned five percent of the Ibrox club.

His return to Liverpool was expected to be a continuation of the Souness success story. It wouldn’t work out that way, however. Despite inheriting a club that were still the reigning English champions, the squad he found himself in charge of was ageing one, in need of a degree of reconstruction.

On the front foot from the beginning amid confrontational with some of the older players, a number of which had been his teammates as a Liverpool player, Souness set in motion a new revolution. Within a year of his arrival players such as Steve McMahon, Ray Houghton, Peter Beardsley, Gary Gillespie and Steve Staunton were gone. Others such as Bruce Grobbelaar and Ronnie Whelan had younger rivals to contend with and could no longer be certain of their places in the team. Resentment grew and some of the replacements brought in were of a lesser calibre than those that had left.

Read  |  Graeme Souness and the Rangers revolution

Evolution rather than revolution had been required and Souness never recovered from the mistakes he made in his early haste. Big name signings such as Dean Saunders, Nigel Clough, Paul Stewart and Julian Dicks were expensive errors of judgement. Souness’s biggest error of judgement was made in April 1992, however, and it had nothing to do with footballing matters. It came instead when he sold the story of his emergency heart bypass operation to The Sun.

Souness had been admitted to hospital after the 1-1 draw with Portsmouth at Highbury in the FA Cup semi-final. His need for heart surgery had come completely from left-field and there was a groundswell of support and goodwill towards him, but much of that changed when the exclusive story and interview was run by The Sun on April 15, the day of the third anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Sun’s sensationalised, ultimately inaccurate and damagingly negative reporting about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough had been wounding to the people of Merseyside. Souness selling his story to them, and it being printed on the anniversary of the disaster, was catastrophic.

An apologetic Souness claimed he hadn’t known about The Sun’s coverage of the disaster as he’d been in Glasgow at the time with Rangers. He subsequently gave the money he’d been paid for the story to charity and tried to move on. Some fans forgave him, while others still haven’t to this very day. His relationship with Liverpool fans and the city itself has never fully healed, although sentiments have softened for many.

Souness returned to the bench for the FA Cup final, something he has since regarded as unwise as he was still recovering from surgery. The 2-0 win over Sunderland would bring his one and only trophy in charge of the club. Souness would remain at Anfield for a further season-and-a-half. It was a time of great frustration as injuries hit hard, high-profile signings failed to deliver and embarrassing cup exits abounded. Consistency proved hard to find in the league and the mood of the fans darkened. An FA Cup loss at home to Bristol City in January 1994 signalled the end.

Souness biggest achievement apart from his FA Cup win would be the trust he placed in young players. He quickly integrated Steve McManaman on a regular basis. He unleashed Robbie Fowler on an unsuspecting Premier League and signed the excellent Rob Jones from Crewe Alexandra, turning him from a Division Four left-back into an England international right-back in just four months. Jamie Redknapp was given a place in the team and others such as Don Hutchison, Steve Harkness and Mike Marsh all got first-team opportunities. Had he shown a little more patience in his first year in charge, it might have been so different for Souness on his return to Liverpool.

Souness would in time rehabilitate his managerial career. He learned from some of his Liverpool mistakes, but his drive and sheer bloody-mindedness still remained.

A nomadic few years ensued after Souness departure from Liverpool, with time spent at Galatasaray inclusive of his legendary planting of the club flag on the centre spot at Fenerbahçe, after beating them in the Turkish Cup final, which resulted in a near riot. There was a season at Southampton and then more time on the continent with Benfica and Torino, before returning to England to take Blackburn Rovers back into the Premier League and onwards to League Cup glory, achievements and a more grown-up version of himself which won him the Newcastle United job in succession to Sir Bobby Robson.

Souness time at Newcastle would prove a difficult experience, but he was neither the first or last manager to find that scenario befall him at St James’ Park. By February 2006, he was gone. It would be his last managerial job.

Since then Souness has become a regular face on TV screens with his no-nonsense views on the game, cutting through the sometimes over-polished world of the Premier League and gaining a new legion of fans. Just as in his playing and managerial career he pulls no punches.

Through it all, however, it is Souness the player, a master of control in extreme circumstances, which remains the predominant image. A man who predicted his own greatness and wouldn’t stop perusing his self-prophesy until he didn’t just reach it, but probably exceeded even those inner-built expectations and beliefs in himself. 

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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