Graeme Souness and the Rangers revolution

Graeme Souness and the Rangers revolution

He couldn’t quite recall where the idea came from. Had he dreamt it or subconsciously heard the name mentioned somewhere? It was a question for another time. At this moment, Rangers director David Holmes was about to embark on putting the Glasgow giants back on the football map.

Gers legend Jock Wallace was enduring a tough second spell at the club; attendances were down with the emergence of Aberdeen and Dundee United threatening to put an end to the monopoly both Glasgow sides enjoyed in the Scottish top flight. A home 4-4 draw in the Old Firm saw them slip further behind Celtic in the table, an unaffected Wallace whistling his way past the Rangers board after the game. Holmes was furious that Rangers had let slip a win over their nearest rivals, having had a numerical advantage for part of the game.

Wallace, without realising, burst into a chorus of ‘The Sash’, an anthem that had come to soundtrack, for some at least, the sectarianism that was plaguing Scottish football. Holmes had seen enough, and contacted Lawrence Marlborough, the US-based businessman who had recently become the owner of the Ibrox club.

Wallace had to go, and a bold move would be required to give Rangers the shot in the arm needed to restore them to the top of the domestic game, whilst also challenging the best Europe had to offer. Any hopes of a money-spinning friendly game with Tottenham were dashed when just over 12,000 fans witnessed a stroll in the park for the north London club as Rangers looked bereft of confidence and ideas.

This was the final straw. Ibrox had been renovated to the highest standards after an awful stadium disaster in 1971, when 66 people died and over 200 were injured in a devastating crush. What use was the modern amphitheatre if they couldn’t even half fill it? Plans were afoot, Wallace’s services were no longer required, and the search was on for his successor. Both managers of the New Firm sides were linked, Alex Ferguson a former Govan shipyard worker at Aberdeen, and Jim McLean, the autocratic leader of Dundee United.

When it became clear that neither manager would be attainable, Holmes threw caution to the wind and began to hone in on a man who no-one had even considered for the job. After all, the man pinpointed had no experience as a coach, was still playing, and was set to lead Scotland into the World Cup in Mexico that summer. Holmes knew it was a risk, but he didn’t care; it was a risk worth taking in his opinion and the chase was on.

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Despite being born and raised in Edinburgh, Graeme Souness hadn’t played a minute of league football in Scotland. He left for Tottenham at a young age before heading to Middlesbrough, then Liverpool, where he won five league titles and three European Cups in his six years at Anfield.

Souness, now 33, found himself in Italy in the middle of a three-year contract with Sampdoria. He loved la dolce vita in Italy and had settled with his family in the countryside. When the phone call came, Souness was intrigued by the offer, and though he’d recently told the Sampdoria owner of his desire to stay at the Blucerchiati, he flew to London to meet with Holmes and Rangers chairman John Payton.

Souness left the meeting having agreed to become Rangers’ first player-manager – now all he had to do was go back to Italy and break it to the owner. The deal was settled: Rangers would pay Sampdoria £250,000 to get Souness out of his contract, and he’d be able to finish the season with them and start his new job after the World Cup.

Having no experience as a manager would be a problem, especially with Souness still being expected to play as much as a possible. The appointment of an assistant would have to be astute one and Souness knew the perfect man for the role – McLean’s assistant at Tannadice, Walter Smith.

Smith was a keen Rangers fan and jumped at the opportunity. He too had a World Cup to contend with first, however, stepping in as Ferguson’s assistant following the tragic death of Jock Stein at the end of the final qualifying game with Wales. Keen to keep the move under wraps, all parties were sworn to secrecy, but when a Scottish TV network got wind of the impending move, a private plane was sent for Souness and a press conference arranged at Ibrox. It was all within 48 hours of Wallace getting the sack.

The Scottish press pack were invited to the Blue Room at Ibrox, usually restricted to directors only, and they sat in stunned silence as Souness entered the lavish suite from the manager’s office. The new manager, having spent the previous night an hour down the M8 at his father’s home in Edinburgh, had confidence in his own ability and set out to meet the challenge of management as he would a 50-50 tackle. One thing became clear from the press conference: Souness was a winner and he had already come up with a plan to propel Rangers to, in his opinion, their rightful position.

Throughout the years, many top Scottish footballers had hollowed the well-trodden path from the leagues in their home country to England. Souness was keen to reverse this, mainly by taking advantage of the European ban that English clubs had received following the awful scenes at Heysel.

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The board were unsure of what the fans’ reaction would be, but the new manager was adamant. How Souness saw it was that if he could sign players from England and they failed to settle or produce, he could subsequently move them on, which was tougher to do with Scottish players. All he needed was to attract one big name north of the border and he was sure more would follow. Not only did he want to improve his side, but he also wanted to make a statement.

There could’ve been no bigger statement made than signing the England captain yet that is exactly what Souness set out to do with Terry Butcher’s time at a now past their best Ipswich coming to an end. Whilst this would be no straightforward signing, Souness wasted little time in adding to his ranks, Colin West joining from Watford and highly-rated goalkeeper Chris Woods arriving from Norwich.

The purse strings had been released and Souness had carte blanche to overhaul the underachieving squad he’d inherited. He knew he could sell the club to prospective new signings by showing them the state-of-the-art stadium they would call home, a huge factor when it came to Butcher, who, despite interest from Tottenham and Manchester United, arrived at Ibrox for £750,000. 

All eyes were on Easter Road for the start of the Souness era, the player-manager making his league debut in Scottish football at the age of 33. Perhaps it was adrenaline, over-enthusiasm or a midfielder keen to make his mark on the game, but his debut only lasted 37 minutes, Souness seeing red for a terrible challenge on George McCluskey that prompted a melee of the players on the pitch.

This was a sign of things to come for the prodigal son who soon felt like he was a marked man, not only by the officials but also the Scottish Football Association. Souness found himself in more disciplinary trouble during his time at Rangers than all of his other playing years combined.

Despite that, the raid on English talent continued, with Graham Roberts arriving next from Tottenham. The tenacious midfielder’s stay in Glasgow was short-lived, however, as Souness blamed his ego on causing unrest in the changing room, selling him to Chelsea in 1988.

The Souness revolution was beginning to gather pace and, having been nine points behind Celtic at one stage, they managed to overhaul them to win the league at Aberdeen in May 1987. Rangers had won their first title in nine years to go along with a Scottish League Cup and were fast becoming one of Britain’s biggest clubs again, their new spending power and transfer strategy sending shockwaves throughout the land. Alex Ferguson, perhaps sensing Aberdeen’s window of opportunity had closed, departed for Manchester United.

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The battle for supremacy in Scotland was on. Celtic hired Lisbon Lion Billy McNeill, who guided the Bhoys to a league and cup double in their centenary year the following season, overshadowing the achievements of Souness. Rangers had been hampered by injuries: Terry Butcher suffered a season-ending leg break while Souness attempted to play through the pain barrier, suffering regular occurrences of a calf problem that would ultimately end his playing days.

Having Souness at the helm had brought with it its own set of problems. Regular run-ins with opposition players, manager and officials had put pressure on the club to succeed. At the same time, Marlborough was looking to sell up – and Souness knew the perfect man to take the club off his hands in good friend David Murray.

The metal tycoon had planned to buy his local club Ayr United before Souness stepped in and encouraged him to make a bid for Rangers. A £6m fee was paid and suddenly the former Liverpool legemd found himself a shareholder to go along with player and manager. 

Having a friend as boss proved no problem for Souness, Murray bankrolling further forays into the transfer market. He was a keen admirer of Richard Gough but with Dundee United unwilling to sell him to a rival, Souness bided his time and pounced when the centre-back’s wife struggled with homesickness following a move to Tottenham.

The revolving door continued to turn with Ray Wilkins, Mark Falco, Gary Stevens and Mark Walters all arriving at Ibrox as the English contingency grew so big that there was an England vs Scotland match in training each week. Walters made history by becoming the first black player to join Rangers when he made his move from Aston Villa, a player Souness valued throughout his managerial career.

Having signed the club’s first black player, Souness looked to end the final taboo at Ibrox. During his opening press conference, he was pressed on his thoughts of Rangers signing a Catholic player, something that hadn’t been done since their formation. Souness stated he had no issue with it, and as his wife and children were all Catholics, would have no qualms about ending the club’s unwritten rule even if it incurred the wrath of some fans.

Maurice Johnston had played almost a hundred games for Celtic between 1984 and 1987 with a one in two goalscoring ratio that had caught the eye of French side Nantes, who persuaded him to leave his home city for the west of France. In 1989 he was looking to move on and a return to Celtic was mooted, with a leaked picture showing him wearing the green and white hooped shirt of his former club. A chance encounter between his agent and Souness would change all of that and bring an end to the religious barrier that existed at Ibrox.

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Murray was unsure how the news would be received, though his manager looked at the signing purely from a footballing perspective, in turn wanting to end what he saw as a self-imposed disadvantage by only signing non-Catholic players. Souness, made of stronger stuff than most, was ready for any indignation thrown his way and in Johnston, he saw a player with broad enough shoulders to do the same. The man known as ‘MoJo’ arrived at Ibrox from under the nose of their neighbours and sent a message to prejudiced fans and onlookers that the old Rangers way was over.

The raft of signings propelled Rangers to back-to-back league titles yet the scrutiny on Souness was beginning to take its toll. A feud with Scottish Television prompted him to disengage from all contact with the company, yet when he saw Butcher speaking with one of their reporters, the manager flew into a rage.

Now retired from the playing side, Souness no longer had yellow or red cards to worry about but instead was on the receiving end of numerous touchline bans. One such ban extended to 12 months following footage of him attempting to get a message to Smith was displayed by STV, thus beginning the feud.

By 1991, Souness had grown tired of having what he perceived as a target on his back, so when Kenny Dalglish surprisingly resigned at Liverpool, he bid farewell to Ibrox and began what would be a disappointing return to his former club.

Smith stayed at Ibrox and stepped into the position vacated by Souness. The Smith era continued the success and yielded nine straight titles, equalling Jock Stein’s record with Celtic. Murray was still eager to splash the cash, with several Scottish clubs pouring money into elaborate signings in the hope of bridging the gap. A risky tactic that saw a huge influx of foreign signings, in many peoples’ eyes it had a detrimental effect on the nation’s ability to produce a worthy standard of homegrown players down the line.

These transfer policies led to clubs struggling to balance their books, with some going out of business. Others became enamoured by owners with big promises and empty pockets. Murray bankrolled Smith’s replacement, Dick Advocaat, to the tune of £80m, yet when HMRC caught up with his Employment Benefit Trust scheme and the missing tax payments, the game was up for the self-made millionaire.

Murray was ordered by the banks to sell the club in 2011, Craig Whyte taking the Glasgow giant off his hands for the princely sum of £1. When his own financial problems came to the fore, Rangers found themselves liquidated and having to start again in the Third Division. Now back in the top flight, it is another former Liverpool midfield legend unafraid of speaking his mind who is tasked with returning them back to the top of Scottish football. Don’t bet against him doing the same.

By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met

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