“I went there and found it easy”: how Graeme Souness mastered calcio at Sampdoria

“I went there and found it easy”: how Graeme Souness mastered calcio at Sampdoria

Graeme Souness has very much been abroad during his footballing life, just ask Fenerbahçe fans. As a Scot, he technically spent almost his entire career abroad, making a name for himself at Middlesbrough and Liverpool, but he had stints much further afield, in Montreal and Adelaide. Travelling and seeing the world was clearly something appealing for this kid from Edinburgh – which brought him to Sampdoria.

This was the first proper foreign stint of the midfielder’s career, as he departed for Italy after his successful six years with Liverpool, where he’d been captain of one of European football’s great sides. For some it would be daunting but, for Souness, this was a chance to thrive. “I went there and I found it easy,” he told Graham Hunter on The Big Interview Podcast. “I found the football easy. It was a bit slower. There wasn’t so much pressing. The pressing was in the English game. There, for a midfield player, you could get on the ball a lot easier because they would retreat and back off to their own half and let you have the ball.”

It wasn’t the chance to show off that took him to Serie A, though, it was financial. His wife at the time was due to inherit some money and the way this had been structured meant that she had to leave the country. So the Liverpool legend was actively seeking a landing spot abroad and Sampdoria fitted the bill.

This was a club on the up, led by their ambitious owner Paolo Mantovani. They’d won promotion to Serie A in 1982 and had finished seventh in back-to-back seasons in 1982/83 and 1983/84. What’s more, they’d already brought in players from the UK and Ireland,= in the form of Trevor Francis and Liam Brady. With Brady set to leave for Inter in the summer of 1984, the Blucerchiati were looking to bring in a replacement and there was an explicit desire to sign someone from abroad; someone with experience to lead younger players such as Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli and Pietro Vierchowod.

This is where Souness’ name came up, but not before Trever Francis had recommended the signing of Bryan Robson. That move never came to fruition, so attention then turned to Souness, who they were able to sign the Scot from Liverpool for £650,000. Minutes after landing on the tarmac, he was whisked away to the club offices where there were 3,000 or so fans waiting outside in anticipation. They had their reasons; there was a lot to anticipate.

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

The first season in Italy went brilliantly for Souness and the team. The midfielder scored on his Serie A debut against Cremonese, the only goal in a 1-0 victory. He had a knack for scoring big goals in significant matches, not just at Samp but throughout his career. That 1984/85 season, he also netted the winner against AC Milan in the league, scored against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, and got another against Michel Platini’s Juventus. 

The team from Genoa finished fourth in Serie A that season; their joint-highest finish. But it was in the Coppa Italia that they really thrived. In line with his habit of scoring important goals, Souness was the man behind the only one of the first leg away at AC Milan. In a setting as iconic as the San Siro, he was the one to arrive in the box at the right time to meet a bouncing ball and to send it back across goal into the bottom corner.

Hands were thrown in the air and soon the trophy was as well, as Samp raced into a 3-0 aggregate lead in the second leg, eventually conceding a single consolation and winning the cup 3-1. It was Mancini, Vialli and Souness on the scoresheet as the club won the Coppa Italia for the first time ever in front of the home fans at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. Three iconic footballers, one timeless achievement.

The next season wasn’t quite as successful domestically. In fairness, it was a hard act to follow. An 11th-placed finish in the 16-team league followed, while in a second consecutive Coppa Italia final they lost out as Roma crafted a 3-2 victory, although Souness didn’t play in that final.

In Europe, where they’d qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup, the team overcame Greek side Larisa in the first round, yet they only made it to the second round, conquered by Benfica. For Souness, though, this was a welcome return to continental competition as he’d watched on from the sofa with a tinge of jealousy as Liverpool had reached the European Cup final during his first Italian campaign.

His calcio adventure was soon coming to an end. Souness was on a three-year contract at Sampdoria but, after a couple of seasons, he received an offer that was too good to turn down: the Rangers player-manager position. He flew to London to meet Gers chairman John Payton and club director David Holmes, and agreed a move that would see Sampdoria let him go in exchange for £250,000. Just like that, the Italian chapter in Souness’ playing career was over. 

Overall, Souness enjoyed his time in Italy. Like almost all players who move abroad, though, there were some cultural differences that took some getting used to. As he explains in Graeme Souness – Football: My Life, My Passion, his autobiography, “We’ve all been on a summer holiday in a foreign country, but to actually go and live there and see their approach to life is different. That was the biggest part of living abroad, the cultural change. For example, at lunch, as we trained late afternoon in the summer, my new teammates ordered a bottle of wine each. I thought ‘what’s going on here?’ as we were training in three hours’ time, but the first thing they did was get the bottle, write their name on it, have a glass and hand it back. It was to last them for four or five days.”

The lack of good beer, the player’s preference for cheese over steak, and the tradition of bullying amateur teams 15-0 in preparation for league matches all took some getting used to for the Scot, but he had no complaints. In fact, he enjoyed Italy so much so that he maintained the relationships he’d built, went back to coach Torino, and even joined Channel 4’s coverage of Italian football several years later. “It was great to be involved again with the Italian scene,” he told Dave Taylor of that stint in Italian football analysis. 

Italy loved Souness too. Even Diego Maradona – who Souness faced four times; winning once, losing once and drawing twice – described the midfielder as one of the best two British players he’d ever seen, alongside Robson. High praise from the king of Serie A for a player who was just passing through. That was the impact of Souness, a player who never grew up dreaming of playing for Sampdoria, but who ended up making history with the Blucerchiati nevertheless.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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