Flags, flares and fights: Graeme Souness’ mad year in Turkey

Flags, flares and fights: Graeme Souness’ mad year in Turkey

Nowadays, Graeme Souness is best known for his burning, often irrational hatred of everything Paul Pogba does. Long ago, however, before the toxic hellscape known as Twitter took flight and basement-dwelling virgins across the world could only dream of a meme, the Scotsman was an accomplished coach.

Souness may have earned his stripes in British football, but it was in Turkey that he became an almost mythical figure, hated by one half of the nation’s capital and revered by the other. This is what happened when one of Edinburgh’s most famous sons took charge at Galatasaray.

Souness’ ego was battered and bruised after leaving Liverpool in 1994, with just a single FA Cup and a lot of ill will. Despite his questionable choice of facial hair, the Scotsman had a reputation as one of football’s hard-men, a reputation that didn’t translate particularly well once he stepped into the dugout. His ability to rub people the wrong way with his no-nonsense, my way or the highway attitude, and an ill-fated interview, would ultimately cost him his job at the club he loved.

Over a year passed, and after being overlooked for the Middlesborough job, Souness’ coaching career was in serious danger of fizzling out. Unexpectedly, along came one of Turkey’s biggest clubs. Fresh off the back of a disappointing league campaign, Galatasaray were in need of a new coach. German Reinhard Saftig was let go without completing a single season under trigger-happy president Alp Yalman, a man who had employed three coaches in as many years.

Souness came in, welcomed by an understandably mixed reception. Forking out £500,000 to bring in a man with no experience of Turkish football and varied credentials was a lot of money in the mid-90s. The new man in charge was never going to be given carte blanche when it came to signing players, especially in a nation famous for presidential meddling, but he did manage to bring in a few.

Dean Saunders, who Souness worked with at Liverpool, was brought in for £2m, an astronomical fee for an injury-prone 31-year-old. The Welsh forward was followed by midfielder Mike Marsh, another ex-Liverpool man, as well as Barry Venison. Brad Friedel, with an almost full head of hair, was signed from Brondby.

It’s fair to say Souness didn’t get off to the best of starts. In a nation that takes pre-season friendlies more serious than most, discouraging displays against Nantes and Dortmund put a target on his back. The Scot, predictably, didn’t help himself. An unwarranted confidence that both the league and the UEFA Cup were as good as won came back to bite him, as they were knocked out of Europe in late-August by Czech side Sparta Prague in the preliminary rounds.

Domestically, things weren’t so glum. Future Blackburn legend Tugay earned Souness a hard-fought 1-0 victory in his opening game against Vanspor. Their second game was much more impressive. Saunders got his first two goals wearing the famous crimson and gold in front of 20,000 grateful home fans, helping his team to a 3-1 win. The Welshman was beginning looking like a bargain. The third was much more like their first.

Gala had to dig deep to get the 2-1 win away at Kayserispor thanks to a 68th-minute goal from Arif Erdem, just 60 seconds after the opposition equalised. Games like that build character, however, and things were starting to look up.

Off the pitch, things were very … well, British. Marsh and Venison were photographed after the Vanspor game having had a few too many, and the Turkish press slaughtered them for it. This wouldn’t be the last time they found themselves facing the ire of the media, although it wouldn’t entirely be their fault.

Souness’ continuous selection of the two underperforming Englishmen was used as a stick to beat him with. Marsh lasted just two and a half months in Istanbul before ex-teammate Ronnie Whelan lured him to sunny Southend.

The Intercontinental Derby is one of football’s most intense rivalries. So named because Galatasaray reside on the European side of Istanbul and Fenerbache on the Asian, there is no exaggeration in saying that people have died because of this game of football.

Souness experienced his first of four on 22 October 1995 – and it didn’t go well. It took just four minutes for the late Dalian Atkinson to get his first goal, followed by two more in the 19th and 32nd respectively. Saffet Sancaklı’s late consolation may have made it a bit less embarrassing but fans needed someone to blame and Souness was public enemy number one.

Galatasaray and Fenerbache fans often measure the success of their season on the derby. They could win the league but if either of them lost to the other, it would irritate them like a thorn in a lion’s paw. Rumours were rife that Souness was on the brink; Yalman went through so many managers that even Roman Abramovich would tell him to calm down. The president held fire, however, giving Souness the opportunity to make up for his mistakes.

As the season reached its midway point, Saunders was the last of Souness’ British brigade standing. Two and a half months after Marsh, Venison followed suit, returning to English shores with a move to Southampton, the club with which he would end his career. Back in Istanbul, results varied. While his side were fairly adept at vanquishing the smaller clubs, Souness’ team stumbled whenever they faced one of the bigger boys. 

A 3-1 home drubbing to the other Istanbul giants, Besiktas, saw their hopes of winning the league all but over. Support was waiting, so Souness turned his attention to the Turkish Cup. Entering at the sixth round, Gala easily disposed of Denizlispor, earning an impressive 4-0 victory. Sancaklı bagged a brace with Hakan Ünsal and Hakan Şükür getting one apiece.

The quarter-final saw them face neighbours Besiktas once again. Souness and his lads, galvanised by their cup form, had seen a huge upturn in the league, winning five in a row since the 3-1 loss. The Scotsman was out for blood, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

The first game of the two-legged round was an unremarkable 0-0 draw; not a goal or a scrap to record. The second leg, however, had a few more talking points. Galatasaray came out 2-1 winners in the away game, securing their spot in the semi-finals. Erdem scored ten minutes from the start before getting his second in the 67th minute to cancel out Ertuğrul Sağlam’s equaliser.

It’s easy to imagine a wry smile gently curving across Souness’ youthful, hairy face once he saw who he’d be playing in the semi-finals. Galatasaray had managed to avoid their fiercest rivals with a favourable draw against Samsunspor, as a Saunders masterclass put Gala 3-1 up after the first leg.

Saunders, who, like his ex-teammates Marsh and Venison, had been the subject of harsh treatment from the Turkish press, put in the kind of performance that pundit Souness would have loved. His first was a typical poacher’s finish. Latching onto a wistfully launched cross, the Welshman found himself in the right place at the right time to tuck it away.

Şükür got his only goal of the game with a textbook header from a floated free-kick on the righthand side before Saunders wrapped up the tie in a nice little bow, scoring a 90th-minute diving header. A nervy 1-0 defeat in the second game was close to making things complicated, but Souness led his boys to the final.

The Turkish Cup final is a two-legged affair and, on 11 April 1996, as Souness led his players out onto the pitch of Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen Stadium, you could have cut the tension with a scimitar.

Just five minutes into the match, Fenerbahce goalkeeper Sari Karat brought down Galatasaray winger Kubilay Türkyilmaz, earning himself a yellow card and conceding a penalty. Saunders ran up to the ball, his tongue sticking out as an indication of his concentration and expertly tucked it away into the bottom right corner. Not even Karat’s mullet was enough to distract the Welshman from inflicting agony upon the Fenerbahce fans behind the goal.

Galatasaray had the chances to put the game to bed, as defender Mert Korkmaz somehow found himself in the box before hitting the crossbar from just six yards out. In the end, the penalty was all that was needed, but the look on cigar-smoking Yalman’s face said the lead was tentative at best.

As faithful fans filtered into Fenerbahce’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium and found their seats for the second leg, none of them could have known they were about to become a part of Turkish footballing folklore.

The game itself was enough to get hearts racing. Fenerbahce took the lead after an opening half that saw crossbars rattled and last-ditch tackles made. Aykut Kocaman found himself open at the far post before heading in a lovely floated cross. The tie was deadlocked: Galatasaray heads were down as Fenerbahce did everything they possibly could to get their hands on that trophy.

Wave after wave of yellow and blue broke upon crimson and yellow cliffs and, just as Galatasaray were in need of their very own hero, up stepped Saunders to lead them to the land of milk and honey. The veteran forward paid his transfer fee back ten-fold as the ball fell to him and he smashed it into the roof of the net. He wheeled away before falling to the ground, allowing his teammates to dog-pile upon him. Souness had somehow come out of this rollercoaster campaign with a trophy.

In Turkey, there is a legend. As the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 seemed destined to fail, a flag was seen billowing upon one of the parapets – an Ottoman flag. This rallied the troops and the city fell for the first time in its history. Who’s to say if Souness was aware of this story but the only rational explanation for his actions after the game is that he became possessed by some medieval spirit.

Looking back over the grainy footage, it’s hard to tell how Souness came to possess the oversized crimson and gold flag, but the how becomes irrelevant when you see what he did next. A mad dash with the flag held aloft ended in the centre circle of Fenerbahce’s hallowed turf, with Souness’ manic episode culminated in him spearing the flag not once, not twice, but three times into the ground. In what can only be described as the smartest thing he had done since touching down in Istanbul, Souness then headed down the tunnel in a flash. 

What followed was quite possibly the most timid trophy ceremony in football history. Surrounded by riot police as opposition fans pelted them with God-knows-what, the Galatasaray players lifted the Türkiye Kupası while Souness was nowhere to be seen. The Scotsman heeded the advice of security officials and kept to the relative safety of the dressing room, although the abuse being hurled at him could be heard for miles.

It wasn’t all vitriol, however. As Souness waited to see the chairman, he expected the sack but was instead greeted by teary-eyed, joyous board members, with the Scotsman later saying, “I’ve never been hugged and kissed by so many men in such a short period of time.”

Although the moment itself only lasted a couple of minutes, its legacy has spanned decades. Galatasaray fans will never let their cross-city rivals forget about the time they marked their territory. Tifos and chants are one thing, but Souness’s actions leave such a sour taste in the mouth of Fenerbahce fans that the Scotsman receives death threats to this day.

One fan, known as Rambo, even went as far as breaking into Galatasaray’s ground, hiding in an advertising board for hours before breaking free and planting a much smaller Fenerbahce flag in the centre circle while brandishing a kebab knife. It’s fair to say it didn’t have the same effect. 

As the dust settled, cooler heads prevailed and Souness’ contract was not renewed, ending his tumultuous time in Istanbul. The manager’s moment of madness has cemented his position into Turkish footballing folklore, as well as securing a spot on ‘Football’s Craziest’ showreels for time immemorial.

Wisely, Graeme Souness doesn’t spend much time at his old stomping ground, but looks back on his period at Galatasaray fondly: “I’m extremely proud and pleased that people remember me for doing that.” 

By Alex Roberts @APRoberts123

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