Last week we looked at the first part of Graeme Souness’s playing career. A career in which he made his name as the instrumental midfield kingpin of the all-conquering Liverpool side of the early to late 1980s. We chronicled his rise from talented Edinburgh schoolboy to multiple League Title and European Cup winner via the trials and tribulations of a largely unhappy spell at Tottenham Hotspur and a career-defining encounter with Jack Charlton at Middlesbrough.
In this week’s piece, we will examine Souness’s last two-and-a-half seasons at Anfield as well as his playing spells in Italy with Sampdoria, and in Scotland as player-manager of Glasgow Rangers.
After nearly four years at Anfield, Souness had won the league title twice, the European Cup twice and the League Cup once. Now, however, our tale picks up again in December 1981 when Souness found himself not immune to criticism as part of a Liverpool side sitting in twelfth place in the old First Division with only six victories from 17 games.
Bob Paisley and his trusted lieutenants, Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran, decided it was time to ring the changes. Ray Kennedy was replaced by Ronnie Whelan, Ian Rush took over the mantle of striker from David Johnson, and Craig Johnston started to ease Terry McDermott out of the team. In addition, captain Phil Thompson’s place in the starting line-up started to come under increasing scrutiny.
Aware that simply dropping his captain directly might be going a step too far too quickly, Paisley decided to act in stages by first taking the captaincy away from Thompson and offering it to Souness. The two men had never been especially close but now relations between them were stretched to breaking point. Thompson accused Souness to his face of stealing the captaincy from him and Souness stood his ground in a stand-off that resulted in the two men not speaking for months.
Not that it particularly bothered Souness, who always stated he would much rather be successful than popular.
Successful is what Liverpool certainly were after the turn of the year in 1982 as they made a charge for the title, winning 20 times in the next 25 matches with only two defeats and three draws to take the title by four points. The League Cup was also retained with a 3-1 Wembley victory over Tottenham Hotspur.
The following season saw an identical return of honours with the league title and League Cup won again, while in 1984 Liverpool went one step further and added the European Cup to the two domestic trophies.
If ever one game personified the class and style of Graeme Souness it was the 1984 European Cup Final played against Roma in their own stadium. Expected by pretty much all and sundry to be a bridge too far in Liverpool’s quest to become the first English team to win a treble of honours in one season, Souness had other ideas.
Deciding to take the team out onto the pitch for a pre-match walkabout, Souness declared the team would not content themselves to waving at their own supporters cooped up at one end of the stadium, and so led his teammates on a complete circuit of the stadium via the running track. This meant the side paraded itself in front of the Roma ultras and in doing so ensured everybody in the ground was under no illusions that it would take more than a few firecrackers and flares to intimidate Graeme Souness.
When the game kicked off, so did Graeme Souness. It was the most masterful display of his career as he went to battle with such luminaries as Falcão and Bruno Conti. Playing with the confidence of someone who knows they are amongst the best players in the world in his position, Souness was simply magnificent that night. Before the game, he was made aware that he was in all likelihood playing his last game for Liverpool and indeed his last touch of the ball in a Liverpool shirt was when he spunked a penalty into the top corner during the ultimately successful penalty shoot-out.
Moving to Italy to play for Sampdoria in the summer of 1984 was a brave move to make for someone who was already 31 years old. It would have been easy to play out his remaining years at Anfield, but Souness took the plunge and so spent two years in Genoa.
By all accounts, Souness loved the Italian lifestyle. Sampdoria were not then known as one of the giants of Italian football but they did have some young players coming through in the shape of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli.
Never an FA Cup winner during his playing career with Liverpool, Souness managed to win a Coppa Italia at the first attempt, scoring in a 3-1 aggregate win over Milan. Souness took to the different style of play in Italy whereby he was afforded more time on the ball and was able to showcase his talents. Even at the age of 32 upwards he was able to improve as a player.
Two years later he received a phone call out of the blue asking if he would be interested in talking to Glasgow Rangers with regards to taking over as player-manager. Despite never having kicked a ball professionally in Scotland, and still being only 33 years of age, Souness was up for the job.
Rangers were in the doldrums domestically when he took over, with the club finishing the 1985-86 season in fifth place in the ten-team Scottish Premier League. Without a league title since 1978 and playing to attendances hovering around the 23,000 mark, Souness’s remit was simple: restore Rangers to the pinnacle of Scottish football. This he set about doing with a vengeance, bringing home four league titles and four Scottish League Cups before quitting to return to Liverpool as manager five years later.
Initially, Souness combined his management duties with playing for the Ibrox club, and in his first two seasons at the club was invariably often the best player on the park. However, his playing career in Scotland was somewhat blighted by injury and marred by disciplinary problems.
Never sent off in a Liverpool shirt, Souness was a marked man in Scotland and was shown the red card three times in his inaugural season. Phasing himself out of the team, Souness made his last on-field appearance as a substitute on the last day of the 1989-90 season.
Souness’s Scotland career concluded at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico by which time he had been named as Rangers’ manager. When he was left out of Scotland’s side for their final group match by Alex Ferguson, it was the first and only time he had been dropped in his entire professional playing career.
As a player of his time, Souness had few peers. The closest to him during his playing days was perhaps Bryan Robson of Manchester United, while others have compared Dave Mackay before him and Roy Keane after as being in the same bracket.
His on-field ‘hard-man’ persona and his reputation for self-confidence bordering on arrogance notwithstanding, Souness has actually a reputation in some quarters for being more sensitive and thoughtful than he is sometimes given credit for.
In his autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson relates the details of the tragic day in 1985 that legendary Scotland manager Jock Stein died at a World Cup qualifying match against Wales. Sir Alex tells how the news of Stein’s passing was relayed to him by Souness who was sobbing uncontrollably at the time. Similarly, Souness’s great friend, Trevor Francis, has written of how Souness was trying to console him at the funeral of his wife last year but ended up in floods of tears with Francis being the one doing the consoling.
In 1985, a year after leaving Liverpool, Souness took his first steps into football punditry when he was invited to be on the BBC studio panel for coverage of the ill-fated European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at Heysel. Sitting in a television studio alongside Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables, Souness saw scenes live on the gantry that the rest of us watching at home were, thankfully, not privy to.
Look at these clips of the BBC’s coverage now on Youtube and you can see a man on the verge of breaking down. His face is ashen, his eyes are watering and at times his voice cracks as he shakes his head in incomprehension at how something so awful can be unfolding in front of him. Venables, on the other hand, spends the air time allocated to him twittering on inanely how Liverpool ‘will feel hard done by’ for having a couple of decisions go against them during the match.
On the field too he would occasionally let the ‘tough-guy’ veneer slip. Look closely at some of Liverpool’s most important goals on Youtube and you will often see Souness celebrating teammates’ strikes with the fans in advance of congratulating the goalscorers involved.
In Rome 1984, at the conclusion of the penalty shoot-out that gave Liverpool their fourth victory in Europe’s premier competition, the majority of players rushed to congratulate Alan Kennedy on his conversion of the final kick. Souness set off for Kennedy alongside his teammates before changing his mind and veering off to his right to head for the Liverpool bench. There he collapsed into the arms of manager Joe Fagan and promptly burst into tears!
These clips show how much Souness loved Liverpool and loved playing for the club. It is a passion that remains to this day and so makes his subsequent actions all the more of an enigma. What possessed him to leave the club in 1984 to ply his trade in Italy, for example?
At the time he said he was moving purely for the money, as the Italians were said to be trebling his Liverpool salary while setting him up for life. His words were seen at the time as an example of refreshing honesty, even if they were not entirely appreciated on the Kop.
Since then, however, Souness has, of course, become an established pundit and is well-revered for his honesty and knowledge on the game. Never shy of an opinion and never slow to call out a player he suspects of not pulling his weight, Souness has spoken often of what he sees as football’s current propensity to accommodating and producing mercenaries. Perhaps conscious that his quotes from 1984 regarding leaving Liverpool purely for monetary gain leave him open to accusations of hypocrisy, Souness’s stand on his reasons for quitting Anfield have slightly altered over the years.
Whereas he previously described the offer Sampdoria put in front of him as ‘too good to refuse’, he now maintains that he had to leave England due to tax reasons relating to his then-wife.
While this may well be true, Souness’s other major decision that ended up affecting his legacy at Anfield is one that will never be truly understood or accepted. What on earth possessed a man with obvious intelligence and a deep love for the club to accept 50,000 pounds from a certain newspaper to do an exclusive interview on the anniversary of Hillsborough will never be known.
Souness donated the fee to charity and apologised profusely at the time and at a number of points since, but it is true when he says that he should have resigned at the time. Had he done so, then just maybe his legacy at Anfield would shine greater than it does.