Saturday 24 February 2018

He flipped and started screaming. 'You tell me!' But I wouldn't reply

Seven years after leaving for Italy, Graeme Souness walked back into our lives. He still had the 'tache and the tan but a lot of other things had changed. Souey had managed Rangers for five years and had made a major impact: big moves in the transfer market, lots of controversies and four Scottish championships.

I thought he was exactly the manager Liverpool needed. I was thrilled he was coming back. There was no one better to take over from Kenny. We all thought the same, especially the old pros who'd soldiered with him during his playing days. He was steeped in Liverpool. He knew how the club worked. He knew how we played the game. He had five years of high-level management under his belt. He was the ideal man. Sad to see Kenny go, but this was a new era and we were going to win things; I had no doubt about it.

That was April 1991. Fast forward to April 1993. Blackburn Rovers have turned us over 4-1 at Ewood Park. Souey went ballistic in the dressing room afterwards and he was well entitled to because we'd been absolutely stuffed -- and by a team, as it happened, that was managed by Kenny. But Souey had been feeling the pressure long before that game. We'd now won just four of the last 14. The losing streak included a 0-2 defeat to Bolton -- who back then were playing in the third tier of English football -- at Anfield in the Cup in January. That result had really turned up the heat on him and us. And now we'd been torn apart by Blackburn.

I'd played the four previous games having come back from an injury: we'd won three and drawn the other one. I was making a difference, and I had a decent game against Blackburn too in centre midfield. So when Souey started ranting about 'the older players' in the Ewood Park dressing room that day, I took exception. He didn't name us but he was referring to me, Nicol, Barnes and Rush. The rest of the team was David James, Mike Marsh, David Burrows, Steve Harkness, Ronny Rosenthal, Don Hutchison and Mark Walters. Souey's accusation was that we weren't doing enough to help them along. Not just this game but every game. He was giving out stink and his analysis of the situation boiled down to one problem -- the older players. He had a bee in his bonnet about us for some reason, and it didn't just start at Blackburn; he'd raised it as an issue several times in the months before that.

And here he was again banging on about it. I was fuming inside because, number one, there was no acknowledgement from him that he might be at fault too. And number two, it wasn't true: I knew from personal experience that some of the young lads wouldn't listen when you tried talking to them in training. And if you shouted at them in the heat of a match, one or two of them would turn round and tell you where to go. Eventually I had enough. I said to Souey, 'Look, it's not as simple as that. You try talking to them and they tell you to fuck off.' That only made him worse. 'Who? Who tells you that? Who tells you that?' I just shrugged my shoulders. 'Tell me who they are and I'll back you up!' He was losing it now. 'Tell me who they are and I'll back you up!' And I said, 'Just like you're backing me up now?' He flipped after that, started screaming. 'You tell me!' And I wouldn't reply. 'You tell me!' And it just descended into a shouting match. I'm putting my tie on at this stage and I've my back turned to him, looking in the mirror, hoping he'll let it go. But he wouldn't let it go. He kept challenging me. So I snapped back at him. 'Ah, just fuck off and leave me alone.' And he's still shouting, 'You tell me!' And every time he says it I say back, 'Fuck off, Souey.' 'You tell me!' 'Fuck off, Souey.' It just got silly in the end. You can imagine the silence around the room.

And I remember distinctly, when all this was going on, looking over and seeing Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans. And I'm a hundred per cent sure that the two of them were nodding their heads at me as if to say, 'Yeah, we know, you're right.' Souey was saying he'd back me up but I wasn't convinced about that!

It was the older lads I wanted to back me up against him. But none of them did. I was getting shot down completely and no one backed me up, which was a bit of a sad situation really. Maybe they didn't feel the way I felt about it, but I wasn't going to take the blame for all that was going on. There was a lot more going wrong than just the older players supposedly not helping the younger players. Five weeks later, we finished sixth in the league. In January 1994, nine months after that bust-up at Blackburn, Graeme resigned.

* * * * *

The first thing that should be said is that Souey got some things right, even though people -- and I was one of them -- thought they were wrong at the time. I can remember going into training one winter's morning and looking forward to my bacon-and-egg toastie in the canteen at Melwood because it was cold and I was hungry and a nice hot toastie would do the trick. But I was told it was off the menu. What!? You're joking. 'Sorry, love, we're not allowed any more. We can toast a slice of brown bread if you like?' Ah here. Come on now. Toasted brown bread? You might as well give me a slice of chipboard. A different diet was soon part of the new regime. The menu was changed. The days of your bacon, sausage and egg breakfast -- with toasted white bread -- were gone. Even if they wanted to, the dinner ladies would be wary of doing us a fry in case they'd get into trouble. And you weren't going to be getting your chicken and chips and beans for lunch either. It was fish and salads and boiled chicken and pasta. Get it into you and stop moaning about it. But of course we did plenty of moaning about it. Where is he going with his chicken and his pasta and his rabbit food? Didn't Souey himself win plenty of trophies on steak and chips and lager? Now it's feckin' pasta and Perrier water.

To be fair, he didn't impose a drinking ban. Maybe because it wouldn't have worked. He was more into emphasising the importance of good nutrition; eating the right food, taking the right supplements, drinking enough water. It was the Italian influence. He'd learned a lot about the football culture in Italy during his two years at Sampdoria.

He'd adopted the lifestyle of the professional footballer there and that included their diet, which was obviously a lot stricter than ours. Now he was introducing it to us and with our typical insular attitude in British football, we thought it was a load of cobblers. He brought in a lady dietician one day early on in his regime, to try and enlighten us. She sat us down in the players' lounge at Anfield and began by asking some questions. She wanted to emphasise the importance of restoring fluids and nutrition to the body after a hard 90-minute match. 'So, what do you do straight after a game?' And Nico said, 'Well, we usually go to the players' lounge and have a pint.' And I could see Souey out of the corner of my eye folding his arms, looking a little bit uneasy. 'That's OK,' she said, 'a pint after a game is fine. And what do you do then?' And Nico told her, 'Well, we have another one.' And a few of the lads were giggling now. 'And then another one.' And Souey was looking down at the floor now, getting more uncomfortable with this conversation. And then she said, 'Well, when do you eat after a game?' And Nico said, 'About half-two in the morning you'd have a Chinese.'

The lads were sniggering, she was trying to hide her shock and Souey was trying to hide his embarrassment. He had a lot of work to do with us on the refuelling front. But it was just that in England he was ahead of his time on this issue. That was 1991. I don't think many clubs were preaching the importance of a proper diet back then. Everyone takes it for granted now.

* * * * *

When managers moved on players it never upset me because in one way it was none of my business -- you just had to get on with it. We still had to play no matter who was bought or sold. But of course it was our business, more than anyone else's arguably, because we had to play with them and deal with the consequences if they weren't doing the job. So if the manager was selling somebody the one question you'd be asking yourself was, 'OK, is he getting someone better in?' Souey sold Beardsley for £1 million and brought in Dean Saunders for £2.9 million and Mark Walters for £1.25 million. That was a net outlay of £3 million. I liked Deano and Wally but between the two of them they couldn't do what Beardsley did. The answer to the question in this case was: 'No'.

Rob Jones arrived from Crewe in October 1991 and Rob was a player; he was the real deal and a terrific signing. Mickey Thomas arrived in December and was one of Souey's better signings too. To be fair to everyone, I think we'll just draw a discreet veil over the signing of poor old Istvan Kozma. It's probably best for all.

But you had a team now that wasn't stable and united. There was a lot of individual play. Different players were doing different things. They weren't fitting into a system. It wasn't just the defence; a lot of things weren't right. We had our moments, times when we clicked and looked pretty impressive. But the reality was we were a team that wasn't hard to beat. I'd played with a team that was one

of the hardest to beat there's ever been. And I played in a team that had so much flair it could go and win a game out of nowhere. Souey's team was neither one thing nor the other. Wally, for example, was one of those players who could produce a piece of magic in a game, but not often enough to help you win the league. And that's pretty much how the team performed as well. A lot of good moments but not consistent enough to win a league. And that's the standard we should be talking about at Liverpool.

You want to be looking at players who are good enough to win a league and we weren't bringing in players of that calibre. We didn't gel as a team and it never really happened for us that first season.

And I don't think we ever recovered. The clear-out had been too radical. He had changed too much too soon. There was no stability there. Souey was always scrambling after that to find the right combination. He was flailing around in the transfer market, buying and selling without much rhyme or reason, trying to find the winning formula.

In the summer of 1992 Houghton, Venison and Glenn Hysen were sold. In September, Saunders was sold to Villa. In came David James, Paul Stewart and Torben Piechnik. Things were going from bad to worse now. In the summer of 1993, Mike Marsh and David Burrows were swapped to West Ham for Julian Dicks. Nigel Clough and Neil Ruddock also arrived. Stewart, Dicks and Ruddock were bought because Souey wanted strong, hard men in his team. And that's fine -- Souey was a strong, hard man too. But he was a top-class ball player as well.

Time and again his decisions in the transfer market left us shaking our heads. Some of the lads he brought in, they looked good prospects, and even though they didn't work out you could understand why he bought them. Others, you didn't even need to see them playing before you knew they wouldn't be good enough. It seems to me that the more the pressure on him increased, the more his judgement deteriorated. Souey signed 15 players in two years. He tore up the tried-and-trusted way of doing it, which was to make one or two changes per season, building a new side patiently and carefully. The template had been there for decades, and no one knew it better than himself. But this was a manager who was going to do it his way: I'm getting my own players in and I'm going to succeed with these players.

* * * * *

Now, all of this would've been water under the bridge a long time ago if it weren't for comments that Souey made in a book which I cannot let go unchallenged. They concern the Liverpool veterans who were still there when he was in charge. We were all long finished playing by the time he made these comments; but he was still having a go at us and he was still making excuses for himself. 'While I was manager,' he says, 'Nicol, Whelan, Rush and Grobbelaar had testimonials, and Jan Molby and John Barnes were waiting their turn. It seemed to me that the passion for the club had disappeared and that was a massive shock for me.'

The implication is that we'd stopped caring about Liverpool Football Club. That we were just hanging around, punching in time, waiting for our testimonials; then we'd just take the money and run. I can't speak for the other lads but I can for myself. He's wrong. It's untrue. His comments are offensive.

And as recently as 2010 he was rehashing this stuff on Irish radio. I never kissed the badge on my shirt, and I never made big statements in public about what the club meant to me. I hope and I believe I showed it through my actions on the pitch. I loved playing for Liverpool and its supporters. The place was a second home for me. I was happy there, I felt I was family there. I never once thought about leaving. I never once made the slightest inquiry about a transfer. Even the most cynical pro in the world would have to feel something for a club where he'd spent virtually his entire career.

And if he'd had some of the best and worst times of his life at that club, he'd develop a bond with the place that goes far beyond the terms of his contract. I wasn't, I don't think, a cynical person; I spent 15 years at the club; I had some of the best and worst times of my life there. You couldn't but have an emotional bond with the place that went far beyond the terms of your contract. There was too much history there. Too much of my life had gone into the club to be able to stop caring about it, even if I wanted to.

Apart from questioning my 'passion' for the club, Souness was questioning my integrity as a professional too. If you're only hanging around waiting for your testimonial it means you're not really trying any more; you're not being honest; your commitment isn't genuine. As a kid, the one thing I wouldn't get away with was not trying; my Da wouldn't tolerate it for a second. He always said, 'If you give a hundred per cent no one can criticise your commitment.' It goes without saying that you wouldn't get away with it at Liverpool either. I got my share of criticism over the years but it was never for a lack of commitment. And now apparently, once I reached my testimonial age I dropped the habits of a lifetime and turned into a dishonest pro? It's bullshit. Graeme should never have said those things.

* * * * *

I don't bump into Graeme much these days; he doesn't live in Liverpool, we've pretty much gone our separate ways in life. I meet him from time to time in RTE, and we get on no problem. When we played together I didn't socialise in his circles because he was older than me. But we got on well. I liked him as a bloke and admired him no end as a player. The only time we came to dislike each other was when he was the manager, I was a player, and we just didn't see eye-to-eye on what was happening at the football club. And it looks like we still don't see eye-to-eye on it. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree and hopefully remain friends. Life's too short and none of us is getting any younger.

Occasionally you will hear him say, if he's being interviewed about that era, that he has his regrets. That he learned a lot more about management in the years after, and that he'd do things differently if he had his time back. And that's fair enough. I mean, wouldn't we all?

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