‘I just grew up having this ridiculous belief in my own ability’ - Graeme Souness
Graeme Souness may not do doubts but the Liverpool legend admits to one regret in his life, writes John Mullin
Introspection, you quickly grasp, is hardly Graeme Souness’s style. He’s no navel-gazer, no what-might-have-been merchant. Why, he never so much as glances at his YouTube footage to be reminded of some of football’s most full-blooded moments. What you see is what you get: clarity, honesty, straight-talking.
He’s a spontaneous sort. He has a wanderlust, he says, and was never cut out to be a one-club player or a one-club manager: do your best all the time and move on to the next challenge is his credo. And so he’s not overly interested analysing past mistakes.
“My career has been the best part of 50 years. If I had to go through it all again, I’d love to, warts and all. There have been so many good things that they outweigh the bad. But I do have regrets. Who doesn’t when you get to 64 years old?
“But I’ll say this, and it’s a ridiculous thing to say. I’m 65 next May, and I believe the best years are still ahead of me. I know that can’t be true with the life I’ve led, but that’s what I think.”
Souness, of course, was one of the most fearsome men in the game. Still is, with his pointed Sky summaries taking as few prisoners as he did in his midfield pomp.
Ask the unfortunate Lica Movila, whose jaw was broken in two places as he tried to mix it with Liverpool’s formidable anchorman during a European Cup semi-final at Anfield.
Or poor George McCluskey, unlucky enough to come up against a wired-up Souness on his debut for Rangers at Hibs and was carried off before half-time.
Or the dismissive Fenerbahce director who made the mistake of calling Souness a cripple after his heart surgery, prompting revenge in the incendiary form of him planting a giant Galatasaray flag in the centre-circle on their city rivals’ home turf after a dramatic cup final win.
The list may not quite be endless, but it is undeniably long.
There is, though, one real regret – selling photographs on his hospital bed recovering from his operation to ‘The Sun’, published on the third anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Even now, from his despairing gesture, it’s clear that if there’s one thing he would change, it would be this. “I should have resigned,” he says. He was Liverpool manager at the time.
And while Souness went on to have a successful enough career as a manager beyond Rangers and Liverpool at Southampton, Galatasaray and Blackburn, with less happy spells at Torino, Benfica and, finally, Newcastle, the heart operation at 38 and the aftermath was a watershed. He knew something had changed when, still recovering, he attended the FA Cup final win over Sunderland.
“I had to get my own taxi from hospital in Manchester to the airport, and my own flight to Heathrow and own car to the team hotel in Hertfordshire. They were distancing themselves from me. I should have left then.”
For the first time, this son of Leith, with his resolute self-belief – “Archie Gemmill said that if I was chocolate I’d have eaten myself, and he was absolutely right. I was arrogant” – had experienced what we lesser mortals feel. After a vertiginous climb – five league titles and three European Cups at Liverpool; two brilliant years at Sampdoria and then an astonishing turnaround as player-manager of moribund Rangers – his return to Liverpool came with a price.
“At the hospital, I was determined to be the best patient they had. I did too much too soon. I collapsed when I got out of bed. I ended up being in there for 28 days with an infection. I can remember being the only person in intensive care. The night light was on and I could see a clock. I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t go to sleep, because that’s how you die’. It was the only time I’ve ever felt fearful.
“I’d love to say I became a nicer, gentler person. But I still fell out with people.
“Do I think about lying in that bed looking at that clock? I should do. Do I remember how vulnerable I felt at that time? I think I’m lucky in that I can park things. I don’t dwell. I’ve got a selective memory. I only remember the good things. I don’t know what a psychologist or a psychiatrist would say about that.”
Souness fought the world as a young man. But he is at loss to explain where this inner fire comes from.
“Both my parents were mild, gentle people. I’m the youngest of three brothers. Neither of them is like me. I came from a working-class family.
“We lived in a prefab. We had nothing, but we had everything. I was out of the house at 12 to live with my grandmother, who was on her own, and I was expected to be the man about the house. At 15, I was living in digs in London after signing for Tottenham.
“I don’t know where it comes from. I can’t answer it. It’s not in the gene pool of my family. I just grew up having this ridiculous belief in my own ability and it stands you in really good stead because what’s guaranteed in life are a few knocks and disappointments. I have never, ever gone into a game believing these people were better than me.”
He thought he should have been in the first team at Tottenham, and told manager Bill Nicholson so, but, even when offloaded at 19 to Middlesbrough, it never shook his sense of self. Quite the opposite.
“It was my only setback as a player, and all it did was make me double determined to get where I wanted to be quicker. Four years later, I was sold for a record fee between two English clubs, and that’s for a holding midfielder – it’s the strikers that go for the big dosh. It just pushed me even more. I didn’t leave with doubts. I just thought, ‘They’ve made a big mistake’.”
And what about, at 24, going into the Liverpool dressing room, packed as it was with big-name players and character – or men, as Souness prefers to call them – for the first time?
“Not a problem. Remember, I wasn’t a bargain buy. So you know: ‘I’m here to show you how it’s done’. I was replacing Ian Callaghan, absolute legend.
“Took his No 11 shirt. Big boots to fill. Did I give it a second thought?
“Not in the slightest.”
His return to Anfield as manager after the goldfish bowl of life in Scotland became too much was a rare mistake, he says. The right club at the wrong time, he says.
“The culture had changed. No longer were the senior players in the dressing room having the influence on the lesser lads. I said to Ronnie Whelan: ‘What’s happened?’ He said: ‘The young guys just don’t listen anymore.’ I told him to kick them in training to make them listen.”
This was the first sign of a power shift – and what was to spell the end for Souness as a manager after he was sacked at Newcastle in 2006. He was handed a letter on the training ground, and decided he didn’t need it any more.
In his new book, ‘Football: My Life, My Passion’, it almost appears as if his decision to leave management for good comes down to two words: Craig Bellamy. Though he admired him as a player, he found him infuriating.
“I just got fed up dealing with the modern player. I don’t have the personality. I don’t have the patience. The modern-day manager has to be someone who is zero confrontational, and who lets everything go over their heads. You dare not fall out with any players today. Fall out with one, you fall out with half a dozen, and that means you’re falling out with – what? – £200 million worth of players. The agent tells the chairman you’ve lost the dressing room, and what’s he going to do? Pay up the manager.”
He thinks it’s the best time to be a player – and points out the £300,000-a-week player is on 600 times the average wage, while he was on £125,000 a year at Liverpool in 1984, a 12-times multiple then. Very average players are fabulously wealthy.
Of all the revelations in the book, the most surprising, perhaps, is that Souness loves to garden. The vision of him as a latter-day Capability Brown is difficult to reconcile, but even then there are echoes of Liverpool, where the Bill Shankly ethos ruled.
“If I were a street sweeper, my streets would be the cleanest in Britain,” Souness’s fellow Scot had once said.
“I can cut my grass and think I’m not happy with those two lines and go and do it all over again,” he admits.
“One regret I do have is about selling my house in Winchester. I was looking forward to designing my walled garden there.”
And so the uncompromising enforcer – “I had more to my game than being aggressive, I found football easy” – comes across almost as avuncular.
Don’t be fooled. You still cross Graeme Souness at your peril. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
I said to Ronnie Whelan, ‘what’s happened’. He said: ‘the young guys just don’t listen anymore’. I told him to kick them to make them listen