The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 53

November 14, 2010

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This is from TAG 41 – January 1995


With the media’s rehabilitation of Graeme Souness moving into overdrive, you just knew you could rely on TAG to bring out the hatchet, didn’t you?

Graeme Souness – A Soccer Revolutionary – Stephen F Kelly
Headline Publishing – £16.99

In an early edition of When Saturday Comes there was a photograph of a clean-shaven, fresh-faced youth about to play for Spurs in the Youth Cup Final circa 1970. Readers were invited to guess his identity, with the single, but extremely valuable, clue that ‘he was sent off in the replay‘.
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It was then just a question of painting in a Joe Stalin moustache to see that the young man was indeed our very own Graeme Souness. During the transition from the adolescent in the WSC photo to the grizzled veteran on the sleeve of Kelly’s book, Graeme Souness became one of the most controversial figures in British football. This book is the first serious attempt to provide a comprehensive portrait of the man and his football career.

In the very first chapter Stephen Kelly explicitly recognises that it is difficult to remain objectively neutral about Souness. He says, “You can love him or hate him but he rarely inspires mere indifference“. During his sojourn in Glasgow it would be fair to say that TAG did not remain indifferent to him. For many TAG contributors, including (especially?) me, he became a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein hate-figure, the demon at the heart of the evil Empire. When he left Rangers, many in Scotland were glad to see the back of him, and there was a certain measure of grim satisfaction in watching him, as we predicted, relentlessly driving Liverpool into the ground.

Leith Said, Souness Mended

Stephen Kelly’s book covers the whole of Souness’s career, but the bulk of it concerns itself with the fiasco of his managerial stint at Anfield, which is understandable, given that the author is a Merseysider. Kelly seeks to discover why Souness was so spectacularly successful in Glasgow, but so cataclysmically disastrous in Liverpool.

One possible answer can be found in the sub-title ‘A Soccer Revolutionary‘. Kelly persuasively argues that Souness was the right man at the right time for an ailing Rangers club which required radical, revolutionary change, while he was exactly the wrong man for a Liverpool club which required merely reform rather than convulsive revolution.

My heart sank when I read the first chapter of the book which seemed to be setting the course for a sustained defence of the man and his methods. That chapter contains lavish flattery which at times almost descends into homo-eroticism. Thus, Graeme is variously described as “handsome, suntanned, dashing, immaculate, charming, distinguished, class, a winner, fearless, visionary“.

However, the preface includes a disclaimer to the effect that the book was written ‘without the co-operation of Graeme Souness’ and as a result, in subsequent chapters the author has obviously felt quite free to expose the man’s failings in a way which would probably not have been possible had Souness been looking over his shoulder. Stephen Kelly has been able to present the case for the prosecution virtually without venturing any opinions of his own. He simply lets the facts speak for themselves.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingA whole chunk of the book is devoted to detailing Souness’s profligate dealings in the transfer market. The huge expenditure at Ibrox can theoretically all be justified by the delivery of success on a scale unseen for several generations. Therefore, although some of his Rangers purchases could charitably be described as eccentric (eg Mel Sterland bought for £800,000 in March 1989 and sold in July of the same year for £600,000) it is practically impossible to criticise the Ibrox spending spree – because it worked !

It was different at Anfield.

In less than 3 years at Liverpool he signed 15 players for in excess of £21 million. He sold 18 players for £12 million. In exchange for the net deficit of three players and £9 million, Liverpool won one FA cup (without having to play any other Premier opposition) and went from being THE top club, albeit in temporary recession, to a club in deep crisis.

Many of his purchases turned out to be appallingly ill-advised.

£2.2 million for Mark Wright.

£2.9 million for Dean Saunders (sold 15 months later for a loss of £600,000).

£1.25 million for Mark Walters, who was obviously well past his sell-by date.

£1.5 million for Michael Thomas.

£2.3 million for Paul Stewart.

£300,000 for Istvan Kozma, who made only a handful of appearances before being given a free transfer.

There are many others, but you don’t have to be Mr Micawber to see that this type of reckless expenditure is going to lead to misery. Particularly since the other side of the balance sheet showed the outgoing of such as Beardsley, Staunton, McMahon, Houghton, Venison, Burrows, and Marsh for a combined total of £6.3 million. (ie precisely the same amount as he paid for a defence consisting of goalkeeper David James and the deadly duo of Ruddock and Dicks).

The Souness Setting in the West

(don’t you think you’re overdoing these crap puns? – Ed)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLet’s rewind a bit, though, to the bit we’re really interested in, namely his managership of Rangers. Even before Graeme removed a chunk of George McCluskey’s leg in his first outing in a light blue jersey, he was not a popular figure in much of Scotland. Stephen Kelly doesn’t really get to grips with the underlying reasons for that. The truth is that Souness arrived at Ibrox already carrying a suit-case full of ill-will which he’d accumulated through his actions and utterances in earlier years. We all accepted that he was an immensely talented player. But even the most bloodthirsty patriots amongst us had been dismayed by some of the gratuitous brutality which he dished out to opponents while wearing the dark blue of Scotland. His playing style was very much of the ‘stitch that’ variety.

Despite what Stephen Kelly says about Graeme’s on-field leadership qualities and never-say-die spirit, my impression was that when Scotland were struggling Souness simply disappeared from the action. OK, when we were winning he would be strutting around, running the game, making us proud to have such a wonderful player. But when we were losing, he conspicuously never stood up to be counted, except when the opportunities arose to realign the anatomies of opponents. I always had the impression that he was playing for himself and not for the team. This notion was reinforced when he was frequently quoted as saying that he wished he had been born in England where he would have had a better chance of winning something at international level. This was hardly guaranteed to make him a pin-up north of the border.

I don’t really want to descend to ‘ah kent his faither’ type of criticism, but Souness always seemed to affect the air of the cosmopolitan boy fae Leith made good, who had nothing but contempt for his erstwhile countrymen in their dingy tenements. Indeed, at times Stephen Kelly echoes that same contempt for Scots people. One chapter begins, “The secret is that Graeme Souness is not a Scot at all. He’s really an Englishman…..There are none of the parochial tattoos that mark the Scot…….(he’s) a man who even tackles his spaghetti without a knife”.

This is, of course, pretty rich coming from Kelly, some of whose xenophobic fellow-nationals have been belching, burping, farting, puking, raping, pillaging, robbing and slashing their way round the world for the last forty years. Yeah, but they eat their spaghetti with a fork and spoon to demonstrate what cosmopolitan sophisticates that they are.

Fucking humbug. The point is that Souness himself probably agrees that life has a promotion structure in which Scots should aspire to Englishness.

Easter Uprising

The disgraceful scenes which Souness precipitated at Easter Road in his first game for Rangers did thus not come as any surprise to seasoned observers of the man. Rather they were par for the course, and set an immediate example for the kind of unhinged mayhem which followed Rangers around for most of his tenure. If there was to be a revolution then it certainly was not going to be a bloodless one.

There had been a time when the atrocious behaviour of some Rangers fans shamed the players and the club. Now the majority of the vast Rangers support looked on aghast at the brutality which was regularly occurring on the field. You simply could not escape the conclusion that the carnage was being deliberately orchestrated from the top. The player-manager contrived to be ordered off three times in his first season. Many of his expensive imports followed their leader’s example in getting to the bath first. Hardly a week seemed to go by without some fresh outrage occurring in a Rangers game.

If it wasn’t blood-letting on the pitch, then it was referees being harried and verbally abused in car-parks, or doors, crockery, TV sets and other articles of furniture being trashed during fearsome fits of unimaginable rage. It got to the stage that, as if it wasn’t bad enough for individual Rangers players to be sent off, they were now frequently being dismissed in pairs, and occasionally in trebles.

I remember being at Ibrox one day when they were playing Hamilton Accies. Rangers quickly established a 2-0 lead, and thereafter it was just a case of playing out time and picking up the points. Then, for some wholly inexplicable reason Graham Roberts took it into his head to whack an Accies player in the face with his shoulder. The inevitable red card followed. Within seconds Ian Durrant was up the tunnel after a criminally insane challenge on Albert Craig. Why did they do it ? It’s obvious, isn’t it ?

The Case for the Prosecution

All of this was a mere hors d’ oeuvre to the banquet of madness served up in October 1987 when the Old Firm match at Ibrox got seriously out of control. Even by the traditionally poisonous standards of the fixture, that particular match was played out against an explosive back-drop of potentially dangerous hysteria following the early dismissal of a player from each side. Butcher’s later expulsion merely exacerbated the tension. Even allowing for a degree of over-reaction by the authorities, the fact that four players ended up in the dock on criminal charges was an unprecedented and completely undesirable development.

Not that Graeme Souness appeared able to learn any sort of lessons from such a humiliating event. Just over three years later Rangers had three players dismissed in a cup-tie against Celtic, in a quite stunning display of riotous indiscipline. That in itself was only part of a sequence which saw five Rangers players ordered off in a week. Stephen Kelly makes the telling point that since the departure of Souness Rangers have become the best behaved team in the Premier League. The conclusion to be drawn is transparent.

In between times Graeme contented himself with conducting a running feud with the SFA and those sections of the media who dared to criticise him. Kelly tells us that his dispute with STV over the infamous picture of him in the tunnel, while he was the subject of a touchline ban, still carried on even after his move to Liverpool. In a demonstration of petulant vindictiveness well above and beyond the call of duty he continued to insist that his interviews as Liverpool manager with the ITV network were not to be made available to STV.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe long-running antagonism between himself and the SFA was more serious and continues to have adverse repercussions for Scottish football. This is an important matter which Stephen Kelly barely addresses, but which I’m going to address here –

Rabid Dogs

For all the praise which Souness has rightly received for re-establishing Rangers as top dogs in Scotland, his role in bringing our game to its present parlous state has not been properly scrutinised. On the contrary, he is frequently credited with ‘bringing Scottish football into the 20th century’.

Well, as Lloyd Grossman says, let’s look at the evidence.

Only 3 years before his arrival here a Scottish team (Aberdeen) won a European trophy. During his reign at Ibrox another Scottish team (Dundee United) reached a European Final. His arrival coincided with Scotland participating in the World Cup Finals for the fourth consecutive time. Without wishing to indulge in the Caledonian cringe I’d say that, in general terms, we weren’t doing too bad for a small country, and we were being reasonably successful in cutting our coat to suit our cloth.

Theoretically, a revitalised Rangers ought to have had a beneficial effect on our international standing, both in European and World competition. Instead, a mere eight years after his dramatic appearance in Glasgow, and only three after his equally dramatic disappearance, the reputation of our football is at its lowest ever ebb. How come?

The commentators cannot have it both ways. They cannot credit him with revolutionising the game for the better, while continuing to maintain that things are demonstrably worse than before his advent. Is it any coincidence that we failed to qualify for the last World Cup and that our domestic teams are now bombing comprehensively in European competition?

Of course there are many reasons for our current failings, but I would suggest that Graeme Souness has a substantial degree of culpability. Firstly, the money mania which he initiated resulted in others trying to follow suit, leading to spiralling transfer prices and grossly inflated wages for ‘stars’ who are clearly incompetent judged by standards beyond oor ain midden. Celtic were driven to the edge of bankruptcy trying to keep up. Others have spent beyond their means. I find it fairly depressing to hear supporters of many clubs who are barely financially viable complaining that their manager hasn’t been given enough money to buy players. What happened to the old virtues of rearing your own players and ‘cutting your coat etc’ ?

The recent outbreak of dancing in the streets of Raith is a much clearer indication of the direction most clubs should be heading in.

Secondly, Graeme’s insistence on signing non-Scots has ultimately had a deleterious effect on the Scottish national team. This has manifested itself in a number of ways. An obvious one is that for every foreigner at a club there has to be one less of the local natives. I give John Spencer as one example of a player who could barely get a game at Ibrox, but who has since returned to Hampden as an international player. This is a statement of fact, and not a criticism. The football club is obviously entitled to select whoever it likes, but one consequence for Rangers themselves was that they were never at full strength in the European Cup, as a consequence of the ’3 foreigner rule’ .

Much more seriously for Scotland, the influx of foreigners had the effect of diluting the Scotland allegiance of the Rangers support, which at one time was the largest and most fanatical section of the Tartan Army. How could it be otherwise when in matches with England there were more Rangers players in the opposition ranks than in our own team? Crowds at Scotland games nose-dived, helped by some curious Ibrox propaganda to the effect that the Scotland team were in some way the ‘SFA’s team’. Rangers players were mysteriously, some might say fraudulently, withdrawn from the national team. Rangers fans were encouraged to believe that the SFA were conducting a vendetta against their club. Ergo – don’t support ‘the SFA’s team’ support the Rangers and no-one else.

By coincidence, while I was reading Kelly’s book I heard a Rangers fan on the radio Clyde phone-in complaining that the Premier League fixtures had been cancelled on the Saturday before Scotland’s recent match with Russia. The caller said that he didn’t care about Scotland. Pre-1986, such heresy would have been completely unthinkable, far less utterable. Souness, more than any other individual, has been responsible for creating the climate in which that attitude has flourished.

In Richard Gough’s book there is a deeply offensive remark in which Guff says that ‘Graeme Souness simply laughed each time Andy Roxburgh’s name was mentioned’. I wonder why. Maybe because Roxburgh hadn’t bought all his managerial success with other people’s money. Maybe because Roxburgh didn’t behave like a school bully. Maybe because Roxburgh didn’t smash TV sets, have punch-ups with his players, or shout and swear at tea-ladies. Maybe because Roxburgh was a civilised human being who could admit when he’d made a mistake. Guff’s quote is so offensive because it yet again betrays a contempt for, not just the Scottish manager, but for Scotland and the Scots themselves.

If you think that that last sentence is over the top then consider some of Souness’s other remarks. For instance, he was quoted as saying that he couldn’t win the European Cup with eleven Scots. Why not? Remind me again how many non-Scots were in the only Scottish team ever to have performed the feat?

This particular ball has been picked up and run with by a squad of journalists who, by their constant denigration of Scottish football, have encouraged a defeatist attitude about our game. We certainly won’t succeed if we convince ourselves that we’re literally hopeless. As I write, a team made up entirely of part-time Swedes has comprehensively dismantled the multi-national Man Utd. The truth is that a team of eleven Scots could win the European Cup.

But not if Graeme Souness was the manager.

On leaving Rangers, Souness said, “I felt I had gone as far as I could with Rangers or as far as I would be allowed to go”. In other words, this little country with its little horizons is not big enough for Graeme Souness. By express implication the fault lies with Scotland and the Scots and not with Souness. We’re a’ oot o’ step except oor Graeme.

The sheer conceit of the man tended to obscure the truth, which was that he had been the author of all his own misfortunes. At no time did he conduct himself with anything even approaching common decency or dignity. If Rangers won, he’d be on TV crowing about it. If they lost, he’d be out in the car-park haranguing the match officials or inside smashing up the dressing-room, blaming everyone except himself.

The stark truth, unpalatable for many, is that Graeme Souness was completely hopeless as a football manager, and that Liverpool got precisely what they deserved when they hired him.

His success at Ibrox was founded entirely on harnessing massive economic power. The Liverpool club which Shankly built was the product of years of painstaking hard work, not just to build one team, but to put in place the infrastructure which would continually regenerate it. When Liverpool entered the transfer market it was not to buy a team off-the-shelf, but rather it was to renew used components, while allowing the existing machine to continue functioning.

All of that took real skill, real dedication, real hard work, real vision. Graeme was far too impatient to indulge in the real hard labour of football management, and simply destroyed everything which had made Liverpool great in the first place. Because Rangers spending power was so grossly disproportionate to the rest of Scottish football he had to do little more than spend a few million to guarantee success. That tactic was never going to work in England. The fact that the Liverpool board couldn’t see this is an indictment of them. If they’d been reading TAG they could have saved themselves millions, and saved their supporters three years of agony.

How Souness Now?

Having said all of that, I have a certain degree of sympathy for Graeme Souness. His devotion to football has caused him domestic disharmony and health problems, and no-one can take any pleasure in that. By virtue of his domineering personality he made a lot of enemies who gloated when he fell. Having come in right at the top, he had a long long way to fall, with the added handicap that he didn’t recognise the places he was passing on the way down.

I don’t believe that he’s really the ogre that I have painted him. I believe Stephen Kelly when he says that Graeme can be a charming and sensitive companion. My abiding criticism of him, which I believe is borne out by Kelly’s book, is that, great player though he was, he simply did not have any of the qualities required to manage a football club. If nothing else, the fact that I’ve rambled on at such length about him is in itself recognition of the fascination which he exerts. Love him or hate him? Read Kelly’s book and make up your own mind.


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