Graeme Souness to be stage hit for Alan Bissett

Graham Souness 'introduced what you could broadly call Thatcherite values into the game' says Alan Bissett. Picture: Allan Milligan
Graham Souness 'introduced what you could broadly call Thatcherite values into the game' says Alan Bissett. Picture: Allan Milligan
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HE IS one of the most iconic, influential and irascible sporting figures Scotland has produced.

Graeme Souness was the fearless footballing midfield general who led Liverpool to cup glory before sparking a far-reaching revolution when he took up the challenge of reviving the fortunes of his beloved Glasgow Rangers.

He was revered and reviled in almost equal measures after being appointed player-manager in the spring of 1986.

Now the story of Souness, the huge impact he made on the game north of the Border and his downfall as a manager after walking out on Rangers – at the height of a title race – is to be turned into a major new play.

One of Scotland’s leading playwrights has revealed his plans to bring the Souness saga to the stage in 2016 – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of his arrival at the Ibrox giants.

And today, The Scotsman offers an exclusive sneak preview of the one-man show, as part of The Write Stuff, the newspaper’s weekly series devoted to Scotland’s best writing talent.

Falkirk-born Alan Bissett – an award-winning novelist, playwright and performer, hopes his play will appeal to both football fans and theatre lovers.

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The long-time Rangers fan may himself play Souness on stage in the show, which is said to chart “the rise and fall of one of European football’s most iconic and divisive talents”.

Bissett told The Scotsman: “Souness was the manager when I was first getting into them, and his arrival had this immediate effect on everyone my age, and on Scottish football. Almost overnight Rangers became the coolest thing in the world.

“In my memory, he and Margaret Thatcher are these twin colossi striding across the landscape of my childhood, and so I wanted to explore his significance – for me and for Scotland.

“He is absolutely crucial to the story of Scottish football over the last 30 years. Even apart from his huge significance as a player, he absolutely transformed the game, for better or worse.

“He introduced what you could broadly call Thatcherite values into the game, which certainly made for some excitement and glamour in Scottish football, but ultimately and indirectly led to the financial instability we’ve seen in major clubs, including Rangers, in the last five years.

“But he turned an ailing club into a side that dominated Scottish football for another 25 years, overturning traditions as he went. He brought English internationals to Glasgow, bought Scotland’s first black player and ended Rangers’ sectarian signing policy.

“All that’s apart from the fact that he was one of the greatest players Scotland ever produced.”

Bissett is working on the play after co-editing a collection of essays about the relationship between Rangers, their fans, and British and Scottish national identity, which was published in the run-up to the independence referendum.

Bissett’s was one of the most prominent cultural voices to enter the independence debate, and his work will be one of the few plays to have been inspired by Scottish football.

A notable exception is Des Dillon’s Singin’ I’m No’ A Billy He’s A Tim, a comedy about a Rangers fan and a Celtic fan locked up together on the day of an Old Firm match.

Bissett added: “Most playwrights probably think football receives enough public attention as it is, and they’re not wrong, but football is an integral part of Scottish society and as ripe for examination as anything else. There are also great difficulties in discussing the Old Firm – ­because you run the risk of angering about half of Glasgow – so playwrights tend to go for the funny bone. But I want to do a serious piece of theatre about a serious man, and football hasn’t been treated that way onstage very often.

“I think the play will appeal to football fans, who maybe don’t consider themselves regular theatre-goers, but I also think theatre-goers will get a great ­experience as well.

“The language of the play is heightened, almost Shakespearean – and Souness’s character is so mythical and powerful in nature that I’m hoping people who have no interest in Scottish football will still have an entertaining, and sometimes challenging, night of theatre.”

The extract featured in The Scotsman today recalls the disastrous debut of Souness in Rangers colours, when he was sent off against Hibs at Easter Road, sparking an ugly melee involving almost every player on the pitch and the first of many run-ins with the Scottish Football ­Association.

Bissett said: “His reputation on the park, and his leadership gifts, were fearsome. He was only 33 when he became player-manager of Rangers and went about things with an utter confidence and certainty – transforming the nature of the Scottish game around him – which ultimately hardened into an inflexibility and constant war-footing.

“He came into conflict with almost everyone around him in Scotland – his players, referees, the SFA, journalists, even his own fans – and yet never deviated from the conviction that he was right and everyone else wrong.”

• Alan Bissett’s Collected Plays will be published by Freight on 3 March.

Alan Bissett’s Souness: An exclusive extract

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