GRAEME Souness will never forget the moment when he realised just what it meant to be at the epicentre of a football rivalry he still believes eclipses all others.
It is now 30 years since he swaggered through the front doors at Ibrox, becoming Rangers manager and turning Scottish football on its head.
All the people who rejoiced in Rangers’ demise had such a short-term attitude, a really parochial view of it
As he made a brief return visit to Glasgow yesterday, along with his close friend and fellow Old Firm icon, Kenny Dalglish, to promote Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final showdown at Hampden, Souness smiled at the recollection of his first meeting with Celtic.
It came in a Glasgow Cup final played at Ibrox on Friday, 9 May 1986 – the night before the Scottish Cup final between Aberdeen and Hearts – in front of a crowd of more than 40,000 stirred both by the appointment of Souness and the crowning of Celtic as league champions the previous weekend.
Ally McCoist’s hat-trick earned Rangers a 3-2 win in a pulsating encounter but it wasn’t the high-octane action on the pitch which proved the biggest eye-opener for Souness.
“I was just relating the story to Kenny as we came here today,” he said. “The thing I remember most about that was that I had a black leather coat on and a black polo neck.
“It was a sunny night and when I was outside the ground, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a guy dragging his young son, who had a Celtic scarf on, towards me. The kid was terrified, he was cowering.
“The man stood right in front of me and he said to his boy, ‘there you are son, there’s the bad man’. Welcome to Glasgow!”
Souness was as happy to be the pantomime villain in the eyes of the Celtic support during his tumultuous five years in charge of Rangers as he was gratified to earn the hero- worship of the Ibrox support.
He freely admits he was fortunate to get the job at the start of a period of unprecedented investment in the playing squad. But he feels the glee expressed by rival supporters at Rangers’ financial collapse and plunge down the divisions of recent years has been a misguided celebration of collective self-harm for Scottish football.
“It has greatly damaged Scottish football,” claimed Souness. “All the people who rejoiced in Rangers’ demise had such a short-term attitude, a really parochial view of it.
“I don’t live in Scotland and the interest in the game here from England has diminished. People spoke about it in England but they don’t any more. The way they see it is, ‘just give Celtic the title in August’. That’s the way it’s worked out. In any competitive business it’s not healthy for one dominant force to have a monopoly.
“I worried for Rangers because I felt they were treated harshly. I felt it was such a parochial attitude and the rest of Scottish football would suffer. That’s exactly what’s happened.
“Look at Celtic – would they really have sold Fraser Forster, Virgil van Dijk and Victor Wanyama if Rangers were still challenging? They have sold some of their best players, so their supporters are turning up to see not such a good Celtic team.
“That’s shown itself in the numbers who turn up at Celtic Park. Is it 40,000 season-ticket holders? And 10-15,000 don’t turn up for the games? Why? Because they’re not enjoying what they’re seeing. If Rangers were strong, Celtic would have to be stronger.
“I had an enormous amount of luck coming to Rangers when I did. The state of the club, the firepower it had in terms of what we could buy, what we could pay.
“Teams in England were having to rebuild their stadiums after the Justice Taylor Report. Lots of things conspired to make it a very attractive job. Lots of things worked in our favour at that time. When I look back now, I was totally fearless. My life had been one long story of success after success. The only real exception was, at 19, Tottenham saying, ‘we’re not sure if you’re going to be good enough’ . They let me go.
“Other than that, it had just been a succession of winning trophies and games. Coming here at that time was a young-man thing. I was 33 and I was fearless. Today, I wouldn’t have anything like the bravery or conviction that I had then.”
Souness has been impressed by Mark Warburton’s approach to the job in his first season at Rangers, but believes Sunday will provide both the Englishman and his players with a test significantly beyond anything they have had to face so far.
“It’s a big step up for Mark,” said Souness. “He’ll get some idea of that at the weekend. The higher up you go in football, you are asked to do new things. It will be difficult for Rangers to play the same way they have been every week in the Championship.
“You are asking your brain to operate quicker, to send that signal to your legs so you can do things quicker.
“Rangers play attractive football but will Celtic allow them to do that, because they will close them down quicker.
“As a Rangers supporter, I just hope they make a fist of it this time. In the League Cup semi-final last year, we didn’t compete with Celtic. We got brushed away easily.
“It will be very difficult for Rangers to win the game on Sunday, but not impossible. I just want them to make sure that, when they leave Hampden, they have given a good account of themselves and given the supporters something to shout about.”
• Graeme Souness was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.