On the streets of Skytown, you don’t want for anything, not a courtesy bus nor an over-elaborate high-five. “They’re putting in swimming pools just now,” says the skinny-trousered lad taking me to meet the Scotland legend as construction crews dig. “Look,” he adds, as we pass an on-site shop, “you can even get your hair and beauty here.”
Maybe Souness popped into the salon today because on Sky Sports the night before last he was modelling a beard and now he is clean-shaven. The beard was much-discussed. It was, as they say, “trending”. And amid the cyber-chatter a text was pinged to his mobile at the very moment he was opining on Real Madrid’s revival of the gallactico concept – “Get rid of it.”
“The wife didn’t like it,” laughs Souness. “I grew it on holiday and came back to work straight off the plane. Her message was: ‘Don’t come home with that’.” It made him look kingly, I suggest. “No,” he insists, “it made me look too bloody old.”
There is a generation of Scots who used to have a little bit of a man-crush on Graeme Souness and I’m one of them. In the 1970s and early 1980s no other footballer played like him or looked like him – no Scot at any rate. Next to the standard-issue carrot-tops and comb-over guys, the peely wallys and the wee bauchles, Souness resembled nothing so much as a Greek god. Sounessyus carried a book of his philosophies with a secret compartment for a dagger. He was the playmaker with the haymaker, the smiling assassin who behind the fearsome moustache probably wasn’t smiling at all. Of course we winced when the confrontations got even fiercer to compensate for the player getting slower, but everything considered, we were glad he was on our side.
How he was a bad tackler and, in his mind, a bad husband and father
It is admiration laced with trepidation which prevents me from suggesting that with his attire today – the skinny-trousered look in zazzy electric blue, co-ordinated trainers – he’s trying to look too bloody young. No need for any timidity, however, for he will talk about anything. How he was a bad tackler and, in his mind, a bad husband and father. What the great football city of Liverpool thinks of him these days. Why there’s nothing new in the game. He will even go all way back to Argentina 1978 for those of us still obsessed by that World Cup. First though he wants to tell me more about his holiday.
“The reason Karen [the second Mrs Souness] wasn’t there was it was a dad-and-lad vacation. Just me and my son James, eight days in Montana, an unbelievable trip. The first two days on horseback to get there, then floating down a river trying to catch trout. This was the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He sounds like he might have been Scottish, doesn’t he? [Roots in Bavaria, actually]. In his life Bob campaigned for the area to be protected as the great outdoors but this only happened after he died. No drilling or fracking can happen there, not even farming. There was no hot water, hence the wilderness beard. But James and I had a fantastic time, camping out among the bears and wolves.”
Fracking is only a modish technical term for what used to happen to the earth below football pitches when our man – of Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Sampdoria, Rangers and on 54 occasions Scotland – stomped across them, showing who was boss. James is 15, which was his old man’s age when he left home in Edinburgh to begin asserting himself at Tottenham. Another chuckle. “Tottenham had Alan Mullery, England captain. They had Martin Peters, World Cup-winner, ten years ahead of his time. They had Steve Perryman. And there was this little squirt from Carrickvale Secondary knocking on Bill Nic’s [Nicolson’s] door demanding to know why he wasn’t getting a game.”
Our chat is happening amid sofa-heavy informality where earwiggers might be surprised to hear Souness, ostensibly on promotional duty for the new English Premier League season, detail his peak-years grooming regime. Earwigging the adjacent sofas we can hear jokes about Liverpool being workshopped for the Soccer AM show. Souness, of course, was an Anfield icon, lifting three European Cups.
But all that changed when he sold the story of his triple heart bypass to the Sun, a paper which enraged Merseyside with its claims of Liverpool fans pickpocketing the dead in the Hillsborough disaster. The Reds’ charge to the title, faltering at the last, was one of last season’s great stories, but when the cameras panned to Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen in the posh seats the third member of the holy Scotia trinity was absent. Also remembering his fall-outs while an unsuccessful Liverpool manager, I ask how he would describe relations with the city and the club now and he says: “Permanently damaged. I think I’ll remain unpopular there and that’s the price I’ll have to pay. I made an error of judgment but I can only apologise so many times. I’m just going to have to live with that.”
There are a few Souness images in the fitba’ tapestry, one being Liverpool’s tartan triumvirate threatening to run off with the 1978 European Cup. Scripted? “Totally spontaneous. Although after that, every trophy the club won, we had to repeat it. The photographers would go: ‘Give us the Jock picture.”
Another unforgettable image is Souness on a sweltering Malaga night of ultimate heartache explaining our third World Cup exit on goal difference in succession and he’s bare-chested. “Scary,” he says, but only if you don’t know that as a lad he won a Tarzan-o-like contest at Butlin’s in Ayr. “I don’t remember taking off my shirt but it sounds likely, doesn’t it?” At this point I mildly offend him by asking how his Italian adventure of a few years later shaped his personal style. No no, he was always fairly “continental” as far as his Scotland team-mates were concerned. “I used cologne – unheard of among the guys. I used conditioner in my hair – unheard of. I used a hairdryer – unheard of.” It’s written in legend that room-mate Dalglish, possibly glimpsing his first-ever barnet-blaster, was too nervous to be left alone with Souness, thinking he might be gay. “Absolutely true. I think that was 1974 when I just got into the squad for a friendly in West Germany before the World Cup. Poor Kenny.
“Among the rest of the lads I was regarded – quite correctly, incidentally – as cocky, vain, arrogant and the rest. Archie Gemmill called me the Chocolate Soldier because I’d most likely eat myself and he was dead right. But one of these things was essential for professional sport. You need to be a little bit arrogant. You certainly needed it the way football was played in my era.”
Strains of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina
Maybe the most famous image, though, is from the ’78 World Cup when the cameras panning along the team changed too late to the strains of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, pausing at Souness for the line: “The answer was there all the time.”
“Well,” he says, “I became a manager myself later so I understood why Ally [MacLeod] played the guys who’d got us to Argentina, [Bruce] Rioch and [Don] Masson.” Even though they’d come off the back of poor seasons for their clubs? He doesn’t take the bait. “Ally had to show them loyalty. But maybe I should have played in the second game [against Iran] because that was one we had to win.”
Sounessyus came down from the mountain or rather the prefabs in Edinburgh’s Saughton Mains, “Maybe where we lived wasn’t the most salubrious but I had everything a boy needed.” Dad James, a glazier, took on a second job and mum Elizabeth worked, too, but Souness is really talking about love. “My father doted on me, never once raised his hand.” His mother was firmer, reminding him he wasn’t yet the great player he reckoned himself to be. Now he is laughing at the memory of a photo of Tynecastle Boys Club Under-10s, him with a face like thunder because as captain he wasn’t sat in the middle of the front row clutching the newest trophy. “But as a young footballer I had a tremendous slice of luck having two older brothers who I was always trying to beat but who also looked out for me.”
Although he grew up on the Hearts side of town both parents hailed from just off Leith Walk. “On New Year’s Day we’d visit my granny down there and if it was Hibs’ turn to host Hearts we’d throw open the window and try and guess the score from the cheers and groans. Dad was a Hibby but I was usually playing football on Saturday afternoons. I was never a great watcher of anything. Mum always said I had ants in my pants.”
Souness thought back to his own upbringing when he and first wife Danielle split up and decided he’d failed as a parent to their children, Chantelle, Fraser and Jordan. “There was a lot of guilt because selfishly I’d been totally focused on my profession. When I became a manager it was all-consuming. I couldn’t leave it, couldn’t close the office door. I remember saying goodbye to Jordan at Edinburgh Airport, him going off to live with his mother in Majorca and turning round and saying: ‘Daddy, why aren’t you coming? Don’t you love us?’ ”
This year was their 20th wedding anniversary
The story of how he got together with his second wife might even be rejected by ITV’s Head of Drama for being too slushy and improbable. Flicking through a magazine, he stopped at a photo of an attractive woman. A short while later in a wine bar he bumped into her. Not only was Karen the woman from the mag, she had been the other half of blind dates organised separately by Manchester City great Mike Summerbee and another pal which hadn’t quite happened. This year was their 20th wedding anniversary, celebrated in the Caribbean.
“I’d like to think that these days I’m a better husband, a better dad, just a better person to be around,” he says. His last job in management, at Newcastle United, ended in 2006 with the sack. “These last eight years have been brilliant for me. James coming along has been great, my second chance at fatherhood. Mind you, maybe he’s not been all that happy, having this old git around all the time. Sometimes I wonder if he is really is my son. He’s too nice-natured!” Relations with his other kids are “tremendous”. Jordan now works for Sky, too.
The all-new, mellower, nearly cuddly Souness is also a response to those intimations of mortality. “I guess the heart trouble is hereditary. Two uncles died of it in their 30s and later my dad.” He’s even taken up golf, which he used to dismiss as being for oldsters. “I only play with friends, never in competitions, otherwise I’d be falling out with everyone again.” But he doesn’t pretend the unforgiving enforcer never existed.
Souness may not watch these TV programmes with titles like Tackling With Extreme Prejudice: Football’s All-Time Hardest of the Hard but cringes that he might feature in them. “Outrageous, embarrassing,” he says. “All I can add in my defence is that I was usually reacting to something which had gone before.” He offers up an example – “I think this is the one you mean” – but of course there are many. It’s from Rangers v Steaua Bucharest in 1988, Gheorghe Rotariu being the guy chopped down. “They had a really good player, [Marius] Lacatus, but he’d gone over the top a couple of times. I committed this ridiculous foul, completely ignoring the ball. Then I realised this wasn’t Lacatus, just some poor innocent Romanian.” Then there was Hibs’ poor, innocent George McCluskey. “Ah yes,” he says. “Some of what I did in Scotland I can be proud of, other things less so. That was me all over, really.”
One of his early TV gigs was Heysel
For a more edifying version of Graeme Souness, tune into Sky’s coverage of the Premier League, also the Champions League. I tell him my dream line-up is him flanked by Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins because it reminds me of how he mastered them both in Scotland-England games. “Well, when I was at Rangers and Neale Cooper clattered into me at training, broke three ribs and left me gasping for air, Butch sprinted like he’d never run before, stood over me and said: ‘I’ve waited ten years to see you like this’!”
One of his early TV gigs was Heysel. “That was a terrible night. We watched pictures off-screen which were horrific. What are you supposed to say about something so awful? God forbid, if I was ever in put in a similar position again then even with my experience now I would struggle.” He welcomes the influx of young blood among the pundits maybe more than he did as a player. “You want to hear what Paul Scholes has to say. For a while we didn’t know he could speak!” And despite the England team’s poor showing at the World Cup – “You’d struggle to pick one of their players who showed his true worth” – he still rates the Premier as the best league in the world.
What about Brazil, does he subscribe to the view it was the best World Cup ever? “It was good, but folk equate lots of goals with great football and sometimes there was bad defending.” I mention Spain ’82 again. “A great Brazil team,” he says. .
One of the things which irks self-proclaimed old gits like himself is the mania for the new. “There’s nothing new in football,” he insists. “Folk talk about underlapping full-backs but at Liverpool we had Alan Kennedy scoring in the 1981 European Cup final and Phil Neal doing the same in ’84. And as for false No 9s, well, I think Kenny Dalglish invented them.”
• Sky Sports will show more of the games that matter from the Barclays Premier League, plus Uefa Champions League, European Qualifiers, La Liga and Eredivisie on Sky Sports 5, your new home of European football