He is Souness, Graeme Souness, no-one likes him ... he won't care

WHEN Graeme Souness steps from the Blackburn Rovers team bus and strolls towards the front entrance of Celtic Park with his trademark swagger this week, he will relish every epithet hurled at him from the assembled Parkhead support.

Outwardly there won’t be any real indication that he is even listening to the abuse that is sure to be directed at him but, inside, at the very core of his being, the former Rangers manager will sense the adrenalin flow that fuels his fierce competitiveness and his endless ambition.

It is ironic that his first return to Scotland as a manager - friendly games apart - since he left Rangers to join Liverpool almost a dozen years ago should bring him to the east end of Glasgow to face the Ibrox side’s greatest rivals.

Ironic because when Souness arrived in Glasgow in 1986 to become the player-manager of Rangers he insisted that games against Celtic meant no more than any other league match. "You get the same number of points defeating Celtic as you do when you defeat any of the other teams," he told the support.

It was not a popular assessment, but it was typical of Souness that he should so swiftly attempt to defuse the importance of one of the sacred cows of Scottish football, the Old Firm game. It was his attempt to sweep away the stifling parochialism that he felt smothered not just the game, but also the nation. On this particular aspect of his philosophy he soon changed his mind - not an easy thing for him to do - realising that having the upper hand over Celtic in their meetings over the season would usually produce the trophy wins he wanted. Winning the Old Firm games became important, too, because the pressures that surrounded them, the unbearable tensions that these games placed on the players, brought out the combative streak that made him such an influential force in any midfield he played in.

Every Old Firm manager would become edgy, irritable, and often totally paranoid in the days preceding these Glasgow derby games. Souness was not immune to some of those symptoms, but you always knew that he was ready for the game as a player and as a manager. It was as if he could hardly wait for the matches to commence.

After initially trying to minimise the crucial nature of the fixture, he quickly became a convert to the cause of what the Celtic chairman Sir Robert Kelly had always called "the greatest club game in the world".

The ferocious rivalry, the massive crowds, the whole sense of theatre in the raw, appealed to his instincts. Of course, he had always thrived in that kind of atmosphere, which is why his return to Parkhead will not worry him one little bit.

His old Liverpool team-mate Alan Hansen once told me a remarkably illuminating tale about the man. In a European Cup semi-final against Dinamo Bucharest, Souness had been singled out for special treatment from one of the Romanian hatchet men during the first leg at Anfield. As Hansen explained it, the man from Bucharest who had been handed the job of midfield enforcer came off second best and after one clash with Souness he suffered a broken jaw.

Hansen recalls: "When we went to Romania for the second leg of that tie, Graeme was targeted from the moment we arrived. He had to put up with threatening gestures from the airport personnel, from the soldiers and from the police. Their meaning was clear: if he escaped with only a broken leg he was going to be fortunate. Before the game itself, at the warm-up 80,000 fans howled at him whenever he touched the ball. That was the signal for the rest of us to make sure he had the ball as often as possible! It was a wind-up and Graeme knew that, and he responded by playing keepie-up, out there in the middle of the field as cool as you like in the most hostile atmosphere any of us had ever known.

"He handled that so well that his attitude rubbed off on the other players and instead of desperately defending the single goal lead we had from the first game we went on to add two more and coast into the final. Graeme was just incredible that day."

To anyone who knows Souness, his reaction would not come as a surprise. Just as he would not be intimidated on the field of play, nor would he ever allow himself to show the slightest hint of concern at the menace emanating from a baying mob of fans.

This season he has constantly downplayed the importance of the UEFA Cup and in the build-up to this week’s game that has continued. It is as if the match matters little when placed alongside the challenges of the Premiership.

Don’t believe that for a moment. Graeme Souness will want to win against Celtic, and the more the Parkhead support vilifies him the more his resolve will grow. He is not the type of man who plays friendlies, not the type of man who will happily accept defeat even on the training ground, and assuredly not the type of man who will want to have a European defeat from Celtic on his Blackburn CV.

Souness is one of the most ruthlessly single-minded men I have ever met in football. He will go into that Parkhead cauldron on Thursday cocooned in his unshakeable self-belief and all the taunts will have no effect on him. Because, frankly, he doesn’t give a damn.

All that counts for Graeme Souness is winning. That is how it has always been and that will never change.