Interview: Graeme Souness on those tackles and telling it like it is

Forward-looking Graeme Souness is no sentimental fool. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
Forward-looking Graeme Souness is no sentimental fool. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
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Hey Dad,” is a familiar cry in the house of the Scotland football great, “do you remember this one?” Graeme Souness, usually minding his own business, forgetting about the past and tending his garden, knows what he’s about to view on his son James’ laptop.

“One of my tackles,” he sighs. 
Maybe the X-rater on Iceland’s 
Siggi Jonsson or the irresistible force applied to Leeds United’s Terry Yorath or the full and frank exchange of views with Dinamo Bucharest’s Lica Movila,
leaving his opponent with a broken jaw or the raked studs down the calf of Steaua Bucharest’s Gheorghe Rotariu, which was similar to the treatment meted out to Hibernian’s George McCluskey right here in Edinburgh.

James is 18 and has just gone to uni to study history and politics. The history and politics of football in Souness’ pomp often required players to get their retaliation in first, kill or be killed, and few were better at that than our man. But now he’s wincing. “Of course that stuff is embarrassing. I tell James I don’t want to look at it but he’ll leave his computer running.” Souness imitates the harrumphing gestures of a man of a certain age struggling to tether technology: “Aagh!”

Souness will be 65 next birthday. That ages all of us who ever watched this complete midfielder
strut in the red of Liverpool and the dark blue of his country. “Most midfields are made of a buzzer, a cruncher and a spreader – this boy is all three,” said Anfield manager Bob Paisley after signing him in 1978 and before he dinked the deftest of passes to Kenny Dalglish for the first of his three European Cups.

But he looks well on it. He’s still slim enough to sit in a pundits’ studio alongside the recently-retired in their spray-on breeks and not appear out of place. The eyes can still snare you the way the feet used to, the gaze being at its coldest when a modern player does something fatuous, which happens often, or today when I ask the wrong kind of question.

He’s not a sentimental person. I should know this, given that at least two sentences in his new book dismissively begin: “Some sentimental people might say… ” “I’m not nostalgic either,” he adds. “For me, it’s all about the next thing, the next phase in life.” You might think this is the triple heart bypass survivor talking, but he insists this has always been his worldview. “As ridiculous as this might sound, I honestly believe that great times are still ahead of me, maybe the best times.”

Souness played for Middlesbrough and Sampdoria as well and of course Rangers for as long as those redoubtable thighs – browned by sun-lamps permanently set to “Chestnut” – could stand the pace. But it’s as the buzzer/cruncher/spreader of Liverpool’s Anfield, making the Kop shiver and shake in awe, that he’ll be best remembered. Yet he says: “If you came to my house you would not think an ex-footballer lived there. I’ve got nothing on the walls or the shelves from my time in the game. A few years ago Wembley asked if they could borrow my European Cup medals for an exhibition. The last time the Champions League final was played there? I think it was that. Anyway, they haven’t come back yet and I haven’t chased anyone for them.”

Three European Cups, three World Cup finals with Scotland and now three books. “This one will be the last,” he says, almost apologetically. Who has three books in them? Not players universally loved; endless praise can make for a dreary read. Souness, though, is one of football’s most divisive characters – and one of the most fascinating.

Hero or villain? Take your pick. A great player, for sure, but also a great controversialist. The product of a placid and loving home who turned into a raging fireball, taking his studs-up philosophy into management with provocative signings and provocative flag-planting. This the boy from the prefabs who went on to date Miss World.

But surely there is no disputing that he’s the pre-eminent pundit. Some players-turned-analysts like to shock for effect but too many are bland. Too many former footballers clearly weren’t paying attention during their careers. Too many are reluctant to criticise current footballers and the idiocies of the game now. Do they think we’ll be impressed by this show of loyalty? Do they think it’ll keep them employed by TV and radio?

Souness works for Sky covering England’s Premier League but is not beholden to this great and overblown sport. He is his own man on telly as he’s always been in life. You don’t like it when players cup hands over mouths to deter lip-readers from detecting their probably less-than-stunning observations? Neither does Souness. You can’t stand it when players scowl and curse at perfect playing surfaces after sclaffing shots? Ditto Souness who had to perform his brutal ballet on mudheaps.

Winter breaks? They’re for wimps. Same with mental blocks and squad rotation and hiding behind stats showing you completed many passes only every single one was in your own half. The “Prem” isn’t as fantastic as it’s cracked up to be. Paul Pogba is some distance from being world-class. The equally drooled-over Eden Hazard hits that immaculate turf too readily.

And here’s a great idea: a wage cap. “We need to take good care of football’s image,” says Souness. “How is the game, and the ridiculously large sums players earn, perceived by the man in the street? That man’s sons and daughters will be expected to follow him into the stands, buying expensive season tickets and creating the atmosphere. We’ve got to keep the cost of watching football down. If that means players getting the same money for a few years rather than a 25 per cent increase every time, that’s fine.”

Players need to give more. Give more to TV, give good quote. TV after all is paying for their Ferraris and fat watches and property portfolios, so it should expect better than a couple of grudgeful post-match quotes in response to questions vetted by press officers and delivered in media-trained monotone.

This is “Graeme Souness – journalist” talking. “Apparently, that’s what I am now,” he laughs. “Well, it’s what Franny Lee calls me. We were playing golf in Portugal a fortnight ago and he said to some pals: ‘Do you know my journalist friend?’” Souness, who writes a Sunday newspaper column, used to be suspicious of hacks. “At Liverpool, we were told to have little to do with them. Now I’ve jumped the fence. I’m coming at football from a different standpoint and the job description amuses me.”

We’re talking in his home city, Edinburgh, not far from his old stamping ground in Saughton Mains but, in truth, a long, long way. The Royal Bank of Scotland complex at the Gyle is a weird worktown, Californian in concept, dotted with funky furniture for power-elevenses and between-deals chillaxing. Amid all the skinny-white outlets there’s a bookshop where Souness has been a big draw for signings and selfies. “The world of work has definitely changed,” he says, munching his sandwich. That couldn’t be more true of football management.

I begin with what I suspect is a forlorn request: would he answer Scotland’s call for a new manager at this hour of need? “No, I’m afraid not. I worked out long ago that I wasn’t cut out for management. My personality doesn’t lend itself to the job, especially what it’s become. By the time I stopped, the good times weren’t compensating for the bad. I couldn’t get away from the job. Out for a meal, a lull in the conversation, and I’d start thinking about the aggro which would be coming my way on Monday morning. That wasn’t good for my family and it certainly wasn’t good for my health.

“Listen, this is the best time to be a footballer but the worst time to be a manager. The manager isn’t the boss anymore, he’s bypassed. At Rangers it would have been pointless a disgruntled
player trying to speak to David Murray
as he would have been referred straight back to me. Now a manager can’t afford to fall out with his players. In Britain we used to laugh at Italy where 
managers would last just six games, which was my fate at Torino. Now that happens here.”

After our chat, the Ibrox job dramatically becomes vacant with Ally McCoist quickly proposing a reunion of the Souness-Walter Smith dream-team. This would seem highly unlikely. “We had five great years together there but in the end I felt I had to get out – the walls were closing in on me,” Souness says. There was pressure from 
Scottish football officialdom – and from the St Johnstone tea-lady. “I’d become the story.”

This is him on Rangers’ current travails: “It’s going to be a long road back. You’d expect me to say this but I truly believe Rangers being thrown out of the top league damaged the whole of Scottish football. In England, without a big, meaty Old Firm rivalry the game up here is nothing. People all over the world aren’t interested anymore. Would Celtic have risked selling so many good players if Rangers had been strong? No they wouldn’t. 
Everyone has suffered.

“Only in Scotland,” he adds. In his book he quotes the saying that a Scotsman would do many things for his country except live there. “There’s truth in that,” he says today, “and it’s not just to do with the weather. A helluva lot of us no longer live and work in Scotland.” His Rangers revolution of signing Catholic players, black players and glamorous English players, while it first and foremost benefited the club, also removed some of the “parochialism” from football here.

Managing internationally would, for Souness, be even more stressful. “At a club I could get a lousy result out of my system with another game three days later. Managing Scotland, that could fester for months.”

Will we ever be led from this World Cup wilderness? “We’ve got to assume this is cyclical. We haven’t produced enough good players to enable us to qualify, but maybe half a dozen will come along at the same time and we will. Do I think that will happen? We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to believe.”

Okay, but just supposing he were to take the gig, how does he think the Scottish football public would react? “No idea.” Does he suspect that here he’s probably always been more admired than loved? “Well, if that’s the case then so be it. I’ve never courted popularity. I’ve never worried what people thought of me. And in football that’s a sound outlook.”

Where does this outlook come from? I take him back to Saughton Mains where, behind the prefabs, there was an old wire fence which, for the young apprentice superstar, would produce unkind returns of a scudded ball. Possibly the most famous old wire fence in Scottish football, this was how he learned that killing first touch but, unsentimentally, Souness says: “It’s gone now.”

He didn’t have heroes or model himself on anyone and was “self-sufficient” from an early age. “Like my two older brothers before me I was sent to live with my granny to keep her company and I was supposed to be the man of that house. Strangely, I went to a different secondary school from all my pals. I had to fight my own battles and only once played the ‘big brother card’, when Spurs were interested in me and a ski instructor at Hillend got heavy because I didn’t want to go on to the slope in case I got injured. Training
with Celtic for a while there was a night walking back to Queen Street Station when I was confronted by this nutter carrying a sword. All of that was character-forming!”

Parents James and Elizabeth wondered if the baby of the family might just make it in the game and did their best to help him on his way. “Between school games on Saturday mornings and boys’ club matches in the afternoons, Mum made me a big plate of macaroni cheese. The night before Dad always cleaned my boots and gave me a massage. I’ve been lucky in my life – lucky to have come through surgery when I was all alone in intensive care staring at a ticking clock and saying to myself: ‘Just don’t go to sleep.’ That’s the only time I’ve ever been scared. But the luckiest I got was being born into that family.

“I can’t remember Dad ever telling me off. He certainly never raised his hand to me, which for a man of his era must have been rare. Mum was the one for reprimands but she could never catch me. My brothers always did, though.” His parents were in the Wembley crowd for that first European Cup. Beauty queen Mary Stavin was his date for the night but at 4am he got the folks out of bed. “Dad would have loved to have been a professional footballer so I was living his dream, which was very special.”

Before then Souness made it to Tottenham at 17 but was soon back up the road. Homesickness was blamed, a dispute resulted and MP Tam Dalyell thought the case worthy of raising in Parliament. Souness laughs. “Does homesickness sound like me? I’d met a girl and wasn’t getting into the first team. I’ve never undervalued myself!” Despite the encouragement of Dave Mackay with whom he shared an alma mater – “‘We Carrickvale boys must stick together among you English,’ he used to say” – Souness moved on to Middlesbrough where, despite being teased by Jack Charlton for using conditioner on his curls and the hairdryer which would have future room-mate Kenny Dalglish suspecting he might be gay, the player responded to the manager’s tough regime.

He’d already enjoyed his first prawn cocktail – at Whitley Bay after a trial with West Bromwich Albion – and wondered what other exotica might be out there in the world. Back in Edinburgh one summer he caught up with his chum at Hearts, Eric Carruthers. “I got in his car and said: ‘Let’s see how far we can get.’ We ended up in Athens, having made it across the Balkans, along roads with sheer drops to certain death and through villages with nothing in them, just horses and carts. In Spain on the way back I drove into a wall.”

Souness was 18. Would he let James, the same age, attempt such a wild adventure? “No way. I would worry too much. If you want to know what stresses me now it’s my kids and are they going to be all right.” Souness, who has three from his first marriage, says of his baby: “He’s not like his dad, he’s a nice lad! Luckily he doesn’t look like me. He’s a handsome boy, 6ft 2ins, who takes after Karen, his mum, although he has my dear old dad’s blue eyes. He takes the mickey out of me constantly.”

There’s just time for a question I never thought I’d ask him – what’s your favourite flower, Graeme? He’s just told me he likes to relax in his garden, though insists: “I’m more into making sure my lawn is straight. Right now I should be scarifying and putting down moss killer.” He gets up to go, a famous Edinburgh son is bolting once more. “I love this city,” he says, “and I love Glasgow people or at least the half who’ll tolerate me. But I’m married to a Sassenach who loves England’s south coast and like most men I don’t really get much of a say.”

He shakes my hand and relates a recurring dream: “Two or three times a week I’m playing football and it’s wonderful again. When I wake up I’m so disappointed.” Careful, Graeme – you’re almost getting sentimental and nostalgic.

l Graeme Souness – Football: My Life, My Passion (Headline, £20).