Graeme Souness’s on-field exploits and achievements should be more than sufficient to see him revered at Liverpool as one of their greatest ever servants. But while he is not exactly persona non grata at Anfield, he or his legacy are not exactly embraced by the Liverpool faithful either.
The reasons for this ambivalence towards the man are myriad and complicated but basically boil down to a relatively poor management record during his three years in charge of Liverpool from 1991 to 1994, and more importantly, in many people’s eyes, his highly crass and insensitive decision to sell the story of his heart operation to a certain newspaper on the third anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
This is unfortunate because make no mistake, Souness was a footballing giant on the field and surely one of the top five players to ever pull on the famous Liver Bird-adorned jersey.
Born in Edinburgh in 1953, Souness moved south to sign for Tottenham Hotspur at the age of 15. Such was his confidence and self-belief that by the age of 19 he was banging on the office door of Spurs’ manager Bill Nicholsen to demand answers as to why he was not being picked ahead of players such as Alan Gilzean, Martin Chivers and Martin Peters.
This self-confidence would be a continuing trait throughout Souness’s career, and it is fair to surmise that at no time could he have been considered a wilting flower. In his peak years at Liverpool, he was described by Bob Paisley as having so much style and class that when he went up for the pre-match rituals as captain rather than toss-up with a coin he would probably prefer to use a gold credit card.
However, despite his self-belief, Souness suddenly disappeared from White Hart Lane as a teenager and returned to Scotland and his family. Spurs were nonplussed by this turn of events, and efforts to get in touch with him and persuade him to return to London were to no avail.
The club suspended him and threatened to continue to do so until the end of his contract if he did not come back. Eventually, Souness returned of his own violation and explained that he had ‘felt homesick’. This was the story he stuck with for nearly forty years before revealing in his 2017 autobiography that there was simply a girl back in Edinburgh he had fallen for.
Notwithstanding his talent, Souness never made the breakthrough at Spurs and a solitary first-team appearance as a substitute in a UEFA Cup was all he had to show for his efforts. He did, however, captain the Tottenham Hotspur youth side to FA Youth Cup success against Coventry City in 1970.
While his teammates were lifting the trophy after a four-game marathon final, Souness was denied a medal after having been sent off for fighting with Coventry’s Dennis Mortimer. Both men would, of course, go onto to lift the First Division title and then European Cup as captains more than a decade later. Incidentally, the Coventry City goalkeeper in that final was none other than a certain David Icke.
After finally calling time on his period at White Hart Lane, Souness moved to the north-east and Middlesbrough at the end of 1972. He then spent slightly over five years at the Ayresome Park club who were in the Second Division for the first year-and-a-half of that time.
The appointment of Jack Charlton as Middlesbrough manager in the summer of 1973 was instrumental in Souness’s development as a player, as was Charlton’s signing of legendary Celtic midfielder Bobby Murdoch. Together they managed to knock some of the rough edges off of Souness’s game, and he became known as a tough-tackling yet artistic central midfielder.
Souness says that Jack Charlton was not initially that taken by Souness, and felt that he was neither as good as he should have been or as he thought he was. At the time, Souness concedes, he was enjoying the notoriety and fame of being a big fish in a small pond rather than making the most of his undoubted talent. It was Murdoch and Charlton together that opened up his eyes to what he could go onto achieve within the game.
Between 1973 and 1977, Middlebrough progressed under Charlton and were promoted at a canter. They threatened to take the First Division by storm, and at one point sat at the top of the table early in their first season back in the top flight. The League Cup semi-finals were reached, as were the FA Cup quarter-finals, and the future looked bright.
In March 1976, Middlesbrough won 2-0 away to Liverpool with Souness anchoring the midfield, and exactly a year later ‘boro travelled back to Anfield for an FA Cup quarter-final.
Liverpool triumphed by a 2-0 scoreline that day but what stuck in the memory of Bob Paisley and his backroom team was the impervious performance of Souness. At one point he and Liverpool hard-man Jimmy Case had a coming together that ended with the Liverpool man prostrate on the deck with Souness holding him by the scruff of the neck, shaking his fist in his face.
In the summer of 1977, Charlton unexpectedly quit and with his departure so went some of the impetus the club had built up. By now Souness was 24 and approaching his peak years. He once again was beginning to feel that his talents deserved to be showcased on a bigger stage than that afforded by Middlesbrough.
In the opening months of the 1977-78 season, several clubs were said to be tracking the progress of Souness. Amongst them were Leeds United and Manchester City, but when Liverpool’s name started to be mentioned as a possible point of destination for Souness, there was only one place he wanted to go.
By Souness’s admission, he went out of his way to make the move come off. He deliberately antagonised everybody at Ayresome Park with his attitude and a series of press articles and interviews in an effort to force Middlesbrough’s hand, and in the end, his ploys worked and a fee of £350,000 was accepted.
Souness joined Liverpool in January 1978 and went straight into the team for a home game against West Bromwich Albion. Upon walking into an Anfield changing room laden with stars and household names, anyone could have been forgiven for experiencing a fluttering of proverbial butterflies at what lay ahead. Not Souness. He has repeated often how he felt immediately that he belonged, that he was as good as the players he found himself playing alongside and that he had absolutely no doubts or feelings of inferiority.
Four months later he was laying on the winning goal in the European Cup Final at Wembley.
Unable to play in Liverpool’s quarter-final victory over Benfica, Souness made his full European debut in the second leg of Liverpool’s semi-final clash with Borussia Monchengladbach, when Liverpool’s 3-0 victory overturned a 2-1 first-leg deficit.
The final against Bruges of Belgium was a dour affair which was ultimately settled by a solitary second-half goal scored by Kenny Dalglish. That his effort was supplied to him courtesy of a slide-rule Souness pass perhaps marked the start of their understanding on the pitch.
As new signings, the two men had first got to know each other due to being housed in adjoining rooms at the Liverpool Holiday Inn following their respective transfers. While Dalglish would invariably retire early to bed each night, the single Souness would more often than not be out on the town enjoying himself.
Souness’s form on the pitch was such that his behaviour off it was tolerated, but he himself notes that it was just as well, as Liverpool would have had no compunction at selling him on if his standards had dropped.
The next three seasons were ones of unbounded success for Souness and Liverpool. The 1978-79 season saw Liverpool field a magnificent side with Souness firmly established in the centre of the park. Liverpool romped to the title and could have won the Double save for an FA Cup semi-final defeat by Manchester United after a replay.
1979-80 was almost an identical season, with the title secured once more in tandem with another FA Cup semi defeat, while 1981 saw Liverpool take the European Cup and League Cup to the Anfield trophy room.
These were peak years for Souness. He strutted around the pitch, imposing himself on matches and opponents alike with his fierce tackling and adroit passing skills. Never shy of putting a foot in, there was so much more in Souness’s armoury than simply being a henchman.
He had vision, positional sense, was two-footed, had a great shot, and was as effective going forward and he was at providing cover and protection for his defence on the rare occasions Liverpool found themselves under the cosh.
By this time, he was also very much established in the Scottish national team. Having made his Scotland debut in 1974 as a Middlesbrough, it was not until his move to Anfield that he came back into consideration. Making the squad for the disastrous 1978 World Cup sojourn to Argentina, Souness only made one appearance in the finals, but by 1981 he had become a regular starter for his country.
The 1981-82 season did not start well for Liverpool, though. By Boxing Day, Liverpool had slipped to mid-table and the writing was on the wall for some of Liverpool’s established stars.
Bob Paisley felt that as part of a necessary overhaul, he was going to have to replace Phil Thompson as captain.
There was only one candidate for the job.
In next week’s article, we will look at Souness’s final two-and-a-half years at Liverpool along with his later playing career in Italy and Scotland.