Graeme Souness: A masterclass in making foes

graeme souness

By now, after a decade of punditry, everyone has an opinion on Graeme Souness, particularly if you favour the red half of Manchester. Adopting a no-nonsense approach to the beautiful game has endeared him to many, but disenchanted others. He’s often exposed for his attempts at shoehorning Paul Pogba into criticism or crucified for his unfashionable school of thought that the sport is a ‘man’s game’.

But while Saturday’s kids only know of the Souness that appears rambling on Sky Sports in the weekend’s biggest head-to-head fixtures, his old-fangled ways hark back to more than just the period where a television was the centrepiece in every household living room.

Before tackles above the shin were regarded as a bookable offence, Graeme Souness stood out as one of the sport’s greatest hardmen. The midfield general plied his trade, putting in hard tackles and commanding the dressing room for Liverpool, Rangers, and Middlesborough, before he hung up his blood-stained boots to brave the challenges of football management.

One of Edinburgh’s most famous sons, Souness was never afraid to exert himself, even if sometimes that meant he was hot-tempered and on the wrong side of the law. From his infamous lunge on Hibernian player George McCluskey to his uppercut strike of the fist on Dinamo Bucharest’s captain midway through the 1984 European Cup semi-final, the Scotsman was never far from trouble, which, in turn, brought about a lot of enemies in his playing days.

So, this is where the title of today’s story gets a little clickbaity (ish). For many of you tuning in, you would have expected me to bestow upon you a surplus of times the pundit has revelled in unpopular opinions. There’s no denying he’s had his fair share of reproval in his role on television. Instead, we are reflecting on his managerial era, culminating in the season he became treasured on one side of a European capital city and scorned on the other for his outlandish temperaments in Turkey.

Turkish delight after Liverpool fright?

When Souness had called time on his playing career, which was best remembered for his seven seasons at Liverpool (where he won five League Championships, three European Cups and four League Cups), his next position would see him take up managerial duties at Rangers – a club he was already familiar at.

Alongside chairman David Holmes’ bold strategy of reclaiming the footballing ascendancy Rangers had lacked in recent years, having not won the league title since 1978, the aptly-named “Souness Revolution” was in full swing under the ex-Liverpool midfielder. He made amends to Scotland’s football pattern by stealing Celtic’s thunder and dominating the domestic competitions with his hard-headed tinkering of The Gers.

Souness enjoyed a hugely successful tenure at Ibrox. He guided Rangers to four Scottish titles in five years, ending an eight-year barren run and laying the foundations for the most successful period in the club’s history. Of course, it didn’t cease without velitation, with the Scotsman signing Roman Catholic Mo Johnston in 1989, refusing to acknowledge the club’s strong Protestant background and unwritten transfer policy of anti-Catholicism, especially after the tensioning of sectarian divisions across the country.

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Souness also found himself under scrutiny from the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and Scottish League on more than one occasion. A sequence of contentious post-match comments meant Souness was regularly at loggerheads with both organisations, instigating touchline bans, which Souness sidestepped in characteristically provocative fashion by naming himself as a substitute, allowing access as a player to the dugout.

In May 1990, Souness was fined £5,000 by the SFA for breaching a touchline ban after television photographs showed him in the tunnel area, clamouring at his players on the pitch. Souness was later to claim confrontation with officialdom as one of the principal factors leading to his withdrawal from Ibrox.

Reflecting on his time at Rangers’ helm, Souness admitted, “When I look back on my actions and antics at Ibrox, I bordered on being out of order. I was obnoxious and difficult to deal with.”

Nevertheless, his acumen in football management wasn’t shadowed by his controversy, as Liverpool came calling for his duties shortly afterwards. On 16 April 1991, the Scotsman returned to Anfield, hoping he would pick up where he left off by winning trophies. However, although he guided The Reds to FA Cup success in 1992, for the most part, his days as manager on Merseyside were numbered from the start, though.

As he inherited a squad in dire need of recruitment, with the club’s best players reaching their twilight years, Souness’ management of Liverpool wasn’t highly regarded by the fans. The loss of dressing room control, internal disputes, and a trophy cabinet starkly more diminutive compared to Kenny Dalglish ultimately cost the Scotsman, who, after generating opulence in his home country, was suddenly edging towards a career change.

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By the end of the 1993/94 season, Souness had bowed out of the Anfield doors for the final time. What followed was a year-long eclipse in his career where he was left to his own devices to figure out his next move.

Despite suggestions that he was going to return to Middlesborough before being overlooked for Bryan Robson, he would go on to elect the unexpected challenge that arose from Galatasary to revitalise his career, whose president forked out a mere £500,000 to guarantee his services.

Expectedly welcomed by a mixed reception, Graeme Souness was unknowingly about to embark on a season of a lifetime in the scorching Turkish heat. But, whereas the weather was scalding, the antics that came with the Scotsman in Istanbul were unimaginably hotter.

Would the ‘Souness Revolution’ ever return?

In his one season in command of Galatasary’s wheel, there was no shortage of blood, sweat, tears, and a fervent rivalry with Fenerbahçe, which would shape and dictate the Souness epoch.

When the announcement of his arrival was made, one of Fenerbahçe’s vice-presidents questioned the appointment, using Souness’ open-heart surgery as a motivation to slam the new direction, suggesting that the manager was no more than just a ‘cripple’.

The scrutiny would lead to chaos later down the line, but as the Scotsman adjusted to life in the city of two continents, the culture shock quickly followed. While preseason friendlies were no big deal at home, Souness soon learnt that his new country of residence saw them differently.

After discouraging performances against Nantes and Borussia Dortmund, coupled with the fact Galatasary’s presidents loved to chop and change their manager at a rate on par with present-day Watford, if Souness was to rekindle his prospects in management, he needed a fast start.

However, that fast start wasn’t executed. Souness brought with him complacency in the inaugural months. An abysmal preseason was taken into the competitive campaign as Galatasary were on the receiving end of a European sucker punch, when they were knocked out by Czech side Sparta Prague in mid-August during the preliminary rounds.

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At the time, Galatasary’s only lifeline was a positive domestic outset. In the opening game of the season, Tugay, a player well-known for his future exploits with Blackburn Rovers, was the hero as Souness earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Vanspor.

Dean Saunders, a £2m signing that jumped at the opportunity of joining forces with Souness again, scored a brace in the second match of the season, which resulted in a 3-1 victory in front of a packed Ali Sami Yen Stadium. Additionally, a third straight victory lent the notion that life under Souness was fruitful.

But the media still found ways to poke the new man with criticism. Already receiving shuns from external parties for his British tendencies in the transfer market, which paved way for the arrivals of Saunders, Mike Marsh, and Barry Venison, the fault-finding only grew stronger when the British brigade was caught indulging in cultures that were against Turkey’s conformities.

Marsh and Venison were blasted after photographs showed the pair having one too many following the opening day victory. Things wouldn’t have been so bad if they were performing on the pitch, but by the midway point of the season, Saunders, who was making a name for himself, was the last of the British exports remaining in Istanbul.

While ex-Liverpool teammate Ronnie Whelan lured Marsh into Southend, Venison moved to Southampton to discover his retirement home. A short and forgettable idiots abroad episode was over for the duo. But, for Souness, his job became even tougher when he locked horns with the established Turkish teams.

A taste of Turkish tensions

The Intercontinental Derby between Galatasary and Fenerbahçe has been long known as one of football’s fiercest rivalries. Induced by cultural differences in the European section of Istanbul in relation to the Asian half, along with class division and trophy tussles, the matches are never short of malevolence.

Every clash is treated with the same respect as a cup final, and for the newly-appointed Scotsman, his first taste of derby day ended in a 3-1 defeat, with the baptism of fire proving too hot to handle.

Despite rumours circling like vultures that Souness was on the brink, he remained in charge. And while another 3-1 defeat ensued, this time to the reward of Besiktas, it all but confirmed Galatasary’s inability to lift the title, shifting the Scotsman’s efforts solely to the Turkish Cup.

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Derby day in Turkey is enough to make a whole city stand still. Often, the fixture is regarded as life or death for fans of the respective clubs, so it’s a myth how Souness kept his job after two disappointments against Istanbul’s counterparts.

Regardless, the manager was thrown in at the deep end when it came to the tensions that entranced Turkish rivalries. Although his first two encounters were incandescent, nothing would have prepared the not-so-wee Scotsman for his final skirmish later in the season.

Two matches in heat and intensity compared to a cauldron was enough for now, though, as it was time to venture on a cup run.

Embarking on an unforgettable cup run

Entering the competition at the sixth round stage, Gala easily swept past Denizlispor via a Sancakli brace that helped them on their way to an impressive 4-0 victory.

Waiting in the two-legged quarter-finals was Besiktas, and the Scotsman was out for blood.

Although the first leg brought a 0-0 result with very little to talk about, the second opened up for a memorable night for the Gala fans, as Erdem scored twice to cancel out Ertuğrul Sağlam’s equaliser in a 2-1 victory.

At the semi-final stage, Souness evaded the possibility of drawing their fabled foes Fenerbahçe by going head to head with the favourable opposition of Samsunspor. A Saunders masterclass put Galatasary 3-1 up after the first leg, with the Welshman wistfully notching two, rounded off by a textbook Sukur header.

The second leg was much nervier, with a dampening 1-0 loss threatening to complicate proceedings, but Gala were able to steer towards a Turkish Cup final; a match that would be etched into folklore for decades to come.

The ‘flagship’ final

Played across two legs, the fireworks that welcomed Souness and his finalists at the home fixture were impalpable, and nobody could hear themselves think. Those fireworks only blared louder when, just five minutes into the match, Fenerbahçe goalkeeper Sari Karat brought down Galatasaray winger Kubilay Türkyilmaz, earning himself a yellow card and conceding a penalty.

Saunders personified confidence as he neatly tucked away his penalty into the bottom right corner. From then on, Gala dominated the first leg, but while they had the chance to settle the result and place one hand on the trophy already, the penalty was the only difference between the sides once the 90 minutes were over.

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As both sets of fans poured into their seats in anticipation of the second leg at Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, the match wouldn’t be as straightforward for Gala, on or off the pitch.

In a first half that witnessed the clatterings of posts and smatterings of late tackles that even Souness would have been proud of, Aykut Kocaman, in the famous yellow and navy stripes, equalised the aggregate score when he peeled off his markers at the back stick and headed a floating ball into the back of the net.

Suddenly, the effervescent roars from a sea of yellow and navy were working their way onto the pitch as Fener retained a foothold in the match. Attack after attack was bombarding the Gala backline, but it was no use. At the other end, players dressed in crimson were ready to pounce.

Of the attackers waiting in anticipation was the previously-criticised striker Saunders, who smashed the ball into the roof of the net in the 116th minute, to reward his Scottish boss with the Turkish Cup.

What happened next, amidst the chaos of trophy celebrations, was Souness’ most infamous moment as a football manager. For reasons he has only explained recently, the Scotsman proceeded to mark his territory in the centre of the Fenerbahçe pitch with a red and yellow striped flag, inciting a riot.

The iconic image of Souness planting the flag drew comparisons with Turkish hero Ulubatli Hasan, who was killed as he planted the Ottoman flag at the end of the Siege of Constantinople. This earned Souness the nickname “Ulubatlı Souness”

Threading himself into the fabric of Turkish folklore

Years later, Souness recalled the incident and his motives while talking to Sky Sports. “We win the trophy and after the game, all of our players ran down to one end where our supporters were and that great big flag was handed over. All the players took turns to wave it and then it’s my turn, I give it a few waves and then turned to hand it to someone.”

“They [the players] had all run off to the halfway line, so I am now jogging back up to the halfway line with this flag and I look into the emptying stands and I can see this guy’s face who called me a cripple.

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“As a sort of, ‘I’ll show you who’s a cripple’ I ran off to the centre of the pitch, got the flag in and turned around and I realised, all the supporters were now climbing over the fence and I’m thinking ‘maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

The situation soured dramatically and rapidly. “I get underneath the perspex shields of the police and I am in the tunnel saying to myself ‘cor, got away with that one’ and just as I thought that I got clumped round the side of the head by a supporter who had got into the tunnel.”

“It’s one of those things you wished you hadn’t done but at the time seemed like a good idea.”

Despite being prepared to get the sack for his actions, the celebrations continued off the pitch as Souness was greeted with a flurry of kisses from the board. But as for Fenerbahçe fans’ love, or lack thereof, the Scotsman still receives death threats to this day, with Galatasaray creating chants in remembrance of his idolised moment of madness that lives on in Turkish football heritage.

The sacking did later come when cooler heads investigated the situation to figure that, for the safety of their boss, the Souness revolution would need to come to an untimely end.

Graeme Souness and his foe-making habits still make a starring return as a pundit, but while Saturday’s kids only know about him because of the television screen, they’ll be hard-pressed to find a career like his. The Scotsman was simply one of a kind, and his exploits in a country vastly unknown by the typical British manager will live on forever.