In September 1985, Graeme Souness gave an interview in which he discussed what he was likely to do once his playing career was over. While indicating that he intended to carry on playing for a few more years, he admitted that he hadn’t really given the matter much thought.
“I would rather fancy the idea of being player-manager at Rangers, though,” he joshed, as an afterthought, “So, watch out Jock Wallace!”
It has not been recorded whether or not Wallace, the incumbent Rangers manager at the time, was watching, but just perhaps somebody on the Rangers Board might have been. Either way, just five months later in February 1986, Souness was approached by the Ibrox club with the intention of taking over as boss at the end of the season.
It was an audacious move and a brave one, considering Souness was at the time just 32 years of age and had no management or coaching experience whatsoever. But what transpired over the next five years would more than justify the leap of faith taken.
Souness was born in Edinburgh in 1953 and had enjoyed a sterling playing career at Middlesbrough and Liverpool in England, before moving abroad to play in Italy with Sampdoria in 1984. Winning the Coppa Italia in 1985, Souness was expected to stay for another season in Italy before perhaps coming back to England for one last swansong on the field, or else retiring from the game.
The call from Rangers when it came in early 1986 was therefore a shock, but Souness had no hesitation in accepting and promptly went about making preparations. Souness already knew the identity of the man he wanted as his assistant at Ibrox and with a World Cup in Mexico to play in that summer with Scotland, it was easy enough for Souness to approach him.
Walter Smith was Alex Fergurson’s right-hand man at the helm of the Scottish national side in the wake of Jock Stein’s tragic death, while simultaneously carrying out his duties as assistant manager at Dundee United. When Souness broke the news of his impending appointment and asked Smith to be his assistant, he too had no hesitation in accepting.
With Souness officially taking up his role at Rangers on May 1st 1986, and Smith officially taking up his own position a week or two earlier, Smith acted as Caretaker Manager for the last couple of league games in the 1985-86 season, while Souness was in charge for the Glasgow Cup Final which Rangers won by beating Celtic 3-2 at Ibrox.
Finishing fifth in a ten-team table, Rangers just about squeezed into the final UEFA Cup slot, but as Souness and Smith went off to the World Cup, they both knew there was a lot of hard work ahead.
A Busy Summer
Scotland were eliminated in the Group Stages in Mexico, with Souness suffering in the humidity, and with his international playing career finally over, he and Smith returned to Scotland and got to work. Surveying the squad they had before them, they both knew wholesale changes were required to make Rangers contenders again in any serious way.
First, they signed striker Colin West from Watford and then the next item on the agenda was a new goalkeeper. After enquiring about Peter Shilton and Bruce Grobbelaar, Souness settled for Shilton’s England understudy, Chris Woods. Woods was then playing for Norwich City, who had just been promoted back to the First Division after suffering relegation the season before.
Next up was a central defender and top of the shopping list was Terry Butcher of Ipswich Town. Butcher had shown admirable loyalty to Ipswich over the years as they gradually slipped out of the running for the major honours, but with relegation for the Suffolk club being confirmed in 1986, it was time for him to move on. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs were the favourites to sign Butcher, but Souness knew if he could get him on a plane to Glasgow and open up Ibrox to him, he would have a very good chance of selling the move to him.
This is exactly what happened and so Butcher became the third Englishman to join Rangers in a matter of weeks. This scenario of English players travelling north of the border to play football was the exact opposite of what had been happening for decades. The long-held tradition had always been for Scottish players to seek fame in fortune in the English leagues, but now the shoe was firmly on the other foot.
Asked why he was turning to the English league to sign players, Souness’ reply was simple. He explained it was because the players he already had at his disposal were simply not good enough, and it was next to impossible to sign players of the required quality from other Scottish clubs. No Scottish club would countenance selling their best players to Rangers or Celtic, he went on, and so where else could he find players of the required quality?
The case of Richard Gough seemed to prove his point. Souness wanted to sign the defender from Dundee United, but was informed in no uncertain terms that the Tannadice club would never sell him to another Scottish side. Gough instead was sold to Tottenham and Souness would sign him from the London club a year later.
Souness the Player Gets Off to a Bad Start
More signings would follow as the season got underway, but for the time being Souness and Smith had to get on with what they had. Souness, of course, had signed as player-manager and he intended to play as often as possible. At just turned 33 and with the experience of two years playing in Italy behind him, he was arguably an even better player than he had been at Liverpool, and so despite never having played professionally in Scotland during his career, he was expected to be a mainstay in the side.
Unfortunately, it all went wrong on his debut against Hibernian at Easter Road. Well aware that some of the Hibs players would ‘go looking for him’, Souness decided, in his own words, to ‘get his retaliation in first’. Perhaps he had lost some of his cuteness over the years, or perhaps it wasn’t just the opposition that was ready for him but the officials too, but Souness was booked for a tackle early on and then given his marching orders after just 35 minutes for his role in provoking a 21-man brawl. To add to the malaise of the day, Rangers were defeated by a 2-1 scoreline.
Undeterred, Souness and Smith set about their task of rebuilding Rangers and in December 1986 they added another England international to the ranks in the form of Graham Roberts, signed from Tottenham Hotspur.
The Success Starts
Despite this early defeat and another at the hands of Dundee United in the third match of the season, things started to come together on the pitch and in October early success came with a Scottish League Cup Final victory at Hampden Park, over old rivals Celtic. This triumph gave Souness his first success as a manager just three months into his managerial career and paved the way for the rest of the season.
After playing in fits and starts for a while in the first half of the season, Rangers went on a tremendous run between November and April, remaining unbeaten in the league during this period. Despite exiting from Europe and a disastrous Scottish Cup defeat at the hands of Hamilton Academical, Rangers came into the penultimate league game of the season away to Aberdeen needing only a point to make sure of the title. A Butcher header was enough to do the trick and secure Rangers’ first title for nine years, ending up six points ahead of their Glasgow rivals Celtic.
Souness was delighted to watch his captain rise to score the all-important goal, but had to do so from the sidelines as he had once again been ordered from the field. It was Souness’ third dismissal of the season and it was as many as he had totted up in the rest of his career with Middlesbrough, Liverpool and Sampdoria combined. He complained of being a marked man with both referees and opponents on the field, and while there was probably more than an element of truth in the claims, he was really old enough to know better by then.
Having stated his desire and intention to play regularly, at the start of the following 1987-88 season, Souness began to reconsider. He now felt that his presence on the field was sometimes having a detrimental effect on the team and he was also finding it more difficult to overcome niggling injuries so he started to scale back his appearances.
However, despite his own on-field problems, Souness’ initial year in management had been nothing less than a resounding success and there was every reason to anticipate a managerial career that would be just as successful as the playing one he had enjoyed.
In the second and final part of this short series, we will look at the continuation of the Souness Revolution including the ‘difficult second season’, more signings from England, the successes and failures, and how it all came to a slightly regrettable conclusion. We will also consider Souness’ legacy to Rangers and the Scottish game in general.