Glasgow Rangers: the Souness revolution (part two)

souness rangers part two

Welcome to the second and final part of our short series looking back on how Graeme Souness revolutionised Glasgow Rangers and to a degree Scottish football generally.

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After a sterling playing career with Middlesbrough and most notably Liverpool and Sampdoria, Souness returned to Britain in the spring of 1986 to take over as player-manager of Glasgow Rangers. Immediately pulling up trees and making waves, Souness played big in the transfer market by bringing established England internationals north of the border in a reversal of the tried and tested practices of the time.

Finding success immediately in the form of the Scottish League title and Scottish League Cup, Souness was quick to find his feet. In this second part of our look back at the Souness Years, we will examine the later years of his Ibrox reign and consider the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that was.

Kicking off the 1987-88 season as Scottish League Champions, Souness and Rangers knew their main rivals were most likely to be Celtic, in their centenary year and led by the returning Billy McNeill, and Aberdeen, now led by Ian Porterfield following the departure of Alex Ferguson to Manchester United.

Following on from the previous season’s high-profile signings from England, Souness once again dipped into the transfer market. During the course of the season, Mark Walters was signed from Aston Villa, Trevor Francis arrived from Atalanta, Ray Wilkins came from Paris St Germain, and Robert Fleck transferred in from Norwich City. There were other comings and goings as Souness and his assistant, Walter Smith, looked to replicate their first-season success.

A Memorable Old-Firm Clash for all the Wrong Reasons

However, 1987-88 did not go well on the field and only the Scottish League Cup was secured as the title challenge fell away in the New Year for Rangers to finish third. Defeat in the Scottish Cup and European Cup compounded Rangers’ woes, but undoubtedly the biggest controversy of the season arose when Rangers met Celtic at Ibrox in the league on 17 October 1987.

Old Firm clashes are always intense of course, but this one was something special. With just 19 minutes on the clock, a Celtic attack broke down with Rangers Keeper, Chris Woods, collecting an overhit through ball. Celtic striker, Frank McAvennie, appeared to pull up in time to avoid crashing into Woods, but the goalkeeper took exception to his presence anyway and the two men had a physical altercation which involved the pair of them putting hands into the other’s face. Terry Butcher and Graham Roberts then came across to offer their viewpoints on the situation, which included Butcher shoving McAvennie in the chest and Roberts appearing to strike him in the face. It has to be said that at this point McAvennie seemed to be somewhat isolated with no Celtic colleague apparently wishing to help him out. I wonder why?

The referee, Jim Duncan, belatedly arrived on the scene and promptly sent Woods and McAvennie off, while Butcher was booked for arguing and Roberts escaped scot-free and took over from Woods in goal.

Celtic then took control of the match with two goals before half-time, one of which was a Butcher own goal. The second half continued in a similar vein, and on 62 minutes Rangers were another man down when Butcher was dismissed after a challenge on Celtic keeper, Allen McKnight. 2-0 down and with only nine players on the pitch, Rangers could have been forgiven for going into damage limitation mode, but instead, they raised their game and pulled a goal back through Ally McCoist three minutes after Butcher’s dismissal.

With the game approaching its death knells, Celtic still led 2-1, but one last Rangers attack led to Richard Gough scrambling the ball over the line and Rangers had secured the most unlikely of points.

There was still time for Roberts to stir up more controversy, though. As the Rangers support belted out a sectarian song behind the goal he was defending, he appeared to be waving his arms in mock conducting of the throng.

The authorities were less than amused with the goings on at Ibrox that afternoon and as well as the suspensions handed out regarding the sendings-off, Woods, Butcher, Roberts and McAvennie all faced police action and were charged with breach of the peace. Woods and Butcher were convicted, while McAvennie was acquitted and Roberts found not proven.

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Into the summer of 1988 and more signings were made. In came Gary Stevens from Everton for £1 million and Kevin Drinkell from Norwich City for half of that, and shortly afterward Andy Gray was signed from West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer.

Leaving Ibrox was Avi Cohen, and perhaps most surprisingly, Graham Roberts, who had achieved the far from difficult task of falling out with Souness. The two men had had a fierce and almost violent altercation in the dressing room after a game against Aberdeen at the end of the previous season. Souness had blamed Roberts for a goal conceded and as Roberts responded, he dared Souness to put him on the transfer list. Souness did just that and Roberts never played for the club again.

The 1988-89 season went well for Rangers with the title being taken back from Celtic and the League Cup also being won. Rangers’ bid for the treble was foiled in the final of the Scottish Cup when Celtic gained some small measure of revenge and consolation for losing their title when they defeated their old rivals by the only goal of the game.

Souness made a cameo appearance in the cup final, but only appeared in ten matches that season, each one as a substitute. The fact that he had only made one substitute appearance since the previous December led some to believe – within the changing room as well as without – that he was only naming himself as a substitute for the cup final to get himself a medal as he had never played in a FA Cup Final before.

The Mo Johnston Affair

Nevertheless, controversy was never far away and the summer of 1989 was to prove that in spades. The signing of Trever Steven from Everton for £ 1,525,000 was a good bit of business, if not entirely unexpected given Souness’ reputation for big spending, but his next signing blew everyone out of the water.

For decades Rangers had been known as a Protestant-only club with no Catholic player being knowingly signed. Upon joining Rangers, Souness had declared he would break this taboo should the need and opportunity arise, so when he learned that Maurice Johnston was on the verge of rejoining Celtic from Nantes, but hadn’t actually signed the transfer forms yet, he moved quickly.

After contacting the player and ascertaining that he was indeed interested in joining Rangers, Souness pushed the transfer through with haste. It caused seismic shock waves throughout the game and not just in Scotland, and although there was a lot of support for the move there was also an awful lot of opposition. Johnston was not welcomed with open arms by a sizable minority of Rangers supporters, some of whom returned their season tickets and burnt scarves, but more worryingly there were several players within the changing room who, initially at least, would not talk to Johnston.

Johnston for his part got on with his football, and his performances on the pitch that season soon won many people over. Despite starting slowly with only a solitary point from the opening three games and just two victories from the first eight games, Rangers had another successful season, with the league title being retained by seven points over Aberdeen, with Celtic down in fifth place a further ten points behind. No cup success came Rangers’ way, however, with defeats in the European Cup, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup being suffered.

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Having not played at all the entire season, Souness put himself on the bench for the final home game of the season against Dunfermline. With 20 minutes left, he brought himself on and in doing so officially brought his playing career to an end.

Into 1990-91 then and what would prove to be Souness’ last with the club. In the summer Terry Hurlock and Mark Hately arrived, but shortly after the start of the season, the talismanic Butcher left for Coventry City. Sadly but unsurprisingly he too left after a falling out with Souness. The reason for this particular parting of the ways could be traced back to another disagreement Souness had, this time with Scottish Television (STV).

Souness was serving a touchline ban handed down for comments made to the referee in a match in the 1989-90 season, so was forced to sit in the Directors Box and relay messages to Smith on the touchline via walkie-talkie. On one particular afternoon, the equipment was not working properly and so Souness nipped down to the mouth of the players’ tunnel to pass a message along to his assistant. The impromptu visit to an area somewhat near the touchline was caught on camera by STV and when it was relayed on television, the Scottish FA responded by increasing the length of Souness’ touchline ban.

Souness was not amused and so promptly banned everyone within the club from talking to STV. When he subsequently discovered Butcher breaching this ban, the two men fell out spectacularly, so Butcher followed Roberts out the door.

The Leaving of Rangers

By now Souness was feeling the pressure of life in Scotland in general. His first marriage had broken up and he felt the tabloids were after stories about him and his personal life. While the football was still going well, with Rangers taking another League Cup in October 1990 and challenging once again for the League title, all was not well with the former Liverpool man.

Back at his old stomping ground, Anfield, Kenny Dalglish was undergoing similar pressures and when Dalglish resigned from the Liverpool hot seat in early 1991, it was no surprise to see Souness’ name mentioned as a possible successor. Souness moved quickly to publicly distance himself from any such possibility, then sat back and waited for Liverpool to make an alternative appointment.

When none was forthcoming from the Liverpool hierarchy over the next few weeks, the seed that had been planted in Souness by Liverpool’s initial interest in him began to grow. As Rangers closed in on their third successive title and Souness’ fourth in five years, the man himself started to have second thoughts about turning Liverpool down.

After due consideration, he finally decided he would indeed take up the position at Anfield if it was still available.

Souness’ about-face was not appreciated by the Rangers board, particularly by the major shareholder, David Murray. With just four games of the season to go, Souness delivered the news that he wished to depart for Anfield at the end of the season, only to be informed by Murray that if he was leaving then the departure would be immediate. By this time Souness was not only the manager of the club but also a director and the second-largest shareholder, so Murray bought out Souness’ shares and sent him off to Anfield with the words of advice that he would come to regret the move.

So, Souness’s time at the club came to a sad and rather acrimonious end but his legacy cannot be overstated. Not only did he return Rangers to the top of the domestic game, but he also raised the whole profile of Scottish football to unimaginable levels.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Graeme Souness’ five years in Scotland changed the landscape of the game there forever.

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