February 7, 2023

Graeme Souness preferred grilled lobster and Sancerre to the cod and chips Bob Paisley would instruct John, Liverpool’s coach driver, to stop off for on the way home from away games.

He drove a white BMW 2000 at a time when Phil Thompson’s Saab had previously been the high point of motoring sophistication at the club, in the mid-1980s.

This lifestyle seemed about as far removed as you could get from the Spartan work ethic preached by the legendary Anfield Boot Room. Yet a story Souness tells of early mornings in an old backstreet garage, around the corner from the club’s training ground, reveals much about how modest he considered his place in that Liverpool firmament to be.

Graeme Souness has joined Sportsmail as an exclusive weekly columnist for Saturday’s sports pages throughout the Premier League season

It was an establishment all the players knew as ‘Bob Rawcliffe’s Garage’, run by a friend of Paisley’s in the city’s West Derby suburbs. The Liverpool manager would arrive there at around 8am each day to study the racing pages, drink tea in the back office and chew the fat with Rawcliffe, who would put his bets on for him. Souness lived nearby and would drop by after the school run, knowing that he might catch a word with Paisley and perhaps receive a few of his thoughts.

‘I wouldn’t go in the back office with them,’ he says. ‘I was really conscious that I didn’t want to impose on them.’ So the Liverpool captain and superstar of his day would stay out at the front part of the garage, drink tea with ‘Joan’ who worked in the office and wait for Paisley to emerge.

The former midfielder has vowed to remain outspoken

‘When he came out I might engage him in bits of talk,’ Souness says. ‘He was never one to engage in great, long conversations. It was more a sentence or two and then you might go back to him on something he’d said and he would justify it, expand on it a bit. You’d go away and think about it later — what he actually meant. I was there just for those fragments of conversation.’

The philosophy imparted in increments by Paisley, and his coaching lieutenants Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran, was about personal responsibility, thinking for yourself on the football field and working for your team-mates. When the game was over, you did not generally ask questions because as a Liverpool player you were supposed to figure out the answers yourself. Questioning the manager was not remotely part of the equation. You would get some odd looks if you expressed any kind of opinion at all.

The world has moved on, Souness reflects, as he settles down to fishcakes at a restaurant overlooking the bay at Sandbanks on the Dorset coast, which is his home now.

‘A 20-year-old today will be much more knowledgeable than a 20-year-old when I played and television has helped achieve that and help educate these players,’ he says. Yet that creed of personal responsibility and players knowing their place in the hierarchy is as integral to his view of football as it has always been.

‘The manager gets it in the neck now,’ he says. ‘Their substitutions. Their team selections. It wasn’t always like this. It used to be the players who got it but it’s always someone else’s fault now. The players get away scot-free. That’s not the way it should be.’

See also  Juventus 2-1 Monza: Substitute Federico Chiesa scores sublime solo goal

From a week on Saturday, this blunt and uncompromising football perspective and intelligence will be a part of the Sportsmail Saturday sports pages, when Souness writes the first of what will be a weekly column.

He is an individual with a substantial grip on the small detail. He is running 10 minutes late for our meeting because of an unexpected snag over building work on his house across the bay and messages to say so. That building work has had its sagas. There were delays around the Platinum Jubilee weekend when, with Souness absent, some of those undertaking it knocked off particularly early on the Friday.

In over 350 appearances for Liverpool Souness won five First Division titles and three European Cups as well as four League Cups 

This clearly left him feeling a little similar to the December afternoon at Coventry in 1983, when Liverpool were 3-0 down at half-time. ‘Is there any effing danger you’re going to do some work and get hold of the ball,’ he asked Kenny Dalglish, just before the break. ‘Is there any f****** danger you’re going to win a tackle?’ Dalglish gave him back in return. This ‘conversation’ continued in the dressing room.

‘Joe and Ronnie poured themselves a cup of tea and didn’t say a word,’ Souness says. ‘When they see him and me going at it, we’re doing their team talk for them. Every sentence we’re getting closer and closer. And we were players who roomed together. We had to be kept apart in the end.’

Those golden afternoons running the Anfield midfield — the best days of his life — belonged to an era which was fast running out, though he did not realise it at the time. When it was his turn to manage Liverpool, the Premier League was arriving with its turbo-charged salaries and player power, and the shift was something he found hard to deal with. ‘I don’t think I evolved,’ he says. ‘I still saw the job as, “I’m the boss and it has to be my way”.’

He managed the Liverpool side who lost 1-0 at Nottingham Forest in the first televised Premier League game, 30 years ago, though the new money was not the only complicating factor.

Souness, drained by five years rebuilding Rangers, had called Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson in April 1991, to tell him he wanted the job his old friend Dalglish had vacated — having initially turned it down twice. But Robinson asked him if he was sure, because the team was much diminished and John Barnes was their only great player.

Stepping in was, he reflects now, not so very different from the unenviable task of taking on Manchester United after the Sir Alex Ferguson years, though it was an irresistible chance, of course. You sense the strain which extensive discussion of those three years in charge still entails for him. It is he who brings up the subject of him being paid by The Sun for images of himself after open heart surgery, which appeared in the newspaper on the anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster. Something he regrets.

There was the enormity of his period of serious illness after that surgery, too. No moment was more vivid than the night he lay in an intensive care unit after developing an infection a few days after the initial surgery.

See also  Jasper Bumrah out of T20 World Cup with back injury

‘I was say in intensive care. The night light is on and there’s a clock I’m looking at in the dark and I’m saying to myself, “Don’t go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep”. In case I didn’t wake up,’ he recalls. ‘And obviously you do fall asleep.’

His father, James, died around that time and there was also an episode when his two German Shepherd dogs were shot dead by a farmer herding sheep near the home he had in Knutsford, Cheshire. ‘I had to carry the dogs half a mile,’ he says. ‘And on top of all that the job wasn’t going well.’

He still gave management 12 more years — and extraordinary ones at that: braving the Galatasaray inferno, finding greatest managerial contentment at Blackburn, whom he took back to the top flight, and then — against his better judgment — leaving that sanctuary for two years at Newcastle which told him all the old certainties about the manager/player relationship were changed utterly. It was when he found himself nose-to-nose with a contemptuous Craig Bellamy in the Newcastle gymnasium, ready to take a swing at him, he asked himself why he was doing this.

The former Scotland international began his managerial career with Rangers, winning three Scottish Premier Leagues and four Scottish League Cup titles

He says: ‘I thought, “Do I need it? Is this what it’s come to?” I was working with players who didn’t appear to share the same desire to win. Not feeling the same disappointment I did when they lost. You are the boss in name only. I stopped enjoying it. The good times didn’t compensate for it any more.’ 

Though Liverpool are the side most associated with him, Souness does not possess the same affiliation to a specific club as other high-profile Sky Sports analysts. That has allowed him to build a reputation as an analyst of scrupulous independence.

The jocularity of the Sky studio is not entirely his style, either.

Behind that deadpan exterior, Roy Keane has a superb line in humour, he reveals. ‘I like listening to Roy,’ Souness says. ‘He’s very funny — I mean, extremely funny, to the point where he could do stand-up.’

Not so himself. An interviewer who met him on the Sky Sports set a few years ago was struck by the show’s participants bantering away at full tilt amid the whirl of programme preparations while Souness sat alone with his thoughts in a dimly-lit corner.

He does not seem hugely close to those one-time brothers-in-arms with whom he shared such glories at Liverpool. He spoke to Moran a few times, he says, when he was starting out at Rangers, but beyond that he just got on with it. There is no sentiment.

He has built up a reputation as an analyst of scrupulous independence

Was there any time when Ferguson, manager of the 1986 Scotland World Cup squad he belonged to, offered fragments of wisdom or consolation during the darker days of Souness’s management? The look on his face reveals the madness of asking this question. Dalglish, perhaps? ‘No. No.’

This seems to reflect the way his life has been a constant process of moving on. He is 69 and his place just down the coast is the 27th in which he has lived, including digs. Nowhere within it will you find the remotest evidence of that glorious football life.

See also  Mimi Webb flashes her midriff in a sparkly crop top as she joins Gemma Atkinson at HITS Radio Live

He was asked for some of his medals for an exhibition a few years back. He has never asked for them back. ‘It’s all about what I’m going to do tomorrow,’ he says. ‘That was certainly the way I was brought up and it’s the way it was at Liverpool.’

The relentless, often superficial, whirl of social media is not for him. ‘I am lucky that I don’t need anybody to tell me if I have a bad day, so I don’t look at social media. I don’t understand it and I don’t know why footballers use it. It’s dark territory, but it would be another pressure, if you were inclined to look at it, as a manager.’

There is a lot of the old Boot Room creed in his belief that the game has been overcomplicated. He and Keane, improbable allies back in the days when Liverpool and Manchester United were knocking 10 bells out of each, can agree on that, he says.

‘You hear people saying things like, “We’re full of winners” and “It’s a strong dressing room”’, he declares. ‘Well, lose two or three games and then see what you’ve got. You only find out what you’ve got when you’re in a bad spell. Everyone can be a great guy. Everyone can be a winner. Everybody can be a personality when they’re winning. You only find out what you’ve got when your back is against the wall.

Due to his trophy-laden career on and off the pitch Souness has been inducted into both the English and Scottish Football Halls of Fame

‘It comes down to senior players and the reason I say that is some simple arithmetic. You’ve four working days, Monday to Friday, so as a manager you’re with them eight hours in that week. You’ve got a day off. And matchday their head is somewhere else. Eight hours to influence them. So that’s why you need good professionals who influence the younger ones. They go out socially together, perhaps their wives are friendly, perhaps they play golf together. It has to come from them.’

You sense the part of him which misses all this. ‘The part of me, watching a game, that thinks, “If I was in there I would do this and that”.’ Of the two of them, though, it is Keane who would still go back in a heartbeat. ‘Where Roy’s very different to me is that he has a real desire to go back into management,’ Souness says.

Souness is ready to tackle whatever issues might present themselves in the columns which will begin when the Premier League merry-go-round strikes up once more next weekend.

‘I don’t go out of my way to be controversial,’ he says.

‘But I have to say I would be a very poor poker player. I find it very hard to hide my emotions. When I see frustrating things I have to mention it. There’ll be a lot to cover and who knows what. It’s going to be fun.’

And with that, he is off, heading out across the car park towards the sea. Swimming has become a big part of his life and he is out in the English Channel off the Dorset coast on many mornings.

The waves had been fairly formidable on this particular day but he was not deterred.

‘You have to take a deep breath and plunge in,’ he says. ‘You have to keep at it.’