The Road to Rangers – Graeme Souness – Part 1
Sometimes the appointment of a new manager calls for evolution, rather than revolution. This has been shown throughout our own clubs history, with Walter Smith stepping up into the Ibrox hotseat from his previous role as Souness’ assistant in April ’91 to guide us to 3 in a row, and subsequently 9. With that being said, football is usually defined by the revolutions, not the evolutions. Modern examples of this include the Cruyff’s Total Football, Guardiola’s Tiki Taka and Klopps Gegenpressing.
The late 1970s to mid-1980s were a desperate time to be a Ranger. John Greig replaced Jock Wallace in 1978 on the back of the sides second treble in three seasons but failed to replicate his playing successes as Rangers failed to win the league championship during his tenure. Greig was sacked in 1983, with one Alex Ferguson sounded out as a potential replacement (whatever happened to him?). Then Dundee Utd manager Jim Mclean also rejected Rangers advances and Jock Wallace was asked to return which he duly did. When Wallace returned, ill health meant he too failed to live up to his former glories, winning less than 50% of his matches in charge resulting in a 5th place finish in the 1985/86 season, the clubs second lowest ever top-flight finish. Attendances had fallen to as low as 12,731 and player wages were negligible. The club was threatening to spiral out of control into the footballing abyss.
In 1986, Rangers needed revolution.
In 1986, Rangers needed Graeme Souness.
Ladies and Gentlemen welcome back to The Road to Rangers for a special three-part series where we discuss the magnificent one.
Early Life and Tottenham Hotspur: 1953-1972
Souness was born in Edinburgh in 1953 and grew up following both Rangers and Hearts on a local level.
He was spotted by the legendary Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson while playing for his local side North Merchiston and was brought into Tottenham as an apprentice. Singing his first professional forms at the age of 15, Souness was part of the highly successful Tottenham youth side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1970. Souness was sent off in the initial final which ended 1-1 therefore forcing a replay which subsequently ended 2-2. It was in the second replay that Souness redeemed himself, scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 victory that saw Tottenham win the FA Youth Cup for the first time in the clubs history. Further to that, Souness added the Southern Junior League, the Floodlit Cup, the South East Counties League and the London Youth Cup to his trophy cabinet as the Tottenham youngsters swept the board.
The season did not pass without controversy though. Souness made an unauthorised trip back up to Scotland early in that season after declaring that he was homesick. Tottenham did not take kindly to this and suspended him for two weeks without pay. The incident lead to Labour MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, writing to the Secretary of State for Employment asking whether or not it was right that an employer could “deprive a minor of following his chosen profession, simply because he wants to go home”. Souness himself said at the time:
“My mistake was in going South when I was too young. I left Edinburgh when I was 15 and straight from school. There was an element of novelty about the experience but recently I have felt completely at sea in the London scene. It wasn’t so bad when we trained mornings and afternoons, that just made for lonely evenings. But when training was restricted to forenoons the days seemed interminable. I couldn’t stand it anymore”.
The issue was subsequently resolved in October 1970 and after his successes with the youth team, the following season Souness was promoted to the reserve team, where he established himself as a regular. Souness was reportedly in the ear of Bill Nicholson constantly telling him that he was the best player at the club and deserved his chance in the first team. The constant haranguing seemed to have paid off when Souness was handed his professional debut for the club on 14th September 1971, coming on as a 70th minute substitute in a 6-1 demolition of Icelandic side Keflavik in the first round of the UEFA Cup. Spurs went on to win the UEFA Cup that season, beating Wolves 3-2 in the final in what was the first European final to feature two teams from the same country. Souness played no part in this triumph however, as Souness’ first Tottenham appearance proved to be his last and he was shipped over to Canada on loan at Montreal Olympique where he scored 2 goals In 10 appearances for the club resulting him being named in the NASL All-Star team of the season.
Souness grew further frustrated with the lack of playing time he was getting at Tottenham which eventually lead to allegations he had fallen out with Bill Nicholson. As a result, Souness was sold to Division 2 side Middlesbrough in late 1972 for a fee of £30,000. Souness made his debut at Craven Cottage on the 6th January 1973 in a 2-1 defeat that left Middlesbrough languishing 11th in the league. Souness went on to make 8 further appearances that season as the club began to surge up the table. However, despite Middlesbrough’s fine form after the New Year, the damage had already been done as they ended the season in 4th and 14 points behind QPR in the promotion places. It was during this season that Souness’ bullish and relentless style of play began to receive recognition.
In April ’73, Middlesbrough manager Stan Anderson resigned from the role to manage Greek side AEK Athens and was replaced by England legend Jack Charlton who was stepping into his first managerial role. Souness became a mainstay in Charlton’s Middlesbrough side that romped their way to the Division 2 title, finishing 15 points ahead of second placed Luton. Souness made 35 league appearances that season, scoring 7 goals. During that time, Charlton signed Scotland international Bobby Murdoch who Souness claimed was a huge influence on his development:
“He came along at just the right time, not only for me but for the whole team. he would always pull me to one side to pass on advice or to tell me when he thought I was acting wrongly”.
The development in Souness was evident for all to see as he rounded off this magnificent season by scoring a hattrick in the final game of the season as Middlesbrough battered Sheffield Wednesday 8-0. Charlton was subsequently named Manager of the Year and became the first ever manager outside the top flight to receive the award.
Middlesbrough continued their sparkling form into the 1974/75 season as they returned to the top-flight of English football for the first time in 20 years. Once again, Souness was a mainstay in a side that began to take the First Division by storm under the stewardship of Charlton. Middlesbrough caused major upsets in the league, notably beating eventual champions Derby County 3-2 at the Baseball Ground. Souness made 38 appearances and again scored 7 goals. 2 of those goals came as Middlesbrough thumped a struggling Tottenham Hotspur side (who only avoided relegation by a single point that season) 3-0, as Souness showed his former club what they were missing. Previously in the season, Souness secured Middlesbrough a point away to Stoke with a superb effort from just outside the box.
Middlesbrough were involved in one of the tightest title races in the history of the English game as there was just 11 points between 11th and 1st. Middlesbrough finished the season in 8th place, just 5 points behind champions Derby County. On the 30th October 1974, Souness earned the first of his 54 Scotland Caps, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-0 victory over East Germany at Hampden.
Souness continued to impress in the First Division as a stalwart in the Middlesbrough team over the course of the next two and a half seasons, making 92 league appearances in that time scoring 8 goals. Souness made a name for himself as someone who was not scared of a fight with anyone, and epitomised the old adage of “If you want to play I’ll play and if you want a fight I’ll fight but I’ll beat you either way”.
This could not have been epitomised more so than when in the 1976/77 season Souness and Middlesbrough pitched up at Anfield to take on Liverpool in the quarter final of the FA Cup. Souness was embroiled in a tussle for the ball with Liverpool’s hardman Jimmy Case. Feeling aggrieved at Case’s challenge, Souness threw him to the ground, throttled him with his left hand and shook his right fist in his face. The unyielding performance from Souness that day stuck in the memories of Bob Paisley and his staff and would prove to be a factor in what was to become the beginning of the next stage of his career.
However, at this stage he was still playing under Jack Charlton whose position by this point was under serious scrutiny by the Middlesbrough board. The board voted to sack Charlton in July of 1976 as It was their view that Charlton was consistently overstepping his remit as manager, having disassembled the clubs scouting network, personally choosing the clubs strip and conducting business deals on behalf of the club. However, the vote was vetoed by the Chairman which allowed Charlton to continue in his role. He only lasted one more season as he resigned after the end of the 1976/77 season stating that he could take the team no further (a decision which he later said he regretted). When Charlton left it felt like the air had just been let out a huge balloon at Middlesbrough and Souness decided it was time for him to move on.
Joining Liverpool: 1978
Interest in Souness was high in the summer of ’77. He was 24 and about to enter into the peak years of his career. It was becoming clear to both him and potential suitors that he was a big fish in a small pond at Middlesbrough and his skills could and should be showcased on a grander stage. Leeds Utd and Manchester City were said to have been interested in his services during the opening months of the 1977/78 season. However, when Souness learned of the interest coming from the red half of Merseyside there was only one club on his mind.
Souness has openly stated that he agitated for the move from Ayresome Park to Anfield. He basically just annoyed everyone at Middlesbrough enough into making the move happen, including by making a series of statements to the press trying to force the move through:
“I am fed up, disenchanted with the game. I feel like a good holiday away from it all”.
Eventually, his efforts paid off. In January 1978, Liverpool had a fee of £352,000 accepted and Souness was allowed to leave. The pettiness in this transfer fee is something to be admired. Manchester Utd had set a transfer record between English clubs the previous week by paying Leeds £350,000 to sign Joe Jordan. The extra £2,000 on Souness’ transfer fee was purely to take that record away from Utd. Souness was not the only Scottish reinforcement signed by Bob Paisley, as Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish also signed for Liverpool. Souness claimed that the dressing room atmosphere was very relaxed and natural for a team that were the reigning champions of Europe, stating in his autobiography:
“I remember how normal and ordinary it all was. No prima donnas. No superstars. I made only one error on that first morning. I asked Tommy Smith if I could borrow his hairdryer and turned to Phil Neal and said pointedly: ‘Everyone is allowed one mistake’. I took my own in the future”.
In Part 2 of this 3 part series, we will look at Souness’ Liverpool career in its entirety as a star studded Liverpool side sets their sights on conquering both England and Europe.