Football: Souness finds new year resolution

Congested market-place prompts January sales pitch from one of many looking for a way back

GRAEME SOUNESS cradles his four-month-old baby, James, at his home in Winchester, relishing fatherhood again, as he reflects on his absence from a brotherhood whose membership is as vulnerable as those who have crossed the Cosa Nostra. It is six months since he departed acrimoniously from Benfica, and one suspects that it is only a hiatus after 12 years of football management. Certainly, it would not be the first occasion that the Scot has plugged a spent battery, power exhausted after confrontation with board, players or supporters, into "charging" mode. "The last time I'd been out for a year was because I was so cheesed off with the outcome of my time at Liverpool and my experiences there that well and truly sickened me," he says.

"The best way to sum up football management is when you're in it and you lose a few games. You're thinking, `What am I doing in this crazy business?' because it can affect those people most precious to you when you end up taking it home with you. You're passionate about it. That's why you're doing the bloody job. Yet, when you're out of football you can't wait to get back into it.

"I'm back in the market place. I want to get back into it. But the only job that's come up recently was Blackburn, and my name was mentioned in dispatches, although nothing came of that."

Souness is content to bide his time, spending it with his wife, Karen, gardening and making the occasional appearance as an analyst on BSkyB's live matches - "I'm a media tart," he says self-deprecatingly - in which, as an articulate and opinionated character, he actually excels. What he doesn't do is to scour the newspapers searching for every indication that another chairman's relationship with his manager is in terminal decline and then dash off his cv and a letter of application. "Let's put it this way: I don't think the kind of job I'm interested in I'm going to get by applying for it," says the man who, at only 46, has already managed Rangers, Liverpool, Galatasaray, Torino and Benfica. "That may sound arrogant, but it's not meant to. It's just the nature of the business at a certain level."

Souness's name does not feature among those unemployed members on the League Managers' Association's official website (www.leaguemanagers.com) making themselves available for work. But many familiar names are there, from Roy Evans, whose perfunctory cv reads: "Thirty-five years with Liverpool during which time the club were the most successful in England and Europe, winning 30 major trophies", to those such as Chris Kamara, who details in full his coaching qualifications and managerial experiences, together with notable transfer dealings.

These are not the most propitious times for out-of-work managers. There are relatively few dismissals at present and there is an ever- increasing number of retired players who see management as their future.

"It's always a competitive workplace," says Souness. "In any given squad of 20 or so players in the Premier League I would think that over 50 per cent would want to be managers when they finish playing. There are just not enough jobs going round."

The rewards are so much greater than when Souness began as player-manager at Rangers in 1986, yet so are the demands of handling players empowered by vast salaries, and a media who can toll the bells of doom after two consecutive defeats. Souness admits he has received a harsh education in both respects, particularly at Liverpool. That brooding visage, from which peer those hard eyes, reminiscent of one of Clint Eastwood's adversaries in a spaghetti western, has already lived a lifetime in those two-score- and-six years, experiencing both intense suffering, in his personal life and in football, and the exaltation of success. But you detect that he has mellowed. He is no longer his own worst enemy among all those he perceived were ranged against him. And there were many of them at Anfield. "The PR image is far more important now than it's ever been. People who go straight into management from playing have got no training for that. Some find it difficult. I found it difficult. I was falling out with everyone and anyone when I was at Liverpool and Rangers."

Souness may still have been at Ibrox now if he hadn't been seduced by the notion of managing what was then England's most successful club. His good friend, the Rangers chairman David Murray, always said he'd live to regret it.

Souness concedes he had a point. "But Liverpool were always the only club I would leave Rangers for. Whether I would have ever got another chance at it if I turned it down then, who knows?" he says. "I was at the right place at the wrong time. What's happened since has gone to prove that I wasn't to blame for all the ills. The place was in decline long before I went there.

"My problem was that I tried to change it too quickly. It's interesting now that they're about fifth in the table and everything's said to be rosy in the garden. Well, when I was there they were about fifth or sixth and it was all doom and gloom. At least that was how it's been portrayed to the public. But I was naive. Communication is everything and it's how it comes across that's important.

"I've got a far better football knowledge now than I would have had if I'd have stayed at Rangers. I've worked abroad. I've worked with different people, with different attitudes to the game. That's broadened my horizons and increased my knowledge. I'm far better qualified now, more knowledgeable, than I've ever been. Yes, you make mistakes, but you learn from them."

He concedes now that he was too hasty in allowing the likes of Peter Beardsley, Steve McMahon and Ray Houghton to leave Anfield, and that certain of his acquisitions, notably Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough and the Dane Torben Piechnik, who could have been "another Mark Lawrenson" according to Roy Evans before his purchase, were open to question.

Souness lacks nothing in candour in that respect, "At Liverpool, I would most definitely accept that as a criticism," he says. "Any manager makes mistakes when he buys." Yet in his autobiography, Souness - The Management Years, he maintains that the problems of the club were far more deep- rooted. On his return to the club as successor to Kenny Dalglish he discovered that Liverpool were "a pale shadow of the club I had left in 1984. I found the change of mood in the dressing-room both startling and alarming. How could standards have slipped so badly?"

Souness, who also fell out badly with Phil Thompson and eventually sacked him, recalls that pay disputes were "the beginning of a downward spiral in my relations with some of the players". He adds: "Eventually I fell out with most of the guys who were at Anfield when I returned. One of the reasons was that I could not accept the lack of determination and fire in their bodies to win games for Liverpool."

It is a period of his life - when he also went through the trauma of heart surgery - that the man from Edinburgh would rather consign to the file marked "steep learning curve". Now he is back, rejuvenated. For the moment Souness is enjoying holding the baby. Come the new year he would rather be holding down a top job once more.

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