Football: Souness must tame monster of Benfica
Anfield and Ibrox now seem like oases of tranquillity compared with life in Lisbon for Liverpool's former manager
Monday 07 December 1998
Two days earlier Graeme Souness had been inside Benfica's Stadium of Light urging and cajoling the largest football club in Portugal to win a vital match. The noise in one of Europe's, if not the world's greatest sporting venues is deafening. The expectancy is enormous. The pressure for the Benfica coach is unrelenting.
"I'm expected to lead Benfica to the Portuguese league championship, and to win the European Champions' League," he says, with a wry smile on his face. "Nothing too strenuous, then."
The Souness home back in England, nestled in Hampshire countryside close to the fine city of Winchester, serves as a peaceful haven for the man who has either played at or been in charge of some of Europe's major football establishments. As one of the most gifted midfield players of his generation, the Scottish international, having begun professional life at Tottenham and then Middlesbrough, won every club honour imaginable at Liverpool and Sampdoria before taking over the player-manager's reins at Rangers and transforming the club back into Scotland's premier outfit.
A less successful spell at Liverpool followed, although in winning the FA Cup in 1992 with a squad of ageing players left behind by the former manager, Kenny Dalglish, coupled with personal health problems, Souness's achievement has never quite been recognised. Taking an enforced year's sabbatical he then re-emerged in Istanbul, where he coached Galatasaray to various domestic honours, before returning to England as manager of Southampton. A short and fruitless spell with Torino preceded the move to Lisbon.
All this is some list by anyone's standards, yet for all the magnitude of most of his previous clubs, Souness insists nothing compares to Benfica. "It's not just the biggest club in Portugal," he says, as he takes his Barbour off, and rubs his cold hands close to the warmth of the raging coal fire. "It's the only club. Of course, the likes of Porto and Sporting have good, European track records, but in terms of interest, it's only Benfica. I'm talking about a monster of a club here."
Surely Souness has grown used to such conditions at Anfield and Ibrox? "Yes, I have," he agrees. "But Benfica's something different altogether. After training I have to deal with 40 journalists, writing for three national sports newspapers, and 10 camera crews. That's every day.
"Every single thing you do is scrutinised. I've learned to accept that if I make a substitution, it's the wrong substitution. And if I don't introduce a sub into a game, then I've made a mistake. People talk about the British media. Believe me, they are absolute gentlemen compared to the Portuguese media."
He makes it sound as if he is struggling at Benfica. The facts paint a different picture. When he took over in Lisbon last November, bringing his long-time assistant and friend, Phil Boersma, with him, the giants of Portugal were languishing in sixth place, and already so far behind Porto that any chance of ending the season as champions had disappeared. Souness, despite horrendous financial problems, dragged the club into second place, and qualification for this season's Champions' League.
To date, Benfica lie fourth in the Portuguese league, five points behind Porto, and have a chance of qualification into the quarter-finals of the Champions' League as one of the best group runners-up if they can beat a below-par PSV in Eindhoven on Wednesday evening.
This, however, is not good enough for the masses who follow Benfica. Not nearly good enough. "Anyone with a rational mind would argue that I've done reasonably well," Souness explains. "But this is Benfica we're talking about here. They've not won a league championship for four years. That, in Portugal, constitutes a major crisis. I've been in charge for a year. Do you know, that makes me the longest-serving coach at the club for six years. Sporting went through four coaches last season."
What will happen if Benfica fail to qualify from their Champions' League group? "Oh, the knives will come out again," he answers. "But that happens on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong. Benfica's a fantastic club. I love living and working in Portugal, and the club president has been superb, but Benfica has major financial problems, and until they're taken care of the supporters are never going to get the club they dream about."
It is incredible to think that a club of Benfica's size can be in such dire, financial straits. Souness agrees. "You're right, but the facts are that the club was previously mismanaged. Fortunes have been spent and money's gone out of the window. In a two-year period they bought 50 players. Fifty players! The finances - or lack of them - are an enormous problem for me, and for the president. He's working day and night to put things right, but it's going to take a little time.
"It's frustrating because people either don't recognise or understand the problems we have. They see us finishing second in the league last year and, as a result, expect us to win every game this season. I happen to think we've done well with the limited resources we have. I reckon, if only a little money could be provided, that we could become a major force in Europe again, and champions at home. I believe we can still win the league this season, but it's not easy in such conditions."
The Souness of old - that fiery competitor who took no prisoners as either a player at Liverpool, or a manager at Rangers - might have self-combusted at Benfica with rage and frustration. The new Souness, post-Liverpool, heart scares and marriage to the calming influence of his wife, Karen, remains philosophical.
"I still have my moments," he admits. "But I'm far more in control these days. People forget that when I first went into management at Rangers I was 33 years old. I was just a boy. I know as a player that I over-stepped the mark on occasions. I know as a manager I used to do the same.
"That's all in the past, now. I like to think I'm a reasonably intelligent person, and reasonably intelligent people learn from their mistakes. I have a wife who hits me over the head on a daily basis to make things relative, and all the experiences I have had, both home and abroad, have helped to make me more aware of what football's all about."
We take a walk through the grounds surrounding his sprawling home. He may be two hours away from Lisbon, but here, in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, he is a world apart. Part of him loves life in Portugal, and the challenge of coaching a club such as Benfica. "I still love the job, the lifestyle, the food, and the people," he insists. "I want to make it happen for Benfica. And I must keep on working. I have a work ethic instilled into me as a boy in the back streets of Edinburgh. It's good for your soul and for your well-being."
Yet another part of him yearns to return home. The various English managers' jobs Souness has been linked with, notably at Blackburn, have only been speculative. "It's flattering," the man says. "But it's not an issue until someone makes a concrete offer. And no, nobody has.
"You can't rule out anything in football. You just don't know what's round the corner. If you coach a Latin club, you're always only four games away from the sack at any given time, and that applies to the guys at Porto and Sporting too. Sure, I would like to manage another club in England again, some time. But it would have to be the right club.
"What I do know is that I have a wife and family back in England, and although Karen travels out a lot to see me, or I come home when I can after the weekend, it's not enough. I have a commitment and duty to my family, and I must start to look after this side of my life more sooner rather than later."
Graeme Souness plunges his hands deep into his coat pockets and casts a long, lingering look around, the rural silence only interrupted by the sound of a crow and the ripples from the stretch of river he owns. "This is me," he says, almost to himself as much to his inquisitor, as he heads back indoors to spend some valuable time at home before flying back to Lisbon and the hot, bubbling cauldron that awaits his return.
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