James Lawton: Fighting spirit should spare Souness from becoming sacrificial lamb for Shepherd

His challenge has not been simply making a team, but rebuilding a set of values
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The Independent Football

English football isn't so rich in character or conviction that it can afford to see Souness tossed aside at the age of 52.

Obviously he is not everybody's pint of Newcastle brown. Abrasive, argumentative, he might have brought an edge of aggression to the Last Supper. In his prime as a player at Liverpool, it was said of him by one colleague that had he been a chocolate bar he would have snacked upon himself quite relentessly.

No doubt, Souness has a leaning towards impetuosity that has drawn shadows across a career that started so brilliantly with Glasgow Rangers and has known phases of high promise, along with bitter disappointments, down all the years that took him from there back to Anfield, to Istanbul, Southampton, Turin, Lisbon, Blackburn and now Tyneside.

But there is one enduring aspect of Graeme Souness that commends him here. It is the strength of his passion, the degree to which he makes it clear that he cares. Plainly he does that as much off the field as he ever did on it, and this is saying a lot.

This is to separate him from the time-servers and the technicians, those whose views on their trade are delivered in self-serving platitudes. He has the demeanour of what might be properly termed a football man, a fact which was never better demonstrated than when in one of his brief exiles from the game he served some time as a Sky football pundit.

On that television outlet where football will always be principally a product, Souness spoke with a consistent cutting edge. He told it how it was and in a way that has perhaps never been reproduced since.

If he has had a tumultuous journey, there has been a regular theme and at a time in the game when the discipline and passion of so many players have been called into question, it is surely one to be valued. It has been about a fierce and storming commitment to some of the most basic professional values and if it is true that Newcastle remain desperate under-achievers in 11th place, there is a wider picture.

Souness painted it with his usual force when required to defend his position under fierce pressure from the boardroom and the terraces earlier this week.

He pointed out that certain progress had been made off the field, not least with the removal of some "dodgy characters". We did not require an identity parade. Plainly he was referring to Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert, players of considerable talent but with it an overwhelming sense of themselves that made the old arrogance of Souness the player seem like the last word in self-effacement.

Let's be sure about the scale of the challenge facing Souness in the last 18 months. It has not been simply to make a team but rebuild a whole set of values. Before his firing, Souness's predecessor Sir Bobby Robson performed a valiant holding operation in maintaining the club's place near the top of the Premiership, but no one, least of all himself, pretended that he wasn't involved in a major collision of cultures. Souness, the hard man, came in with an initially singular purpose. He had to whip in an awareness of team and an obligation to work for the rewards of the game which one of his inherited stars, Kieron Dyer, seemed particularly eager to list for the benefit of fans already seriously doubting whether they were receiving value for money.

Bellamy's outrageous behaviour was both exposed and challenged and after a thousand sighs Souness was able to move on the exasperating Robert.

Now Souness's reward has been the injury list from hell, which includes most devastatingly Michael Owen, his gem-like acquisition of proper professional values and a hard-edged, vital talent, and his most reliable midfielder, Scott Parker. In all he has eight first-teamers out, and one particularly damaging absence is that of Emre, a Turkish midfielder who was displaying genuine bite and authority.

These have been savage blows, which were weathered without complaint right up to the point when it was clear that Souness was fighting for his professional life.

For some of us whose lives are not shaped hugely by the ebb and flow of Newcastle, the hope for Souness's survival goes deep into the past. If he believed in himself as a player, he had every reason.

He was a magnificent player, ruthless, it is true, but also possessed of a wonderfully hard, creative instinct. If he played today, you wouldn't hear so much about the midfield supremacy of Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard, and this is something that is hard to forget when you see him on the touchline, his face sometimes a mirror of disbelief, if not open disdain.

In Genoa, Italy, he was embraced as a ferocious star of Sampdoria. He neither gave nor asked for quarter in the fiercest engagements.

There was also his recharging of Rangers in the mid-Eighties. Glasgow has always fancied itself as a big, tough city, but it held no terrors for the man from Edinburgh. He won a trophy every year in his five seasons at Ibrox, and more than that he set up the club for a new age of the game. He signed leading English players like Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Ray Wilkins when Europe banned clubs from England, and in that reversing of history he opened up the boundaries of the Scottish game - and also the minds of some of those who supported it when he broke the ban on Catholic players at Ibrox.

One of his admirers, Liverpool and Scotland's Ian St John, observed at the time: "What Graeme Souness has shown is tremendous courage ... he has broken down the barriers of prejudice in a place where some of us thought it could never happen. But was it wise to sign the ex-Celtic player Mo Johnston, was that pushing the agenda a little too far, too quickly? ... maybe it was, but still we're looking at real courage."

Today St John remains an admirer, saying, "I'm glad he's fighting on because I really believe he has a lot to offer and for anyone to judge him harshly in the current situation would be very unfair.

"He hasn't whined about injuries, as some top managers do when they have two or three, but the fact is it did look like he was turning a corner with the signing of Michael Owen.

"In the past maybe he has erred in some signings in his desire to produce open, expressive football - some of the competitive character may have been a bit lacking - but with Owen he made a tremendous decision which guaranteed him both genuine commitment and the certainty of goals. With Owen injured, and all the guys out of it, Souness would be terribly unlucky to go. Mind you, we are talking about Newcastle."

Indeed, we are discussing the fiefdom of Freddy Shepherd, who so often has defied the rules of success in football.

Souness is not easily manipulated. No doubt he has made his mistakes, and in a moment of reflection he admitted that he probably should have resigned at Liverpool after the folly of selling his story to The Sun - Merseyside's least favourite newspaper - in the wake of his heart bypass surgery. He left Liverpool in 1994 conscious that he had damaged the reputation that shone so brightly in Glasgow.

However, there would be moments that promised breakthrough, a Turkish Cup win in some turbulent days at Galatasary, the avoidance of relegation at Southampton and a League Cup win for Blackburn over Glenn Hoddle's touted Spurs. In between, tough and controversial battles to impose his will on a new generation of professionals.

Now he fights from one of his toughest corners. He can claim some victories, though unfortunately for him they do not yet include the solving of a chronic problem in central defence, and he can hope for the swift healing of men like Owen and Parker and Emre. What he doesn't have to argue, at least to some of us, is that his instincts are in the right place.

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