James Lawton: Just reward for a man of true football passion

Blackburn's Worthington Cup triumph is a fitting tribute for a manager who has experienced the lows as well as the highs
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Glenn Hoddle's critical mugging after defeat in the Worthington Cup was probably only partly to do with his disastrously stated belief that the sins of one life come back to haunt you in another. Andy Cole certainly gave a little undesired credence to the proposition with the brilliantly taken goal which skewered another of Hoddle's theories, the one expressed from the lofty heights of the England managership that the striker needs five chances for every goal.

Hoddle's rough treatment in the Monday papers may, however, have had a little more to do with his latest failure to keep triumphalism in check.

He and most of his team went to Cardiff suggesting they had only to toss the coin and pick up the silverware. Hoddle's best but still unconvincing stab at countering that impression was to say that while he had received letters from White Hart Lane fans describing him as a hero who had restored the glory, and the style, of the club, he could only stress the importance of more hard work. That, certainly, was necessary, everyone could agree. Maybe, though, the prime need was to get round to winning his first trophy as a manager, something his much abused predecessor George Graham did in his first year at White Hart Lane, and promised in his last when delivering an FA Cup semi-final place to Hoddle before being so crudely dismissed from the building.

One problem was that Hoddle's quoting from a fan's herogram was far from unprecedented. When he returned from the World Cup in 1998, after making David Beckham the scapegoat and saying that his only regret was that he had left his faith healer back home in England, he reported how he had been fêted by England fans, including the attendant at his local petrol station.

The point here is that Graeme Souness's triumph at the expense of a much lauded rival was most agreeable not so much for what it said about Hoddle, who refused to collect his loser's medal, and the current tendency to make icons of young managers still to prove that they can win the big games, but for the reward it gave to a passionate football man who has come through some extremely dark days.

Souness has made his mistakes without quibbling over the price. For a while it looked as if he might spend the rest of his life looking into football from the outside. Major heart surgery and his misadventures at Anfield, where an FA Cup win could not disguise the extent of his miscalculation of how quickly he could renovate the spirit and the foundations of his beloved Liverpool, for a while cast him into the margins of the game. But he fought for his return to the trenches. In a brief but rather sensational stint as a television analyst, he said the normally unsayable. He said what he actually thought. If a team displayed moral cowardice, he said so. He declared war on the euphemism and the platitude. He took the TV money and gave something back. It was honesty, and the reality rather than the pose of passion.

His admirers, who have had no difficulty in accepting his claim that overall his Blackburn Rovers have played infinitely better than their currently perilous Premiership position suggests – recently I saw them give Manchester United quite as much as they could handle at Old Trafford – must now hope that qualification for next year's Uefa Cup will bring a surge of confidence to what is left of the campaign for survival. The sentiment is underpinned by the belief that Souness, while never an easy man, is shot through with fundamentally sound football values.

Ruefully, he says of his time at Anfield: "I was accused of rushing my fences – on reflection, maybe I didn't rush them quickly enough." He was appalled by the Spice Boy image at Liverpool, the gap between rewards and performance.

That experience, and his illness, no doubt has modified if not completely expelled his furies, some of which returned with some force the other day when he had to be restrained from confronting a referee. Plainly, he will always bring to football that degree of competitive commitment which takes a man to the edge, and it is a reality he lives with along with the need for a morning barrage of medication.

On Sunday he planted the flag of Blackburn on Welsh soil, as he did that of his old Turkish club Galatasaray, rather more provocatively, on the field of bitter rivals Fenerbahce: actions born, no doubt, not of an urge to make trouble but to give battle. Souness was a great midfielder, hard as nails but also blessed with a genuinely creative touch. He has been no less uncompromising as a manager and a man. His legacy at Rangers went much wider than a string of title and Cup wins. He signed first a black player, then a Catholic, and defied the more rancid sections of the club's support to whimper a protest. He would operate solely on his own terms.

To have done so and survived, not as just another scuffler but a winner, is an achievement to dwarf the taking of any single trophy. Glenn Hoddle should have put a little more value on his loser's medal. The one he wanted had, after all, not gone to some ordinary football man.

Law keeps his humour

Denis Law has always had a wry sense of humour and it was typical of him to say how pleased he was to still be alive as his statue was unveiled at Old Trafford last weekend.

The "Law Man" would also have appreciated the story of the Russian who became increasingly bemused during a tour of London landmarks back in the 1980s. Shaking his head, he asked: "How is it that I have seen statues of soldiers and sailors, poets and kings, but not one of your Iron Lady, Mrs Thatcher?"

He was told that the English tend to build statues for their heroes and heroines only at the time of their death.

"How odd," the Russian said. "In my country that is precisely the time we tear them down."

Comments