Graeme Souness: 'I never leave the chairman alone. I see it as part of my job'

For a man already under pressure, the Newcastle manager is remarkably cool. Nick Townsend reports on a fighter playing down his problems
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The Independent Football

The problem comes when, despite chairman Freddy Shepherd being prepared to flash his chequebook at football's summer boot sale, such a wish-list fails to become reality. For a club who, ever since its Kevin Keegan-inspired renaissance, have been hyperventilating on expectation, Newcastle begin their campaign today at Highbury, with only two who have incurred fees, Parker, at £6.5m from Chelsea, and Emre, £3.8m from Internazionale, having deposited their signature on a contract.

Indeed, on the debit side, the loss of the enfant terrible Laurent Robert and that Welsh irritant, Craig Bellamy, together with Patrick Kluivert and several squad players have suggested to many eyes that Newcastle could well be renamed Toon-lite.

And this the team who last season, apparently possessing more quality, finished in the bottom half, having won 10 of 44 Premiership games, including just three away. They are 125-1 for the title, but perhaps more pertinently, 25-1 to be relegated. Their fans are concerned about those players Newcastle have failed to snare. Outsiders regard those that remain as a rather dysfunctional family. No wonder, they contend, that Jermaine Jenas wants to leave.

Yet, if you expect to discover a manager in defensive, maybe antagonistic, mood, which epitomised that glint-eyed, sometimes brutal character of his playing days, you would be mistaken. "There's far more togetherness here this summer," Souness insists. "The players are all thinking the same and all running in the same direction. I think I'll be saying exactly the same thing at Christmas."

If he makes it until then, of course, rather than becoming that tabloid headline writer's delight: Chop Souey. This club are not exactly renowned for regarding patience as a virtue. One spread betting company have estimated in its "Premiership Sack Predictor" that Souness will be first out, on 17 December. In what other occupation would the bookmakers, and let's face it, the footballing public in general, be debating a man's length of tenure in his job?

Here, it's a perennial hazard, as Sir Bobby Robson will testify. He will long remember the start of the season a year ago. And, how, on the 15th day, there was darkness...

It was no more than four games into the Premiership season when Shepherd and deputy chairman Douglas Hall, son of Sir John, brought an ignominious conclusion to Robson's stewardship, and possibly his career. It is a fate which the septuagenarian still refers to as a "bereavement".

In bounded Souness, older, wiser, and, dare one say it, mellower. Like his predecessor, the son of Edinburgh had survived a life-threatening condition which had no doubt persuaded him to take a more rounded view of his life and career. Robson had beaten cancer. Souness had a triple heart bypass at the age of 38.

Yet, here was a character who insisted that his experiences in the football furnaces of Liverpool, Glasgow and Istanbul had provided him with a mental heat-resistant suit, able to withstand the temperatures as you are liable to discover at any club with Kieron Dyer, Lee Bowyer, Bellamy and Robert on the payroll. On his arrival, Souness had insisted: "Part of my job is educating these players and I'm better suited to doing that at 51 than I was at 33 when I was manager of Rangers."

Which should not imply that he has developed into the character portrayed in his cameo role on TV back in the Eighties when he was confronted by the hard-staring Yosser Hughes, he of "giv'us a job" notoriety in the classic gritty drama, Boys From The Blackstuff.

Approached in a nightclub by Yosser, who claims that the moustachioed trio of himself, Souness and the TV detective Magnum all looked the same, the then Anfield midfielder sent him a bottle of champagne, and his autograph, together with a message, "To Yosser Hughes, better looking by far. Best wishes, Graeme Souness".

As for these Boys in the Black and White Stuff, Souness has not flinched from acting decisively when required, notably when handling his problem quartet.

On his first day, he had spoken of only tinkering with Robson's team. Circumstances, both on and off the field, all heavily chronicled, forced him to review that intention. Bellamy and Robert have departed; Dyer has just signed a new four-year contract and Bowyer is out, effectively "on licence", following his on-field spat with his team-mate. No wonder Souness says, presumably in hope rather than anticipation: "I'd like to think we could stay off the front pages of some newspapers."

He says so in the knowledge that, even if his wish comes true, the back pages will embroider every nuance of dissatisfaction from within the club, like Jenas's claim that he cannot live within the "goldfish bowl" existence of life in the city. "There have been some big players here who've not had that problem," retorts Souness, in admonishment. "Arguably the biggest name in football, the biggest name in the Premiership in the last 10 years has lived here very happily."

True. Alan Shearer has relished every minute of it; so much so that Souness persuaded him to postpone his retirement by a year. Souness is aware, though, that his gifted young England midfielder is a decidedly different character. "At the end of last season, he was rested because of the amount of games he'd played and because of muscle injuries. JJ, of all people, could make the jump from being a professional footballer to a professional athlete. When he starts to get muscle injuries you know you're pushing him too hard. He wasn't dropped."

The manager adds: "We don't want to sell Jenas. We've not had an offer that comes anywhere near our valuation. He's on the fringes of the England team and we're not in the business of selling our best players."

Newcastle are already four games into their season. Souness has emphasised that they didn't need the distraction of a competition that gets under way in July, the Intertoto Cup, aka the Desperation Trophy. His chairman had opined that "this club belongs in Europe and because of that we are pursuing the Intertoto Cup route to the Uefa Cup, Europe's second-biggest club tournament". In the event, the plan not only proved futile, Souness's side eliminated by Deportivo La Coruña, but it laid the basis for the more mischievous among us to observe that manager and chairman were not entirely in accord.

Souness scoffs, and sounds convincing when he declares: "You do not get a job at a club like this if everything is rosy. But I'm happy here and there is no problem between the chairman and me whatsoever. I have a working relationship with him which has worked fantastically well if you go back through the Bellamy situation, the Robert situation. Getting in Boumsong, Scott Parker, Emre, Craig Moore, he's supported me in everything I've wanted to do."

The manager adds: "I know that between now and the end of the transfer window, he'll be on the phone constantly every day, trying to make things happen for this club. I frustrate him because I'm always asking. I never leave him alone. I see that as part of my job but I'm sure at times he wants to put the phone down and tell me to bugger off."

The problem, Souness claims is, "the players we are targeting are top players at top clubs who don't want to sell. No one has said they're not interested. They'd all love to come and play for this club. This is a club people want to play for, and we've targeted some big players." He pauses, before adding as if to underline the point: "As I understand it, Michael Owen is still a realistic possibility."

Shearer and Owen in tandem again? Such an acquisition could truly convince the sceptics among the club's followers. Because, ultimately, a manager's reign here is only so long as it is endorsed by the Toon Army and, as history has demonstrated, by Shearer too. The fact that Shearer is Newcastle's only recognised striker in the squad to play Arsenal today confirms that goals could be a scarcity.

Souness can only glance avariciously at Arsène Wenger's charges and lament: "Going to Highbury is never easy. [Thierry] Henry on his day is unplayable, [Dennis] Bergkamp is an artist who pulls the strings. They've got quality throughout which is why they're a top team. They don't have three good players; they have seven, eight, nine.If we're strong in one area I think it's our midfield; but we'll see if we're right or wrong over the next nine months."

An appropriate gestation period, by which time the Toon faithful could witness the rebirth of their team in their manager's image: attacking, resourceful, visionary and with more than a dash of venom - providing it does not all end in the cruel miscarriage that the bookmakers predict.


Graeme Souness

Born: 6 May in 1953 in Edinburgh

As a player: 1968-72 Tottenham. 1972-78 Middlesbrough. 1978-84 Liverpool. 1984-86 Sampdoria. 1986-87 Rangers.

Honours: three European Cups and five League titles with Liverpool.

As a manager: 1986-91: Rangers. 1991-94: Liverpool. 1995-96: Galatasaray. 1996-97: Southampton. 1997-99: Benfica. 2000-04: Blackburn. 2004-present Newcastle.

Managerial honours: Scottish League 1987, 1989, 1990 (Rangers); Scottish League Cup 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991 (Rangers); FA Cup 1992 (Liverpool); Turkish Cup 1996 (Galatasaray); Worthington Cup 2002 (Blackburn).