Not so many years ago, the words Barcelona and Ewood Park were no more likely to appear in the same sentence as Gaudi architecture and black pudding. That all changed when the late Jack Walker started ploughing his fortune into Blackburn Rovers, which, with some astute help from Kenny Dalglish, yielded the Premier League title. But then things changed again.
Blackburn were relegated, and Walker died before he could see Graeme Souness guide his beloved club back among the aristocracy. On Sunday, though, Walker will be looking down on Ewood Park wearing a broad grin.
Last week, Blackburn played pre-season friendlies against Wrexham and Port Vale. But, on Sunday, Barcelona come to town, and the deal is that they bring a full-strength team. "It's to announce our arrival back in the Premiership," says Souness, with satisfaction.
We are talking in the players' lounge at Brockhall, the club's training ground in the Ribble Valley. If there is a more beautifully appointed training ground anywhere in the country, I have yet to see it. Not that green fields and rolling hills are any insulation from the world's problems – the taxi driver informs me that Brockhall used to be synonymous with a nearby mental hospital. Still, Souness says that he greatly enjoys driving up the motorway to work every Monday morning – "unless we've been stuffed" – and indeed, at 48 and with major heart surgery behind him to lend some perspective to football, he looks the very picture of contentment.
Interestingly, he has not been overly active in the transfer market this summer. Corrado Grabbi, a striker from the Italian Serie B club Ternana, is the club's only major signing, at £6.5m. So is the manager happy with his squad? "No manager's ever happy with his squad," he says. "I want to be loyal to the players who got us here, but at the same time I still want to strengthen in certain areas. We need a left-sided defender, another central defender, and a quality midfield player. But our situation's changed since the heady days of Jack and Kenny. Back when we won the championship we could go out and buy the equivalent of Veron and Van Nistelrooy. Not now."
All the same, Walker did not leave the club exactly on its uppers. And the smart money says that, of the promoted clubs, Blackburn and Fulham are unlikely to drop straight back into the Nationwide. What sort of season is Souness hoping for, realistically? "Realistically, I hope it's not a weekly struggle. I want to enjoy my job and the players to enjoy theirs. So it's survival we're aiming for, but with the caveat that we're not struggling all the time."
OK, but if – and it's an elephant-sized if – Blackburn could still compete with the likes of Manchester United in the transfer market, who would be top of the wish list? "Half the United team, for a start," says Souness. "In particular, Scholes. I don't know him, but he appears to have a fantastic attitude. He doesn't get involved in daft things on or off the pitch, but he's an aggressive little bugger." Reminiscent of himself as a player? "No, he's a more attacking player than I ever was. He gets fantastic goals, tap-ins, headers. He's a team player as well as a great individual. I think he's a top man."
Unsurprisingly, Souness makes United favourites for the title. I ask whether he has concocted a plan for beating them? "Yeah, you hope they have an off day, and that you have a very good day. I think Van Nistelrooy will be outstanding for them. I tried to sign him when I was at Benfica and he was just a raw youngster at Heerenveen. He was a big, strong boy, looked like an English centre-forward, only more mobile. I went to see him a couple of times, but then I found out that Benfica didn't have any money. He cost £5m at the time. Alex Ferguson and I have a mutual friend, so I told him to tell Fergie to go and buy this player. But I don't think he passed the message on." Shame, it could have saved United a fortune, I say, although try as I might the tears just won't come.
"Yes, but there's so much flair in that team that it doesn't matter what strikers play for them, they're still going to get a lot of chances," Souness continues. "You or I could play in United's forward line and end up in double figures." For a split second, I picture myself playing for my university second XI, a full-back not so much overlapping as over-weight and overtired. Perhaps you, I say. Probably not me.
The point remains, however. United will take some beating this season. On the other hand, Souness believes that his old club Liverpool are strong championship contenders, despite Gérard Houllier's kidology. "They won three trophies last season. They rode their luck at times, and you can't say they were wonderful entertainers, but they've got an enormous squad and I think that all Liverpool supporters expect a real challenge from them."
Souness says that he will always be a Liverpool fan. His affection for the club is unclouded, he insists, by his unhappy tenure there as manager. There are other Liverpool fans, though, who think that the club's lean years, eventually terminated by Houllier, began when Souness took over the reins.
Their chief spokesman is Tommy Smith. How, I ask Souness, does he respond to Smith's criticisms? He fixes me with his unflinching gaze, and I can't help noticing how bloody tough he looks. Like Gordon Strachan, he comes from the wrong side of the tracks in Edinburgh, and a barney between him and Smith would be something to behold.
"How do I respond? I've had the opportunity and honour of managing Liverpool, as well as Glasgow Rangers. Nobody gets decisions right all the time and nobody likes criticism. You like it even less when it comes from people you once regarded as friends. Tommy Smith is anti-me because I wouldn't let him in the Boot Room any more. When I went back as manager, he'd started writing in the local paper, criticising players, and then he was in the Boot Room after the game, as if what he was saying was condoned by Ronnie [Moran], Roy [Evans] and me. I couldn't allow that. And I know he knocks me, but I'm not bitter. My life is too full to worry about arguments I had 10 or 15 years ago."
Fair enough, but what of the substance of Smith's arguments, that Souness made a botch of things? That he signed players, such as Julian Dicks, who were not Liverpool pedigree? "I said no to Liverpool twice, and yes the third time. In retrospect, I should have stayed at Rangers. I was in too much hurry to change things, and it was a time when the money was starting to become ridiculous, so, when people aged 31 or 32 came to me and said they had a chance of another contract somewhere else, I let them go. I should have let them go when it suited the club, but I couldn't get my head round the fact that they wanted to leave Liverpool. So I agreed to sell them immediately. Peter Beardsley came to me with that, Steve McMahon, Ray Houghton ...
"Also, it was an ageing team. In my seven years as a player there I played in only one testimonial, for Emlyn Hughes. In my two-and-a-half years as manager there were five – Ian Rush, Bruce Grobbelaar, Ronnie Whelan, Stevie Nicol and Barnesy [John Barnes]. People say I made poor signings, but I still think Dean Saunders was a good signing. I was responsible for him leaving, because I listened to people I shouldn't have. And Neil Ruddock. If he'd been managed properly he would have been a good player. Julian Dicks too. Nobody can tell me that he wasn't a good player."
Later, I look up references to Souness in Ruddock's autobiography, Hell Razor. "I honestly believe that, given time, Souness would have turned Liverpool into a major force once more," he writes. He also ascribes to Souness a one-liner I always thought apocryphal. In a match against Manchester United Ruddock clashed heads with Gary Pallister. The Liverpool physio, Phil Boersma, treated him, and concluded that he was concussed. "Razor says he doesn't know who he is," Boersma told Souness. "In that case, get back out there and tell him he's Pele," said Souness.
There has always been more to Souness than meets the eye, not least a ready wit. Perhaps that's because what does meet the eye still looks as though it was made in Scotland from girders. But he agrees that looks can deceive.
"What you are on the pitch is not necessarily what you are in real life," he says. "Roy Keane would probably tell you that. I think I'm an easy-going fellow." So, bizarrely enough, does Dale Winton. I was recently with darling Dale when his mobile phone rang. He chatted for a while and then said: "Give my love to Souey." The caller, he told me, was Karen Souness, Graeme's wife. I asked Dale how they became friends. He said his eyes met Karen's in a crowded restaurant. "I said: 'You're gorgeous, you are.' Then I said to Graeme: 'And so are you'."
Souness acknowledges that his friendship with Dale Winton is a magnificently improbable one. But not only is the uncompromising reputation kindled by his hard tackling 20 years ago misleading, it is also sometimes forgotten that, as well as being hard, he was a marvellous player. "But I learnt very early on to live to fight another day," he says. "I had a very bad injury when I was 19. I was playing for Middlesbrough against Leeds, and like every 19-year-old I thought I was the toughest guy around. I went for a tackle with Billy Bremner and Terry Yorath came in and gave me what I deserved. After that he and I had some great battles. He was a real man."
In common with Alan Hansen, Souness reckons that the 1978-79 Liverpool team was the best side he ever played for. "We went through that whole season conceding only 16 goals," he says. "I was top goalscorer against us, with two own-goals. And I think we only let in five at home, something outrageous."
Did he learn anything from Bob Paisley's style of management? "Well, Bob was not a great man-manager. His greatest asset was his choice of players, which is maybe what management is all about. Maybe all it is about. His thoughts on the actual game were very simple. And he was very lucky. You need that as well. I don't think I've been a lucky manager. Leaving Rangers when I did was bad timing. Taking the Torino job when I did. But I have learnt from every experience, from Rangers, from Liverpool, from Galatasary, Southampton, Torino... I used to shout and bawl. Now I have learned that there is more than one way to skin a cat. That's me getting older, wiser, and sure, the medication must influence that as well."
Souness takes pills every day to keep his blood pressure down, but his cardiologist has told him that there is no reason why he shouldn't manage a Premiership football club. "He tells me that for some people, pressure is what I do. For others, pressure is going home and sitting in front of Coronation Street with your slippers on. I would find that very stressful." But what if Blackburn had not been promoted last season? Would not the prospect of losing his job amounted to pretty serious stress? "I'm past thinking like that. I have an illness, and I have a son who's nearly three. I've bigger things to worry about than losing my job."
As my taxi takes me away through the lovely Ribble Valley, it strikes me that this is a philosophy other football managers might come to envy as the next nine months unfold.Reuse content