Dispiriting as yet another defeat may have been for Blackburn Rovers' followers at Southampton last weekend, the sight and sound of their manager coming over all excitable in the tunnel afterwards offered a curious kind of reassurance: Graeme Souness still cares. Heart surgery, the arrival of a young son and a 50th birthday may have caused a minor reassessment of priorities in his life, but football can still cause those piercing blue eyes to gleam, and the nostrils to flare.
In 30-odd years as player and manager (briefly both at Rangers), Souness has never experienced a run of results as bad as Blackburn's current trot of six defeats out of seven, and one victory since the the middle of August. A 5-1 romp against Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening day offered what proved to be false promise that Damien Duff and David Dunn would not be missed from the Rovers midfield, and that Souness had found the right seven men over the summer to consolidate, if not actually build on, last season's highly commendable sixth place in the Premiership.
Since then, the team have slid towards the bottom of the table and will be in the relegation places if they fail to end the run of losses at Leicester City this afternoon. In front of vast banks of empty seats at Ewood Park, they have been dumped out of the Uefa Cup by an unpronounceable team from Turkey and out of the Carling Cup by Liverpool, the club Souness led with such distinction as captain and such difficulty as manager - a job which he admits it would have been better not to have taken on.
"Souness, Souness, what's the score?" cackled 7,000 visiting supporters in a crowd of under 17,000 last Wednesday night. It was 4-1 to Liverpool at the time, which would have been 5-1 had Emile Heskey not fluffed a penalty. Yet his 10 men still managed to emerge with a more respectable 4-3 defeat from that one, and as Barry Ferguson and Dwight Yorke, two of the most criticised players, stuck in well-crafted late goals, it was possible to see something of the manager's own spirit of defiance reasserting itself.
"That game summed our season up," Souness reflected on Friday. "We were a goal up and cruising, then went to sleep once, which cost us a goal and a red card [for Lucas Neill, his second against Liverpool in six weeks]. We didn't perform at Southampton, in the first half against Bolton [a 2-2 draw] or Fulham [0-2], but other than that our football has been good enough to have got us points in all the games we've lost. We've made individual mistakes and some people haven't done their job properly, but overall our football at times has been very, very good."
Clearly, there are deficiencies in the team, notably in a back-four who have yet to keep a clean sheet in 13 attempts. Furthermore, trying to make up for the loss of Dunn (who fell out with the manager) and Duff, who fell prey to the Chelsea millions, by integrating half-a-dozen new players at the same time may have been a little too ambitious, Souness reluctantly admits. "I don't think good players need a great deal of time to settle in. But maybe I'm learning something about that."
On most other issues, he will back the breadth and depth of his own experience, beginning way back in the hotheaded days as a junior at Tottenham, when questions were asked in Parliament after he was threatened with a roll-over suspension for running home to Edinburgh in frustration at a lack of first-team opportunities.
The absence of Dunn, who is now helping Birmingham City to great heights, might even have encouraged a more conciliatory attitude to Yorke, who had been equally out of favour but looked a force again against Liverpool and has been promised that if he maintains that level of quality and commitment he will remain in the side.
"Dwight has had a fair bit going on in his life that's caused him to be less confident than he would want," says Souness. "But his work on Wednesday was quality of the highest level, and he'll start again on Sunday. As for Barry, if I know a little bit about one area, it's central midfield, and he is a top player. I don't think he's had a bad game for us. It's a fact that he's been the biggest signing we've made in terms of cost [£7.5m], and so people obviously pick him out."
It is easily forgotten that at the time Blackburn won the Worthington Cup in 2002, a year after Souness had earned them promotion back to the Premiership in his first full season, they were in an equally parlous position among the back markers. He had confidence then in their ability to thrive, not merely survive, and he retains it now. "We were in the bottom three, but kept our nerve, played our way out of trouble and finished 10th. The spirit was there against Liverpool, and this group of players have not given me any sign of throwing the towel in. We just have to keep believing. Then we'll look back on all this in a few months' time and ask what all the fuss was about.
"I honestly believe this is the strongest group of players I have had at this club, and we feel that it is a matter of time before we turn the corner. We are not going to win the League, or qualify for the Champions' League. We finished sixth last season and I said before a ball was kicked that it would be very hard to get anywhere near that. But I'm 100 per cent confident that come the middle of May we will be more than comfortable. As a manager, if you are getting the right response from a group of players, you're happy with that. Your position only becomes a problem if you're getting short-changed."
Apart from any mention of the vacant manager's position at Tottenham, one of the few questions he avoids is about the long-term future of a club many believe to be operating at close to maximum potential as representatives of what is essentially a small Lancashire town. A recent Premiership attendance of less than 20,000 (albeit for a televised Monday-night match against Charlton Athletic) might have sounded alarm bells, and even before that Souness had taken part in an advertising campaign at bus shelters around the town, in which his voice was heard encouraging passengers to support their local club.
There is spare capacity at Ewood, though also pride in the fact that the normal 26,000 average represents something close to a quarter of the town's population, at a time when the expanding motorway network has brought Manchester and Merseyside closer than ever. Money does not flow like it did in Jack Walker's championship heyday, though the Walker Trust continues to contribute an annual sum, and the level of debt would be cause for ordering champagne and goldfish at Leeds or Manchester City.
Having made a profit of £7.7m on his summer deals, thanks to the huge fee for Duff, Souness has done his bit. Like any manager, he is understandably more concerned with the immediate future, starting at the Walkers Stadium this afternoon. "The concern at present is to try to get a few wins, and a bit of confidence, and get into a nice place by Christmas," he says. "Micky Adams [the manager of Leicester City] has done remarkably well there, coping with difficulty in more ways than one, and kept focused and got them promoted. They're a battling team. We've got to go there and get something from the game."
Whether or not the players' self-belief slips, his own will not. Nor will his responsibility for leadership: "I'm the captain of the ship. I've been a captain on the field and it's never been a problem for me when the going gets tough, so it won't be one now.
"I'm not 21. I'll get on with it and take what comes my way. Professionally and personally, I've gone through a great deal and know what I'm made of. I've not experienced a run like this, it's a new experience for me, but I won't show any weakness, it's not in me. Part of my job is to look for the positives."
That applies to his personal life as well. Should he occasionally dwell on the negatives during the drive home through the picturesque Ribble Valley to a lovely house and family, there is always a swift reminder of reasons to be grateful: "I sometimes feel sorry for myself when I leave the stadium. Then my wife will smack me round the head and say, 'We want none of that in this house', and that's an end of it.
"We are in a very public business, and when you are having a bad time in the Premier League, the whole world knows about it, that's the price of the ticket. Feeling sorry for yourself is for people who don't achieve much in life. I still regard myself as very privileged to have this job and be in football. I'm 50 years old and still involved with a job I love. And I'm 50 years old and have a four-year-old son - he quickly makes me realise what's important in the world."
But going soft? Ask the stewards in the Southampton tunnel.
Biography: Graeme Souness
Born: 6 May 1953 in Edinburgh.
As a player: apprentice with Tottenham (1968). Short spell with Middlesbrough. Joined Liverpool in 1978 for £350,000. Won three European Cups and five League titles. Named player-manager of Rangers in 1984. Also represented Scotland.
As a manager: Rangers (April 1984 to April 1991); Liverpool (April 1991 to January 1994); Southampton (July 1996 to June 1997); Blackburn Rovers (March 2000 to present). Also spells at Galatasaray, Torino and Benfica.
Managerial honours: 2002 Worthington Cup (Blackburn); 1992 FA Cup (Liverpool).
Also: a heart condition required emergency bypass surgery in 1992.