Profile: The hardest challenge yet: Graeme Souness

Southampton's new manager returns to the Premiership fray today after four years away. Stan Hey reports
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When they first shared a dressing-room at Sampdoria 12 years ago, Graeme Souness and Gianluca Vialli could never have envisaged that one day they would meet on the south coast of England with Souness managing Southampton and Vialli playing for Chelsea. But that's how it will be today at The Dell.

For Souness, this return to management in England represents a new beginning after completing only a year as coach of the feverish Istanbul club Galatasaray, who refused him a new contract despite a fairly successful season. It will also be a chance for the Scot to prove to those who criticised his three-and-a-half-year reign as manager of Liverpool, the club with whom he won a cupboard full of honours as a player, that he retains both the motivational and tactical skills which were his hallmark.

Southampton's fans, initially hostile to his appointment, will prefer to dwell on Souness's first managerial job at Rangers, when he built up an internationally mixed squad which went on to dominate Scottish football for the past decade, after eight previous years without a championship.

At first, Souness was player-manager at Rangers but his traditional hard man role found little favour with some Scottish referees and he was sent off three times, causing much muttering among the staid Orange burghers who still had influence at the club. But when the Edinburgh metals millionaire David Murray took over as chairman and Souness retired to the bench, a formidable partnership was developed. Murray's money and Souness's ambition saw established English internationals such as Terry Butcher, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens recruited north of the border, an act of cultural daring in such a traditional context.

Bolder still was Souness's signing of the Roman Catholic forward Maurice Johnston, once of Celtic, which created an uproar among the extremist elements of Rangers' die-hard Protestant support. Souness, himself married to a Catholic, had faced initial sectarian objections but here he was blowing a hole in the stoney Orange edifice.

It was an act of defiance which was typical of the way he had played the game. Born in Edinburgh he signed as an apprentice with Spurs, but a prolonged period of home sickness left him unable to settle in the south. He was eventually snapped up for pounds 30,000 by Second Division Middlesbrough in December 1972. By the end of that first season Middlesbrough had been promoted as champions and shrewd judges began to take notice of their young, powerfully built midfielder. He won his first international cap in 1974.

It was inevitable that a bigger club would come in for Souness, and Bob Paisley bought him for Liverpool in January 1978 for what seems a meagre pounds 325,000. Souness immediately fitted into Liverpool's passing midfield. Shortly before the club's 1978 European Cup final against Bruges at Wembley I talked to Bob Paisley and he said of Souness: "Most midfields are made up of a buzzer, a cruncher and a spreader. This boy is all three."

Souness duly justified the manager's praise by providing the pass - a calm angled volley - which his Scottish team-mate Kenny Dalglish turned into the winning goal. For the next six years Souness, Dalglish and Alan Hansen formed the backbone of a Liverpool team which reaped its richest harvest of the game's honours. Champions in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983 and 1984, Liverpool also won the League Cup four years running between 1981 and 1984, and twice more took the European Cup, against Real Madrid in Paris in 1981 and Roma in Rome in 1984, Souness's last game for the club before he was bought by Sampdoria for pounds 650,000.

Although Liverpool fans remember Souness's generosity when he ushered Bob Paisley up the Wembley steps to collect the 1983 League Cup, he was also their favourite hard man. Souness's tackling was a thing of terrible beauty, though probably less so if you were a direct opponent. In a European tie in Romania against Dinamo Bucharest, the home captain offered a display of intimidation against Souness which ended with the Romanian going off with a broken jaw. Souness's autobiography was aptly titled No Half Measures.

But the physical aspect of Souness's play was always offset by the accuracy of his passing. Dalglish, his room-mate, said of him: "There's no one I'd put in front of him when it comes to accurate and dangerous passing. He wins the ball, then distributes it and dictates the pace of the game."

Later, as captain, Souness displayed the kind of leadership which marked him out as a future manager. Ian Rush, who came into the Liverpool team in the early 1980s, remembers him in the dressing-room. "Graeme used to go round every player at half time, fist clenched, geeing us up, telling us the game was ours for the taking. He pumped adrenalin into you. I can't explain the feeling to this day, but you used to go out thinking you couldn't lose. That was the Souness psychology."

Souness settled quickly in Italy, both to the new training patterns, the controlled diets and the elegant lifestyle. There had always been a dandyish element about him off the field - he cruised around Liverpool in a Porsche 911 - and Italian fashion soon attracted another devoted admirer. But Souness took the more serious elements of Italian football culture with him to Rangers, and then to Liverpool when he took over from Dalglish. Some of this proved to be his undoing as he changed the players' routines and tried to establish a reclusive, continental style training centre at Melwood, away from the familiar hospitalities of Anfield.

Dalglish's legacy too had been a thin one, but Souness's cavalier playing of the transfer market (pounds 21m spent) couldn't produce a settled side despite taking them to their 1992 Cup final win against Sunderland. Key players also campaigned against him in the local media. "The reason I fell out with some players at Anfield was because I didn't see the kind of hurt in them, not the hurt I was feeling when we didn't do well," he says. "I'm a poor loser, and I know that I haven't always controlled that as well as I should have done."

Souness, who had triple bypass heart surgery in 1992, thinks he is calmer now; the standards he set himself as a player and a manager are still high. Vialli and Souness joined Sampdoria as part of the big investments by the club's millionaire owner, Paulo Mantovani. There is no such figure to pull the financial strings at Southampton. Managing on a limited budget will be difficult for Souness, but he is a man who has never shirked a challenge. The comeback starts today.

Football on Souness, Souness on football

Terry Yorath on Souness, after Wales v Scotland: "Souness kicked me. There's no friction on my part, but I always seem to have trouble from him."

Frank Worthington on Souness, 1984: "He's the nastiest, most ruthless man in soccer. Don Revie's assassins at Leeds were bad enough, but there is a streak in Souness that puts him top of the list."

Graeme Souness on Worthington, 1984: "The way he's losing his hair he'll be the first bald guy ever to do impressions of Elvis Presley."

Archie Gemmill on Souness, 1978 World Cup: "If he was a chocolate drop, he'd eat himself."

Dario Bonetti (Roma) on playing Souness (Sampdoria): "When it was 2-0, Souness amused himself by making fun of us with words and gestures. He may be a great player, but he isn't worth much as a man."

Souness on Graham Roberts, signed by him for Rangers: "He's as tough a player as I've come across in years."