Today Graeme Souness has the afternoon off. In the Seventies and Eighties, managers of Liverpool Football Club didn't have Saturday afternoons off. They were too busy presiding over a seemingly endless succession of victories. But this is Liverpool 1993; Souness's team have been removed from the FA Cup at the first hurdle. While his rivals engage in the next round of the competition, Souness will be left to reflect that an awful lot of people, from the fans on the Anfield Kop to the writers of tabloid headlines, reckon it is all his fault.
This is not the usual tale of a football manager who has failed the expectations of his employers. There is nothing usual about Liverpool or Graeme Souness. In the past 30 years Liverpool seemed to have discovered the Holy Grail of teamwork: how to replace parts of the machine without damaging the whole. They recruited managers from within the ranks, men imbued with the simple Liverpool way, who plotted the club's continuity from a cupboard under
the stand at Anfield, called the Boot Room.
Last week Souness, a man whose ego would have been cramped in the Boot Room, watched in incomprehension as his team surrendered their hold on the Cup. Yet in the last couple of years they have increasingly become known as an easy touch. As if to underline that this really is the end of an era, last week it was announced that the Boot Room is to be demolished.
If any modern footballer seemed destined to succeed as a manager, it was Souness. Not that it started too auspiciously for him. As a cocky teenager he upset his first club, Tottenham, because, denied the first-team opportunities he considered his right, he had turned surly, resentful and mouthy.
He was transferred to Middlesbrough, where the then manager, Jack Charlton, encouraged him to exploit his enormous sense of self-worth rather than allow it to become a burden. Souness admits the canny old authoritarian was his greatest influence, and such was his development under Charlton that in 1978 he was signed by Liverpool.
Here, for six years, he blossomed into the finest midfield player in Europe, driving his club to five League championships, three European Cups and four League Cups. Arrogant, elegant, economical, his passing, shooting and reading of the game were unparalleled.
He is remembered as much, however, for the ruthlessness of his play. Frank Worthington, the former England striker, calls him 'the dirtiest footballer of his generation'. An encounter with Souness might leave his opponent with a spaghettied hamstring or a scalpeled Achilles. Often he didn't have to do anything; opponents intimidated by his reputation would not try anything fancy or go in too hard against Liverpool. But when they did, Souness knew how to sort them out.
In 1984 Souness, never one to miss a financial opportunity, moved to the Genoese club Sampdoria. With his skill and his ability to look after himself, he was an immediate success in Italy, the toughest league in the world. Moreover, he was astonished by the approach: the training, the lack of boozing, the ban on sex four days prior to a match. It hurt (particularly, for a ladies' man, this last discipline) but he found it a challenge to his self-control and became evangelical for standards Italian.
From there he went to Glasgow Rangers as player-manager, where, to no one's surprise, he was sent off in his first game. In fact, he was dismissed so often a joke went round Scotland: a man walks into a pub and asks for a 'Souness'. 'What's that?' asks the barman. 'Just a half and then I'm off.'
So bad was it that Souness, blaming a referees' vendetta, decided to retire. Immediately he finished playing he had an operation to straighten his four-times broken nose.
Souness threw himself into management. He was asked, soon after he arrived in Glasgow, how he felt about having to sack people. He said he had worried about it the first time, but he had grown quite used to it.
It is fashionable, now he is wobbling, to say that Souness was no good as Rangers' manager - big fish in a small pool, bought players like a child in a sweet shop, never did anything in Europe. But it is impossible to overstate the effect he had on the club. He had a vision, an ambition, that electrified the sad old place. He was instrumental in bringing in a new chairman, David Murray, and set about spending Murray's money with diligence. And only a man of Souness's inner certainty would be brave enough to take on this epicentre of Scots Protestant bigotry and introduce English players, black players, Jews, Catholics. He single- handedly dragged Rangers into a new era, which his more tactically astute successor, Walter Smith, is now enjoying.
Despite Souness's success, the Glasgow fans never really took to him. He was too flash, too arrogant, he lived in Edinburgh. Their suspicions of untrustworthiness were confirmed when, despite many grandiose statements about how he would never leave, he became Liverpool manager in 1991.
Back at Anfield, Souness found the place not to his liking. His predecessor, Kenny Dalglish, had resigned, sensing that unthinkable decline was imminent. Souness was astonished by some of the players' huge wages, by the idle training schedule, by the poor technique of his new squad. He set about making changes with typical vigour, and the Liverpool fans were delighted; here was the man they needed.
He didn't, however, have David Murray's money down south. Without the extra revenue of European competition while they were banned, and with a new ground to build and a pounds 7m annual wage bill, Liverpool were financially embarrassed. Souness had to wheel and deal in the transfer market, and observers felt he sold good players in order to buy bad ones. Whatever the problems, he steered them to an FA Cup semi-final.
Just before that match it was announced that, because of a congenital problem, he had been admitted to hospital for a triple heart bypass operation. Sympathy was quickly dulled, however, when he sold the story of his operation to the Sun, a paper reviled on Merseyside for its treatment of the Hillsborough disaster. A picture of him snogging his new girlfriend appeared on the Sun's front page the very day the Liverpool players were at a memorial service for Hillsborough victims.
Worse, it was later revealed that Souness had written to a shareholder the previous year saying he had banned his players from talking to the Sun, as he realised it would be insensitive.
Liverpool won the Cup last year, but at the start of this season looked increasingly poor. Dave Sexton, the former Manchester United manager, believes Souness has lost the tactical plot: past Liverpool teams were characterised by the speed at which they won the ball once they'd lost it; now they flounder around like ordinary mortals.
Part of Souness's problem seems to be man-management. He is as intimidating a manager as he was a player. Don't be fooled by the mellifluous burr you have heard on Match of the Day, Souness rules by fear. Hardened journalists and seasoned footballers alike can feel uncomfortable in his presence. While Mike Tyson frightens by his physique and Vinnie Jones by his haircut, with Souness it is all in the eyes. They are eyes that, even in photographs, couldn't be more explicit if they had stencilled across
them: 'Upset me and you'll get a sore face.'
Terror, however, is not necessarily the best way to motivate players, especially young players. Souness's favourite technique is to chuck crockery around the dressing room at half-time. But in a recent league game against Wimbledon, his team collapsed in the second half when the opposition scored.
Remember the old cliche: Liverpool are never more dangerous than when they go one goal down? One seasoned observer said he had never, in 30 years, seen Liverpool surrender as they did last week. This was, he reckoned, the hallmark of a demoralised team.
Souness is quick to apportion blame. Bad referees, too many injuries, overpaid players who are just not passionate enough. But who, the lads on the Kop ask, makes the players train too hard, thus picking up more injuries? Who bought a rag-tag of under-achievers to Anfield in the first place? How, they wonder, can you be expected to die for Liverpool when, like their new centre- backs, you have just stepped off the plane from Copenhagen?
The discontent on the Kop has grown from a vocal minority who turned against him over the Sun business to a majority, spoilt by success, who boo his tactics and rail against his personal flash. 'We could forgive him everything,' said one Kop regular, 'if we were winning again.'
Souness, one fan observed, is a bit like John Major, a man presiding over a long- term decline that is beyond anyone, but making all sorts of unhelpful short-term decisions. Yet it seems unlikely the Liverpool board will sack him. It would cost too much in contractual severances, and anyway, who else would want the job?
In the meantime, Souness will not shirk the challenge. No one should doubt the man's resolve. Once, while his first- team squad repaired, exhausted, to the showers after the vigorous training session he had led them through, Souness was spotted completing three laps of Liverpool's huge Melwood training ground. That done, he spent a further half-an- hour pounding the gym running machines. And this was a week before he went into hospital for his heart operation.
Every aspect of his life is driven by a compulsion that nothing - opponents, critics, directors, dodgy ticker - will get the better of Graeme Souness. In Liverpool Football Club he may, at last, have met his match.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies