Souness at Rangers
Thatcher-supporting Graeme Souness was too ‘English’ for hardcore Rangers fans despite his success at Ibrox, and his turbulent attempts to transform the Glasgow giants offer a stark lesson to the latest Liverpool legend in the hot seat
Hard on the pitch, hard off it, but Souey was a Scottish Englishman
Graeme Souness is English. That’s what some Rangers fans assured Scottish football writer Sandy Jamieson in 1990. The fact he was born in Edinburgh – which, although it’s not part of Glasgow is definitely not in England – and had played 54 times for Scotland couldn’t shake their conviction. As Jamieson recalls in his 1997 biography Graeme Souness: The Ibrox Revolution and the Legacy of the Iron Lady’s Man: “He talks like an Englishman, acts like an Englishman and is surrounding himself with as many of his countrymen as possible” was the general consensus of the fans. If they’d been more politically aware, they could also have said: “And he votes like an Englishman.” When he arrived as player-manager in the summer of 1986, Souness was that most exotic of creatures – a Scottish Thatcherite – who regarded his revolution at Rangers as embodying the values and principles with which she had set out to transform Britain. Fast-forward 32 years and Rangers are looking to Steven Gerrard, another European Cup-winning Liverpool captain at the very start of his career in the dugout, to usher in a second revolution. Despite the insistence of those Ibrox diehards, Gerrard is only the second Englishman to manage the club. He will hope to avoid the ignominious fate of his only English predecessor, Mark Warburton, who claims he was at home watching Sky Sports News when his departure was revealed on the yellow ticker at the bottom of the screen in February 2017. At 38, Gerrard is five years older than Souness was when he took over at Rangers. Just as Souness appointed a Scot, Walter Smith, as his deputy, Gerrard turned to ex-Reds team-mate Gary McAllister, who hails from Motherwell, a place even the most sceptical Rangers fans admit is in Scotland. Gerrard has the same task today as Souey did in 1986: make the Gers competitive in a game being dominated by their oldest, fiercest rivals, Celtic. In some ways, Gerrard’s task is simpler than that which Souness faced. Last season the Bears came third in the Scottish Premiership, 12 points behind champions Celtic and three back from runners-up Aberdeen. When Souness succeeded Jock Wallace at the helm, they had finished a lowly fifth, lagging behind Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts and table-toppers Celtic. However, off the pitch, Rangers’ past season was a masterclass in mismanagement. Last summer, the official club website promised: “The 2017-18 season will be totally different” and it was, albeit not in a particularly good way. Three bosses came and went, two of the side’s most influential players – Kenny Miller and Lee Wallace – were suspended following a dressing-room altercation, and the team’s record in all competitions against Celtic was Played 5, Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 4, Scored 2, Conceded 14. All of this may explain why Souness prevaricated publicly over whether Gerrard (right) should take the job. Rangers had been in turmoil for a decade, he noted, and were much poorer than Celtic, a club who – courtesy of the Champions League – generate three times as much revenue as their Old Firm foes. Yet he also advised Gerrard that he may never get a chance to manage such a club again, and predicted that the appointment would “electrify” Rangers. The new gaffer’s unveiling, in front of thousands of cheering supporters at Ibrox, seemed to prove Souey’s point. One piece of his advice Gerrard shouldn’t forget is this: “If you’re second behind Celtic at Rangers, you may as well finish last.” So as Gerrard plots to lead Rangers back to the top, what can he learn from his controversial predecessor? First things first, the new manager needs to recognise that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day...
PAINKILLERS, DIVORCE AND ALLY McCOIST
Looking back on his tempestuous time in charge, Souness once told Radio Scotland: “For a good two years, I lived on Solpadeine to take my headaches away.” But that doesn’t really do justice to the extent of his dependence on painkillers. “Every day I’d follow the same routine from the time I was appointed Rangers manager,” he told the Sunday Mail in 2001. “I would get up at 7am after no sleep and take two tablets instead of breakfast. Then I’d drive from Edinburgh to Ibrox and take another two tablets to get me through training and office work. “When I drove home to an empty house, I’d try to sleep for an hour and then go for dinner with the Rangers owner David Murray. I was always home by 10pm to take two more tablets before going to bed for another sleepless night. “Football had broken up my first marriage – I had everything and nothing. But I regard it an honour to have managed Rangers. I would not have traded places with anyone, even though I now realise I was gradually destroying my health every day I was at Ibrox.” Starting your managerial career at one of the world’s most famous clubs, in such a passionate football city, will inevitably exact its toll, but Gerrard would do well to tuck into something more nourishing than painkillers for breakfast. Souness would concede that much of the stress he suffered was self-inflicted. On his debut against Hibernian in August 1986, he was red-carded for booting George McCluskey into the air. Even by the more lenient standards of the 1980s, it was a shocking assault, and one he remembers with chagrin. “I had become a hothead,” he told the BBC. “It was all Walter Smith’s fault. He’d suggested Hibernian’s Billy Kirkwood might leave a bit of studs in. It was like a red rag to a bull. I was hyped up, and by the time I’d made that challenge I’d made a complete fool of myself. It was outrageous and I’ve apologised 100 times.” McCluskey, who needed nine stitches in his knee, was not placated, saying: “I lost all respect for him the day he sliced my leg open.” As he trudged towards the players’ tunnel, Souness remembered that his father was in the directors’ box. Glancing up, he was appalled to see his dad’s head bowed in shame. After that, he was slightly less
“BY THE TIME I’D MADE THAT CHALLE NGE I’D MADE A COMPLETE FOOL OF MYSELF. IT WAS OUTRAGEOUS – I’VE APOLOGISED 100 TIMES”
hotheaded on the pitch – he was sent off only twice more before he hung up his boots in 1991 – but remained just as combative off it. The three primary targets for his ire were the Scottish Football Association, the media and many of his own players. That first red card was the opening salvo in a recurring conflict with the SFA that only ended when he left Ibrox nearly six years later. He was fined £5,000, banned for four matches, put on disciplinary notice and warned by Scotland’s solicitor-general that he could be prosecuted for offences committed on the pitch. Hostilities escalated as his playing career wound down. In February ’89 he was banned from the touchline for pointing theatrically to his watch, after Dundee United earned a 1-1 draw by levelling in the fifth minute of injury time. By breaching this – and further suspensions – Souness eventually provoked the SFA to bar him from the touchline for an unprecedented two years. When he won his last major honour at Rangers – the 1991 Scottish League Cup – the SFA noted that his celebratory sprint onto the pitch was technically a violation of his ban. The conflict soon engulfed the media – STV were banned from Ibrox after their footage of Souness in the players’ tunnel was used in evidence against him. Souness’ principal complaint against the press was that they made Rangers into a soap opera to sell papers. He was especially incensed by what he regarded as tall tales about his management style that were splashed across the tabloids. When FourFourTwo visited him in Istanbul in April 1996, during his stint as Galatasaray gaffer, he explained: “Ninety-five percent of the time I’d go into the dressing room after a match and give someone a hug, but that’s not a good story. It’s not going to get you a headline in the News of the World on a Sunday morning, is it?” Souey’s relationship with Ally McCoist was particularly volatile. Some Rangers players nicknamed the irrepressible striker ‘Dudley’ after one clash in which the manager allegedly called McCoist a “f**king dud”. Although the former St Johnstone and Sunderland goal-getter won the first of his two European Golden Shoe awards under Souness, he spent enough time on the substitutes’ bench to be dubbed ‘The Judge’. On one bitterly cold matchday, McCoist emerged after half-time with a teapot, cup and saucer, informing his sceptical manager that he was simply trying to keep warm. In football lore, Souness has been vilified for his autocratic, arrogant and abrasive ways. He has since admitted that, in his impatience for change, he was sometimes too tough on his players. Yet it is equally true that McCoist was not everyone’s cup of tea. Midfielder Ian Ferguson will never forget his introduction to Rangers’ dressing room in 1988 after a $1.5m move from St Mirren. “I was welcomed to Ibrox by McCoist and [Ian] Durrant spraying Ralgex over my underpants,” he recalled.
When Nigel Spackman arrived a year later, McCoist said: “You can’t live in Glasgow and be called Nigel. He’s going to be Rab.” Even some of those who joined in the pranks with McCoist and Durrant described them as “headbangers”. As a manager trying to revolutionise a club in serious disrepair, it is easy to understand why Souness, in his first managerial role, had little time for headbangers, even if, like McCoist, they averaged a goal every two games. Souey was concerned the striker “could have looked after himself better, 100 per cent”, but added: “I pushed him but there was no personality clash – I loved his company.” The manager’s point is not lost on Durrant, who told the Daily Mail: “Souness was hard on me, but he was fantastic for me too. I was on the end of a few of his tirades and one right hook.” He wasn’t tempted to retaliate because: “It was a tiff in training, and as I went down I could see him lining up the second one. Luckily, someone stepped in.” Souness later apologised.
‘ ARROGANCE IS BOTH A STRENGTH AND A WEAKNESS’
Not all of the tensions in the squad could be directly blamed on the manager. The influx of English players – attracted by the appeal of European football when English clubs were banned by UEFA after the Heysel disaster – irritated some Scots. Clockwise from above left England duo Butcher and Woods joined the Souness revolution; the signing of Catholic striker Johnston (second from left) broke a Scottish football taboo; Celtic’s Frank McAvennie gets the treatment in ’88; ‘Headbanger’ McCoist (far right) had a rather hostile relationship with his boss Creative midfielder Derek Ferguson couldn’t abide what he regarded as Trevor Francis’ pretensions. When he found English football’s first $1.8 million player reading an Italian newspaper, he persuaded Durrant to stage a distraction so he could set fire to it. “Not the most sensible of things to come up with,” Ferguson later admitted. Lionhearted England centre-half Terry Butcher was a better cultural fit at Ibrox. His pre-match team talk, invariably including the phrase “We are caged tigers”, summed up the ethos Souness was trying to instil. The message worked – under Butcher’s captaincy, Rangers won three league titles in four seasons. Yet inevitably, the defender ended up going eyeball-to-eyeball with his boss. As broadcaster and writer Roddy Forsyth recalled: “Butcher had an operation on his knee following the 1990 World Cup and felt he had been asked to perform for Rangers before he had properly regained fitness.” Disappointed by that attitude, Souness put the centre-back up for sale, almost accepting an offer from Leeds before realising he was a defender short for the Scottish League Cup final against Celtic. Backtracking, he selected Butcher, but the recently retired England international refused to play, saying he didn’t feel part of the team. Souness gave an angry press conference, and Butcher threatened to respond in kind but kept his counsel. After being blamed for both goals in a 2-1 loss to Dundee United, he joined Coventry in November 1990 for an ill-fated spell as player-manager. It’s often forgotten that the Souness revolution did not just lead to the signing of big names such as Francis, Butcher, Ray Wilkins, Chris Woods and Trevor Steven. The foot soldiers in his revolutionary army included Terry Hurlock (snapped up for $675,000 when Wimbledon chairman Sam Hamman refused to sell Vinnie Jones), Mark Falco and Graham Roberts. But many Rangers fans – and some players – insist the best signing Souness made at Ibrox was his No.2. The manager came close to conceding as much, saying: “Although his dress sense was desperate, Walter was great. I was completely raw as a manager and nothing had prepared me.” In a letter to Smith’s biographer, Neil Drysdale, long-time Rangers supporter Ewan Prentice wrote: “You never got the impression when you listened to Souness that he was wasting too much time studying videos or chalking up tactical formations on blackboards. It was as if he was more interested in the strut, leading with the chin, than getting his hands dirty.” Souness’ treatment of Butcher was a watershed moment for Prentice and his pals. “We started thinking, ‘Hang on, everybody else can’t always be wrong in these disputes’. That scepticism built
“I WAS NAIVE ABOUT WHAT RA NGERS WERE ABOUT. THAT RELIGIOUS STUFF DID N’T MATTER TO ME. WE CHA NGED THI NGS FOR THE BETTER”
month by month, especially when we heard that he wanted to get rid of Super Ally. He was a bloody talisman for us.” The failure of so many great footballers to become great managers is often explained by their difficulty in understanding players who are not as good as they were. At Ibrox, this may have been one source of Souness’ dissatisfaction. Wife Danielle bore the brunt of this, recalling: “On the rare occasions he took me out, he talked about nothing but football and the good and bad points about players. By the time I left him, I knew more about the game than most managers.” If Gerrard learns anything from Souness’ reign at Ibrox, it should be that you can be at loggerheads with some of your players all of the time and all of your players some of the time, but never most of your players most of the time. Yet Souness’ arrogance could be a strength as well as a weakness – it gave him the confidence to confront the tribalism plaguing Scottish football. He signed Mo Johnston, the first Catholic to play for Rangers in modern times, and Mark Walters, their first black footballer who, despite having bananas, golf balls and darts thrown at him, relished his time at Ibrox and rated Souness among his best ever managers. Walters did, though, add the caveat: “He had a reputation for being abrasive but it’s just like any other job – if you know who the boss is, you’re going to get on fine.” Recruiting Johnston from French club Nantes in 1989 was a seismic shock. The 26-year-old Glaswegian was set to rejoin Celtic – for whom he’d scored 52 goals in 99 league matches – when Souness, bumping into Johnston’s agent Bill McMurdo at Ibrox, declared his interest. With remarkable speed, the striker was persuaded to break one of Scottish football’s oldest taboos. Souness’ wife was Catholic and he would not have been comfortable at a club that could never sign Catholics. He also saw the opportunity, he later revealed, to indulge in a little bit of mischief at Celtic’s expense. The visceral reaction from both clubs’ fanbases astonished him. An official ‘We Hate Mo Johnston Celtic Supporters Club’ was founded, while outside Ibrox, a wreath was left with the message: “116 years of tradition ended.” Souness later admitted: “I was naive about what Rangers were about. In a sense I was a ‘foreigner’ because I had left Edinburgh for a career played entirely in England and Italy. None of that religious stuff mattered to me. We changed things for the better.”
THE NOTORIOUS RUN- IN WITH TEA LADY AGGIE
Souness was not joking about feeling like a foreigner. One chapter in his autobiography was headed ‘Sometimes I wish I was English’, and the Rangers fans who maintained he was English told Jamieson: “He was never one of us.” Even today, many Gers fans have, Jamieson suggested in his book, “a strong sense that Souness didn’t particularly like Glasgow Rangers and certainly didn’t like its mass of supporters, particularly the faithful core that he had no deep respect for or the traditions of the club they love, and saw them as an impediment to his own agenda.” That might sound like a criticism but Souness would probably agree with much of that assessment. He was in too much of a rush, he later admitted, to join Liverpool in 1991. Looking back, he concluded that his famous run-in with Aggie, the St Johnstone tea lady, proved he was losing the plot. Her complaint about the mess his team had left in the McDiarmid Park dressing room so enraged him, he confronted the St Johnstone chairman. “Nobody knows me better than I know myself,” he told Rangers TV, “and I knew then I had to get out.” What he needed was a sabbatical, but Liverpool were the one club he couldn’t refuse. His dream Anfield return soon turned nightmarish and led to a heart attack. It began to dawn on him that “the winning didn’t compensate for the losing”. He realises now that he could never manage a team today the way he did Rangers. “The power’s with the players now. If you fall out with one in the dressing room, he and his four or five mates have the power to get rid of you as collectively they are worth $360 million.” As Gerrard kicks off his managerial career at Rangers, there is one more lesson he could heed from Souness’ reign. Don’t be a ‘foreigner’. Better still, even though he’s won 114 caps for England, try not to talk or act like an Englishman. That may buy time to lead his own Rangers revolution and restore some competitive balance to Scottish football. Whenever he leaves Ibrox, he’ll certainly hope the supporters agree: “He was one of us.”
Right Souness sees red on his Gers debut after slicing open George McCluskey’s knee Top “Who me?” The player-manager is given his marching orders once again, against Aberdeen