Graeme Souness – What Might Have Been?

I was drawn to this point based on a couple of comments I’d read recently about Souness. These comments surrounded the question of what might have happened to Tottenham had they not sold Souness to Middlesbrough in 1973.  My view is that Tottenham wouldn’t have been able to turn Souness into the player he later became.  Middlesbrough almost did, but it was the whole package with Liverpool which enabled him to fully utilise the talent Spurs had seen, and experienced, from an early age.  This article attempts to show why.

Souness was part of Tottenham’s successful FA Youth Cup winning side when they beat Coventry City over an epic four match Final in 1970.  He already stood out above other players and was soon making an impact in the reserves at White Hart Lane, alongside Steve Perryman, who broke through into the first team before the Scot.

In those Finals he scored in the first and fourth games but was sent off in the third.  He formed a formidable midfield partnership with Steve Perryman, who later went onto captain the club with such distinction.  Perryman had already made his debut in the first team at the age of 17, but Souness was still waiting and made no secret of the fact he felt he should be part of it.

Manager, Bill Nicholson, recalled;

“He wanted to be in the first team right away.  It was a dilemma.  We had a club packed with top players.  He had to be patient and wait his turn.  He simply couldn’t wait”.

He did make it as a substitute in a UEFA Cup match against Keflavik of Iceland in September 1971, coming on for Alan Mullery.  When you look at the team Spurs had then you can see the competition he was up against.  Jennings, Kinnear, Knowles, Beal, England, Perryman, Coates, Mullery, Peters, Gilzean and Chivers.

Frustrated, Souness went back home to Scotland and then over to the States where he played ten games for Montreal Olympique in NASL, during summer 1972.  He impressed so much he was voted into the league’s All-Star team for the season.  In January 1973, Nicholson finally gave up on him and sold him to Middlesbrough, who were a Second Division club at the time, for £30,000.

Souness soon made his debut in the first team when they travelled to Craven Cottage to meet Fulham.  They lost 1-2 but Souness kept his place for the subsequent FA Cup Third Round trip to Plymouth, a Division below Middlesbrough.  He took his place alongside one Nobby Stiles in Middlesbrough’s midfield but it wasn’t a great start as Plymouth pulled off a shock 1-0 win at Home Park.  He had to wait until his fourth game for the club before he tasted his first success.  At the beginning of February they beat Blackpool, 2-0 at home with David Mills scoring both goals.

Both Mills and Souness would go onto break transfer records.  Mills became England’s first half-million pound footballer when he signed for West Brom in 1979.  A year earlier when Souness signed for Liverpool for £352,000, it was a transfer record between English clubs.

In the April after Souness arrived at Middlesbrough, Jack Charlton took over for his first managerial position.  Souness didn’t figure in the first team beyond March that season as the club finished fourth.  But ‘Big Jack’, who had negotiated almost complete control of the running of the club, went about changing Souness’ style by moving him from left midfield to the centre and encouraging him to play the ball forward more often.  He also made a point of explaining to Souness how his love of the nightlife would end his career early.  The new season brought immediate improvement as Middlesbrough won the Second Division, 15pts clear of Luton Town in second place.  By now Souness was playing alongside former Celtic European Cup winner, Bobby Murdoch.  Souness scored his first goal in a 3-0 win against Preston in December 1973.  He contributed a total of seven goals for each of the next two seasons and was soon recognised by the locals as one of their best post-War players.  That Championship season was capped with an 8-0 thumping of Sheffield Wednesday in the final game when Souness scored a hat-trick.  He was then voted player of the year by the fans to crown a glorious season.

At the end of October 1974, Souness won his first Scotland cap when he played in a 3-0 win over East Germany in a friendly match at Hampden Park.  He played well enough to keep his place for the visit of Spain a month later where they lost 1-2 after being in front.  He would earn just one more cap before 1978.

Middlesbrough finished 7th in their first season back in the First Division and in 1975-76 they won the Anglo-Scottish Cup, beating Fulham 1-0, and reached the League Cup Semi-Finals, losing to eventual winners Manchester City.

In April 1977, Jack Charlton left Middlesbrough.  The board had become increasingly fed-up with his dictatorial style and belief he could make all the decisions and so he was replaced by former Wrexham manager, John Neal.  Souness didn’t take to Neal in the way he had Charlton although the club remained mid-table performers.  Charlton had managed to convince Souness to use his unwavering self-confidence to his own advantage and for a while it worked.  But in 1978 Souness was disciplined by the club for going missing, claiming “I am fed up, disenchanted with the game.  I feel like a good holiday away from it all”.

When he returned to the club in January 1978 he was told to go to a hotel in Leeds where he would meet representatives from Liverpool.  Manager, Bob Paisley, had identified Souness as the ideal person to bring some steel to his midfield.  Liverpool were reigning League and European Champions and paid £352,000 for the Scot.

This is where things changed for good for Souness and right from the first day he turned up at training.

He turned up at Mellwood and said “so what do you want me to do here?”  He was then left in no doubt as to what was expected of him when he got the response “bloody hell, we’ve paid all this money for you and you’re asking us what you’re supposed to do?”

And so began the journey of Souness becoming a man.  He wasn’t ‘the best player in the club’ as he’d believed he was at Spurs. He wasn’t a very good player in an average team who couldn’t really do without him, as he was at Middlesbrough.  He was an expensive player trying to break into a team which were League and European Champions, and he knew immediately he’d have to work at his game.

This is where Bob Paisley was so good as a manager.  Not the most tactically adept, certainly not the most motivational a speaker, but Bob understood the mentality of the footballer and he knew to get the best out of Souness he would have to keep him keen, keep stretching him.  Paisley would sign potential and then keep them champing at the bit in the reserves, by which time when they did get their chance they’d be so desperate to keep their first team place, they wouldn’t dare let their performance drop.

Two of Souness’ first three appearances for Liverpool ended in defeat but he endeared himself to the Kop by scoring a screamer in a 3-1 win at Anfield over Manchester United in February.  The goal was voted Goal of the Season and Souness was off and running.

This is where the key contrast with Liverpool Football Club was able to help the player. Players would be loved by the fans, lauded on the pitch, but the backroom staff would never let them get ahead of themselves.  Similarly, teammates would be quick to jump on anyone getting ideas above their station.  They were just another player within Liverpool and, each of them vital in the way the whole team functioned, but no one player was more important than anyone else.  This kept the players’ feet on the ground and is why many of them remain humble today.

He made fifteen appearances that season, scored two goals (both at Anfield), but was still having to prove himself.  The season ended with him being instrumental in helping Liverpool become the first British club to retain the European Cup when he had the vision to see a pass for Dalglish to score the only goal of the game against Bruges at Wembley.  The important thing about that goal is they’d worked on the move a lot during the previous months so both Souness and Dalglish knew what each other was going to do.

Souness hadn’t been fully trusted by Scotland manager, Willie Ormond as by the time the 1978 World Cup came along he’d only gained six caps.  But Ormond’s successor, Ally McLeod, selected him for the trip to Argentina and after two embarrassing performances against Peru and Iran, he finally gave Souness his chance in their last group game against Netherlands.  Souness was instrumental in helping Scotland grab a famous 3-2 win as he ran the midfield in that game.

Back at Anfield, Liverpool were keen to wrestle back the League title from Nottingham Forest, who had ended the reds two-year winning streak.  They embarked on one of the best seasons seen by a club in English football, breaking a whole host of records.  Souness was now synonymous with the club and the style of play.  He was part of one of the greatest midfields seen in this country, along with Terry McDermott, Sammy Lee and Ray Kennedy. He only missed one league game and scored 8 times in a 53 game season.

What Souness went onto achieve at Liverpool has obviously left one or two wondering what he might have done for their club, but I believe he wouldn’t have achieved the level of success he did at Anfield, anywhere else.  As I have said, there were no prima donas at Liverpool as everyone was expected to fit into the ‘Liverpool way’.  Foreign coaches would often come to Mellwood to find out the secret.  They were convinced there was something in the food or the water, or in the training techniques which set the team apart in Europe. But all they found were players playing five-a-side games.

What they missed was the bigger picture, the thing which stood them out from everyone else.  It started with Shankly in his undying belief the players were ‘privileged to play for the fans’.  His view was you were fortunate to be at Liverpool, which was something to be proud of and work for, not wanting to give up easily.  Paisley then took this on to the next stage.  Paisley built a team of winners and leaders.  Look at any of his European Cup winning sides and many of the players there could’ve been captain.  Souness fitted this role, this mentality.  A born winner, he was given the responsibility of playing an important part in the club’s continued success.  This meant he would berate any player not doing their job.  In fact, as a team they would be at each other.  Paisley didn’t need to be an expert at team talks as the players did that for him.  After every successful season, the players would return to the club only to hear the backroom staff continually chide them not to think they’d ‘arrived’ and that winning a title was easy, retaining it was the tough part.  ‘Anyone can do that’, was constantly drummed into them, and this ensured the legacy continued. The five-a-side training matches honed both the pass-and-move game as well as pitching highly motivated, competitive players into a confined space, with none of them wanting to concede an inch to each other.

Any successful organisation, beit army, company or team, has to work from the top down and everyone must understand the hierarchy and believe in it.  If this works then you have a situation that if anyone new comes in and isn’t quite pulling their weight, it won’t always be the manager, assistant manager or even the captain who tells him.

At Liverpool, Souness was now part of something rather than ‘the’ part.  This is where I believe he would never have become that player at probably any other club around that time.  Tottenham would’ve made him the main man, the fans and the club would’ve continued to massage his ego and that wasn’t what he needed.  Look at how Tottenham treated the likes of Glenn Hoddle.  They became so reliant on him they were prepared to accept 30 good games a season from him if he could inspire them to win the odd trophy.

If Hoddle had been at Liverpool he certainly would’ve had to work harder than he did as a player and wouldn’t have been worshipped as he was at Spurs.  Of course the fans would’ve loved him, but only in the way they did Steve McManaman (not unanimously) rather than the way they did Barnes or Dalglish.

Of course it was very easy for a club like Liverpool back then to counter Souness’ arrogance with the jibe “so what have you won then, big boy?” and this is where Souness was able to grow as a person as well as a player, in the way both Nicholson and Charlton were trying to get him to understand.

Speaking in 1978, Bill Nicholson was philosophical about Souness’time at Spurs.  “Arrogance, that’s what Souness had.  And I suppose all the truly great players possess that in their make-up.  I certainly don’t blame the lad for wanting what he has got.”

Souness too admits his own failings.  “At Spurs I got very frustrated.  And when I arrived at Middlesbrough I didn’t change.  I was lazy and I knew it.”  He then went onto credit Jack Charlton for putting him right.  “Jack took me to one side and had a chat.  He told me to pull my socks up and, more importantly, gave me a chance as well.  I had to make a big adjustment but I was grateful for the chance I responded and things just got better and better”.

As this isn’t just an article about Souness the player and a focus on his whole career, for those who never saw him what you needed to understand was he could do the job of about two or three midfielders.  In an era where everyone played a rigid 4-4-2, other teams would need a passer and a tackler and maybe a goalscorer in their midfield whereas Liverpool had Souness who could do the lot.

Possibly the best midfield in English football over the past twenty years was Beckham, Keane, Butt and Scholes.  Well, Souness was all four.  He may not have possessed Beckham’s athleticism and was unlikely to spray the ball around quite as much, arguing he didn’t need to, but if you were to describe the attributes of each of those four you could easily be describing Souness with any of them.

Souness was of his time, in an age where clubs and managers still had some hold and influence over players.  This might point to his frustration with some players not wanting it as much as he did when he became a manager, preferring to measure their own success by way of their bank balance rather than their medal cabinet.

Guest blog by Pete Spencer


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