Graeme Souness: Rangers and Liverpool legend speaks on sympathy for Celtic's Neil Lennon, the emotional pull of new charity and how playing in today's game would be "a doddle" for him
As the title of his first autobiography, No Half Measures, makes clear, when Graeme Souness commits himself to something, he truly does commit.
Back in 1984 when that book was published, he was an enormously talented if uncompromising midfielder. When seeking to place Andy Robertson’s stellar rise in context, one sports writer recently described the Liverpool left-back as arguably the first Scot to be the best in the world in his position "since Graeme Souness".
The death of Diego Maradona reminds us that Souness moved to Serie A at the same time as the football legend, playing against him for Sampdoria when the Argentinian made his home league debut for Napoli. “I played with a guy who was a top defender, Vierchowod, who always did really well against him," recalls Souness.
“Pietro would be as good a man-marker … he was like cling-film, he was all over you, and he always did well against him. [But] He was a ridiculous talent. Had he got anywhere near the last third in your box, your heart was in your mouth.”
We could play now – could they play back then?
Souness himself is now a long time retired though he would relish the opportunity to play now. “It’d be a doddle playing today. On the pitches today, an absolute doddle,” he says. “Easier than a doddle.
“That is the question I get asked the most, could you play today? That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is could the guys today have played in the 80s and before that?”
As he himself notes, it is 14 years since he was last even a manager, at Newcastle United. He has reinvented himself as a not-to-be-missed pundit, one unafraid to admit that, at the age of 67, he’s still learning. His recent discussions with Sky Sports colleague Alex Scott about the value of attending a Pride event in Brighton are a case in point.
Now with time on his hands, Souness has thrown himself into his role as vice president of DEBRA, which is the national charity supporting individuals and families affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), a genetic skin blistering condition which, in many cases, can be fatal. He was already an ambassador for the British Heart Foundation. “It’s the first time I have ever been vice president of anything!” he says.
In this for long haul
He is, however, no stranger to working for the greater good in order to get results. He was also once adept at persuading chairmen to part with money for players. It's a skill he now employs with rich philanthropists. One imagines it's rather more satisfying to see the (hopefully) resultant readies fund research into a truly hideous condition rather than go towards purchasing a jobbing full-back.
“I am a team player. I am in this for the long haul," he says. "This is not something I am going to do for five minutes.”
Souness, who had a triple bypass operation when he was just 38 and has since had a procedure to correct an irregular heart rhythm, recounts the slightly concerning circumstances in which his involvement with DEBRA began.
The very worst one out there
"I have a pal who runs a hotel in London and he said: 'would you come to a dinner?' He said he had a neighbour who lives in Surrey who has a child with a disease I had then never heard of, so I arranged to go.
"It was quite ironic. When I was on the way to this dinner, I became ill. Thankfully for me it was not too serious. I had to phone up and say, 'look I am really sorry, I cannot make the dinner tonight'.
“I was actually passing Bournemouth hospital because I live in Poole and I felt that bad I had to pop in there. Fortunately, when they ran some tests it was not what I thought it was.”
Souness attended a later event. He heard testimonies from sufferers, many of them children, that left a lasting impression on him.
“There’s an argument for it being the very worst one out there," he says. "I know that’s an enormous statement to make, but the reason I say is that this is something you are born with. Every waking moment you are in either excruciating pain or extreme pain. You live with it. Every day you are awake you are in pain. The light at the end of the tunnel is not very bright for most of these kids.”
There is some hope. While there are currently no approved treatments for EB, promising data about a gel derived from birch bark being developed by Amryt Pharma was recently presented at a dermatological conference, while Souness has just been on a conference call with an American benefactress, who has pledged to help DEBRA financially. When he says he’s hands on, he means it. “Oh I’m, I’m in,” he says.
His voice briefly trembles as he considers the plight of Isla Grist, a young Scottish girl from the Black Isle who has already had to endure more than 40 operations. "She is 12-years-old, has recently gone to the big school and she has a severe form of this EB," he says. "Every time I am in her company, even every time I talk about her, I get quite emotional … because it has become very personal."
The Old Firm dinner
Charity shops up and down the land have been closed due to the pandemic. There is a huge onus on finding alternative income streams.
"Because I still have a bit of profile, because I am on the telly and people are still aware of my name, that is how I see my role: making people aware that this thing is out there," he says.
“We had a dinner in Glasgow last March. We titled it an Old Firm dinner. Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon came along. Walter Smith came along. Steven Gerrard came along. We had a really good night and obviously a really successful night in terms of fund-raising.
“Our intention was to have it again this March but obviously that has been put back but hopefully we can do it later next year. With this vaccine coming along, hopefully that will free us up to get on with raising money and having events. That dinner was such a success last time.”
‘If you are a true supporter, get behind club even more’
Mention of Lennon opens up another discussion, which again, perhaps, shows Souness in a different light, but then they’ve always got on well, dating back to days when they shared a studio together on European nights for RTE, the Irish broadcaster. “He knows his onions,” says Souness.
While Lennon has so far avoided being pelted by vegetables, it might only be a matter of time. And it would be preferable to a fence. “Someone sent me that,” says Souness, of the footage that showed one Celtic supporter toss a steel partition at police outside Celtic Park following the 2-0 home defeat to Ross County in the Betfred Cup.
“I find it upsetting. No one deserves that. He has enjoyed great success there. He was a fabulous player for them. He’s been a fabulous manager for them. And these results can happen. Try and look at the bigger picture. We know what football’s like in the west of Scotland. The fact that Rangers are riding high right now and everything from the outside looking in is rosy and then they [Celtic] have a result like that. I know it goes on but [that behaviour] is not something I can ever say I fully understand because it’s all about the bigger picture. Now is the time if you are a true supporter to get behind that club even more.”
This isn’t for wee boys
Souness has previously said there is no one better qualified to deliver ten-in-a-row than Lennon, and while he would obviously prefer it didn’t happen, he stands by that. “Who am I to talk about Celtic? They don’t want to hear what I have to say! In general, any football club, you cannot rest on your laurels.”
Although an east coaster who, probably wisely, chose to stay in his native Edinburgh when he was manager of Rangers, he knows as well as anyone how it works in Glasgow.
"I think the difference for the west of Scotland to everywhere else I’ve worked, if you have a bad result, in England or wherever else – OK, maybe not Turkey! – the criticism would be the following day, and maybe stretch to the second day, but in the west of Scotland, it’s until you play the next game.
“There’d be a story about what wasn’t right with the club, every single day of the week in Glasgow. I mean, they [Celtic] have won the league for the last nine years … that’s the price of the ticket of working in the west of Scotland. Not for wee boys ..."
Reliving some Rangers pain
Souness recalled his own cup shock shortly into his own career as player-manager at Rangers. As with Celtic, the Ibrox side were only beaten at home by a team from the same division, in their case Hamilton Accies. It still felt like a breach in nature when Adrian Sprott’s goal sent a team containing the likes of Graham Roberts, Chris Woods, Terry Butcher and Souness himself out of the Scottish Cup at the third round stage in January 1987. To this day it's considered one of the great giant-killing acts.
“Oh, I had one,” reflects Souness. “That can happen. Fortunately, I had great people behind me, and great people in the dressing room. And I think if you look back at that time, the next game we went to Tynecastle to play Hearts, who hadn’t been beaten at home for over a year, and we won, I think, 5-2. That’s football.”
Graeme Souness is the vice president of the charity DEBRA UK, the national charity that funds research and healthcare to support individuals and families affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). For more information visit www.debra.org.uk.
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