Friend of the podcast, 90s football aficionado and boyhood Liverpool fan turned media meastro, Martin Charlton, chronicles one of our least favourite people.
Once upon a time, Liverpool were the best team in Europe. Not by some ‘well, they won the Champions League’ metric, but legitimately the finest footballing force over the whole continent. From Bill Shankly’s first FA Cup victory in 1965, to Michael Thomas’s dramatic title-clinching goal for Arsenal in 1989, Liverpool were a force to be reckoned with.
Graeme Souness remembers this era well, playing for the club for six years from 1978 to 1984, winning, among other honours, five league titles and three European Cups. Playing alongside Alan Hanson and Kenny Dalglish, Souness contributed to a Scottish spine that would define the early 80s at the Anfield Club. With time, Souness was moved on, as teammate Dalglish moved into player-management for the club, overseeing the club in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster.
Hillsborough forever changed the destiny of British Football and can be seen as contributing to the decline of Liverpool as a footballing power. It is understandable, then, that this weight would be too much for one man to shoulder, and in early 1991 Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager.
Graeme Souness was appointed Liverpool manager just in time to see Michael Thomas win the title for Arsenal from under Liverpool’s nose, with the Merseysiders finishing second on goals scored. with hindsight, it is safe to declare that this ‘crushing heartbreak’ was as good as it got during the Souness era.
Post-season, the warning signs were immediate and multiple. As a player, Souness had been the sort of player every team needed - passionate, involved, rugged; the consummate midfield general. As a manager, outside of the relative safety of the Scottish First Division (where he had managed Glasgow Rangers for five years), this passion became impulsiveness, and his desire to win became a tendency to splash out owners’ money with reckless abandon.
His impulsiveness, coupled with the start of the Premier League coinciding with Euro 92 led to him signing tournament winning Dane Torben Piechnik, whose impressive tournament performance flattered to deceive, and who suffered a nightmare debut in a 4-2 defeat to Aston Villa that immediately highlighted his weaknesses. Further to this, he signed the aforementioned Michael Thomas from Arsenal for an inflated fee of £1.5million, seemingly for no reason other than he once scored against Liverpool. His impulsiveness would also see him discard older players such as Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton, seemingly before accurately assessing their future usefulness (as any Newcastle fan can attest to when it comes to Beardsley), and before appropriate replacements had been sourced.
His reckless approach to finances, while seemingly insignificant by the fees paid for players twenty years later, saw him hand £5 million to Derby County for the services of Dean Saunders and Mark Wright, only to sell Saunders a little over a year later, again leaving the squad light up front. Quite what happened to Paul Stewart on his train journey from Tottenham Hotspur to Liverpool is a mystery, but the decision to pay over £2 million for Stewart is a source of confusion matched only by Dalglish’s relatively recent purchase of Andy Carroll.
Finally, and perhaps the most damning accusation on here, is that, as the realisation that foreign flops, expensive experiments, and accusations as to the passion of older players, were, at best causing the club to atrophy, Souness’s three final signings of Julian Dicks, Neil Ruddock, and Nigel Clough were desperately workmanlike players, the former two of which perhaps embodied the rugged, hard-tackling qualities for which Souness was known, but who were increasingly out of touch with a Premier League defined by the style and flair of Eric Cantona, and which would soon play host to the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, David Ginola and Jurgen Klinsmann. What Souness failed to grasp was that while he was indeed a pivotal part of the all-conquering Liverpool machine, that team was also graced by the mercurial Dalglish, and that populating a team with multiple players of this style could only hope to bring criticism from an already agitated Kop that remember Dalglish and Keegan’s moments of flair and genius.
Taking these three factors (impulsive, reckless, somewhat lacking in glamour) into account, it’s easy to see why Souness was a success as a player, but it’s even easier to see why he has repeatedly been a dismal failure as a manager. If following Dalglish at Liverpool was almost an impossible task, following Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United was possibly even more difficult. While ten years had passed between leaving Liverpool and assuming control at St. James’s Park, Souness’s Tyneside reign is noted for selling players without acquiring replacements, spending hideous amounts of money on overrated players such as the declining Michael Owen, and doing little with his disciplinary style or squad selections to endear himself to both squad and crowd. It’s almost like the intervening ten years never happened.
In summary, while some good did come from the Souness era at Liverpool (the emergence of Robbie Fowler, and the rise of Steve Mcmanaman), he perhaps deserves to be remembered as the man who, as manager, wore the full club strip to the 1992-93 Charity Shield, no doubt planting a seed in the mind of the young John Terry. For this, if nothing else, Graeme Souness deserves a place in football’s Hall of Shame.
You can follow martin on Twitter here - @Mar10Charl10