Graeme Souness: I think all my best years are ahead of me. How lucky am I?

Soccer icon rules out a return to management and reveals his biggest mistake

Archie Gemmill called you "a chocolate soldier".

“He did.”

As in, if you were chocolate, you’d eat yourself?



Were you offended by that?

“Not at all. He was 100 per cent right.”

Graeme Souness can't quite explain where all that swagger and self-assurance came from. Winning a "Body Beautiful" competition at Butlins on a family holiday as a young fella might have contributed, but whatever, there hasn't been a day in his 64 years on this earth when he felt out of his depth.

You're asking him about that Saturday in January 1978 when he sat in the Liverpool dressing room surrounded by the likes of Ray Clemence, Emlyn Hughes, Terry McDermott and Ian Callaghan, players who had more medals than they could count, among them a European Cup and League double from the previous season. Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen were in the room too, summer recruits already en route to a status of the legendary kind.

Souness had signed from Middlesbrough four days before and was about to make his debut away to West Brom. When he looked around that room, he wasn’t a shivering wreck, he felt at home.

“No inferiority complex whatsoever,” he says.

He recalls with a chuckle a training session with the Scotland Schoolboys when he was about 15. Someone threw him the number 10 bib. “I said ‘I’m not wearing that, I wear number four’.” There was incredulity at this nipper’s cheek. He was informed that if he didn’t put on the number 10, he could leave. So he left. And never played for Scotland’s Schoolboys again.

See sense

And at Spurs, when he was still a teenager, it was beyond his comprehension why Bill Nicholson was playing World Cup winner Martin Peters and then England captain Alan Mullery ahead of him in midfield. So he walked out on the club and returned to his Edinburgh home.

Danny Blanchflower even visited to try and make him see sense. In the end, they sold him to Middlesbrough. He was 19. Confidence knocked? No. "I knew I'd prove them wrong, and I did. They sold me for 30 grand, within four years I'm going to Liverpool on a record transfer fee between English clubs [£352,000] (€398,000)."

It’s not as if his childhood was marked by people telling him he’d never amount to anything, so he had something to rail against. He came from a loving, supportive, stable home. He can’t recall his father ever even raising his voice to him, and his mother was “calm and gentle”. “There was never any physical discipline from either of them,” he says. “And I had two older brothers I could lean on if I ever had to – but I never did.”

“So, I came from a secure family unit. I always had that confidence, and it’s still there. I’m 65 in May – I still think all my best years are ahead of me. How lucky am I?”

Confrontation? He thrived on it. And not just on the football pitch. He recalls, with relish, a triumph of a rather different kind after a bitter legal battle back in 1995 against the woman with whom he had three children.

"I got involved in a court case, my ex-wife libelled me. So I had eight days in the high court in London. For two days I was in the box, a day and a half against George Carman who was regarded as the top QC at the time. And we won. So I was proved to be right. It was exciting. Part of me enjoyed it. You were playing for big stakes. And we did well. We won. Being in the high court, people dressed in robes, up there in their wigs . . . ".

There was a buzz in that?

“I don’t know what that says about me.”

It's all about winning, maybe. As Jack Charlton, his manager at Middlesbrough, drummed in to him.

Charlton, he says, taught him cynicism, you do whatever needs to be done to get the desired result. “Jack played in a Leeds side that was, well, quite cynical, as well as being a very good team. I was at Tottenham where it was football, football. Jack made me grow up in terms of ‘this is what real professionals do’. I’d always been an aggressive type when I played, so it was an easy thing for him to get out of me.”

False start

“I think your career and your life is defined by the paths that you cross, the right people at the right time, Jack for me was the right person at the right time.

He basically said to me, you have ability, there are two doors for you, there was no arm around the shoulder or any of that, it was in your face, it was make your choice.”

(While Charlton was impressed by the young Scot’s ability, he was less enamoured by his use of shampoo. “‘I’ve always used carbolic soap!’ I’m sitting there with another 10 guys thinking, ‘Jack, you’ve got about six strands on your head’. That’s no ad for carbolic soap.”)

After his false start at Spurs, a wacky loan spell at Montreal Olympique, a productive stay at Middlesbrough, a brief and even quirkier stint with West Adelaide, the richest of times at Liverpool, a taste of continental life at Sampdoria before becoming player-manager at Rangers . . . and then his return to Liverpool as manager, a spell in Turkey with Galatasaray, on to Southampton, a short stay with Torino, from there to Benfica, he went back to England with Blackburn before taking up the job that turned him off management for life: Newcastle.

Your mother’s forecast about your life? “There’ll never be a dull moment.” She had a crystal ball? “She did. She did. And do you know what? I’d love to go and do it all again.”

Would you change much? “You don’t get to 64 years old and not want to change something. I made a few mistakes, one particular big mistake. But you have to live by them.”

The big one was, of course, that interview with the Sun after his heart surgery in 1992, accompanied by a photo of Souness, then Liverpool manager, kissing his partner Karen, now his wife. A messy sequence of events resulted in it going in the paper on the anniversary of Hillsborough, rather than the day before.

“Yeah, if there was one thing in my life I could change, that would be it. I should have resigned as manager then. The hierarchy distanced themselves from me. I didn’t have to wait too long to get that message.

“We were in the cup final when I left hospital. I had to make my own way to the airport, then get a taxi from Heathrow to St Albans where the team hotel was. No cars waiting. I knew then.”

How long will they hold it against you? “Forever.”

By then, though, he felt the supporters' respect for him had long since diminished after an unsuccessful spell as manager. "I'll be defined by the Liverpool thing. Right job, but it came at the wrong time. Taking over the club at that time was very, very difficult. You're following 20 years of non-stop success. You don't get a big job when everything in the garden's rosy. Ask David Moyes.

Sacked three times

“But I was never going to have the same career in management as I had as a player. That said, I had eight jobs and was only sacked three times. I won 11 trophies in three different countries. People say I was unsuccessful. That’s not a bad record.”

But he’s done with management, he says. The Scotland job? “No, I’ve got my sanity back. Well, nearly, after 12 years.”

His current contract with Sky Sports will take him to a half century of working in football, playing, managing and punditing.

Does anything match the playing?

“Nothing. Being part of a team, winning together, losing together, the joy of winning trophies, that togetherness, the banter, standing in the tunnel, looking at them, they’re looking at you, that’s the buzz, even before the game starts.

“As manager, the good times no longer compensated the bad, the down after losing was far greater than the high after winning. The rewards were great, but the price was too high.”

You’ve been working on the dark side since?

“I have. Two weeks ago I was in Portugal playing golf. Remember Franny Lee? I played golf with him. Afterwards we’re having a beer, a couple of guys come over, I say ‘this is my journalist friend Graham’. Franny’s like, ‘What the f**k are you on about?’ I’m the journalist now. Yeah, I’ve jumped the fence.”

*Graeme Souness – Football: My Life, My Passion. (Penguin, €16.99).

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times