Souness never a bigot

 

Having once sat beside Jack Straw at Ewood Park some years ago, this column can reveal that he is deaf in one ear. After the vocal reaction to his comment last week that he would like to see a Great Britain football team replace the England, Scotland and Wales sides competing in European Championships and World Cups, Straw may have suffered a fair amount of damage to the other.

Gone are the days when Straw was a celebrity match reporter for the Sunday Express at his constituency club Blackburn Rovers; now he's British Home Secretary people take what he says seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Straw's idea was howled down as if it was realisable government policy. Risible personal policy, tended to be the call.

Straw slinked away injured, though with more dignity than the buffoon with buckles in his shoes, Tony Banks, the last eejit to come up with the notion when he was Minister for Sport. Banks is widely known as a badly-dressed fool, Straw has somewhat greater public respect. The latter fact is what made it so strange that he should entertain a notion that will never get off the ground. Scotland and Wales have just won their own parliaments, they're not suddenly going to give up their national football teams.

It made for a difficult week for the vexed question of nationality in Blackburn. This is a town with a sizeable Asian population and the football club has had to live with criticism for its failure to recruit any players from that source, indeed its longtime absence of black players is still an issue despite the signing of Nathan Blake two years ago.

And now the Rovers manager Graeme Souness is on the receiving end of allegations about his attitude towards Irish players. It is claimed Souness is anti-Irish. A list of Souness's player sales during his time as manager of Liverpool and Blackburn has been cited as the evidence.

At Anfield, among the first three players Souness sold were Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and Ronnie Whelan. At Blackburn Souness has dropped Jason McAteer and Alan Kelly, ignored Jeff Kenna (until Saturday) sold Lee Carsley to Coventry City, off-loaded Keith Gillespie to Wigan and sent the Republic of Ireland under-21 player Ben Burgess to Australia for a season on loan.

Suddenly the conspiracy theorists sensed an argument and superficially it does not look a bad one. All the while people tried to remember an Irish player Souness had signed. They couldn't find one. Then they remembered he was player-manager of Rangers. Therefore he must be a Protestant bigot.

So now it was down to Souness to respond. In midweek he said of Staunton-Houghton-Whelan: "They were all players who came to me and asked to leave, so the whole thing is a complete load of nonsense." And on Saturday in a tight, mucky corridor of Prenton Park this column summoned up the recklessness to invite Souness into a quiet corner and discuss it further.

"It originated from some journalist who felt he could get a cheap headline," said Souness. "I read the article and the vast majority of it wasn't true, the facts weren't right, just wrong. I wouldn't want to go into it but if you look at my record as a manager, I should be the last person being accused of being anti-Irish."

Souness's managerial record includes, in 1989, the signing of Maurice Johnston, a Catholic, by Rangers. You might recall it caused a bit of a stir in Ireland.

That is what Souness alluded to when he then said: "I understand sectarianism and hate it. My children are Catholics. I was married to a Catholic first time round. My wife's maiden name now is Kelly - Irish family. I am the last person who should be accused of this. I wouldn't want to talk about it any more."

But had he chosen to, Souness could have dismantled the Blackburn element of the charges against him. Of Burgess he could have said farming out youngsters is part of their education. David Beckham was sent to Preston.

Of Gillespie Souness could rightly point out that he had lost his way. He had also lost his place - to Damien Johnson, birthplace Lisburn. Johnson plays for Northern Ireland. Maybe that's not Irish enough for some.

Of Kenna and McAteer Souness could have pointed to Saturday's teamsheet. Both played. McAteer, when stopped in the corridor, said that he had never had a problem with Souness in this respect. Souness could then have highlighted the name of Damien Duff. He played, too. Of Kelly he could have recalled the goalkeeper's mistake against Sheffield United. Of Carsley he could have argued £3.4m represented good business. It did.

Moreover, had Souness felt like it he could have widened the nationality debate. To a Scotsman someone Irish possesses an Irish accent. But Carsley? Born Birmingham. Kelly? Born Preston. McAteer? Born Birkenhead. Houghton? Born Glasgow. John Aldridge, Souness's opposite number on Saturday? Born Liverpool.

All Irish? No, all played for the Republic of Ireland. Slight difference. Let's not pretend otherwise.

And there is some pretending going on, though not by the players and not by Souness. The next time Mick McCarthy sends out a teamsheet consisting only of players born in Ireland it will be trumpeted as a green triumph. Those defending McAteer and the like now will gloat about it, be sure of that. They would prefer he was replaced by a purer Irishman all along. They will probably say they said so all along.

National pride is one thing. False indignant nationalism is another.