“WE’VE seen a fiesta of goals tonight, but that was the gem; that was the Daddy of them all.”
Words exhorted by the late BBC Radio Two commentator, Peter Jones describing the last of three Graeme Souness missiles for an Anfield hat-trick that propelled Liverpool to the semi-finals of the 1981 European Cup. Earlier that March night, a driving run and finish low to the keeper’s right and another piledriver from 25 yards preceded the oral portrayal above of a stunning coup de grace to the hopes of CSKA Sofia.
Legitimate arguments rage as to Liverpool’s greatest-ever player. Old stagers will argue for Billy Liddell, the majority — backed by the claims of Bob Paisley — proffer Kenny Dalglish, the aesthetes herald John Barnes, and those newer to the game trumpet the great Steven Gerrard.
Souness’s blast, the final goal in a 5-1 rout of a Bulgarian side typical of “crack” European outfits that were regular visitors to Anfield during the 70s and 80s, was eerily similar to Gerrard’s signature strike against Olympiakos at the same end of the ground. For the Carragher cross, read Steve Heighway; for the Neil Mellor header cushioned backwards see Ray Kennedy; and for Gerrard’s blast, imagine Souness, on the half-volley larruping a shot into the Kop net, half-way up to the keeper’s left.
Souness though, unlike Gerrard, is seldom mentioned when it comes to listing the real Liverpool greats. A woeful spell as manager in later years and an appalling misjudgement relating to the S*n newspaper have seen to that. However, as a player, from his debut at West Bromwich Albion in January 1978 until his departure to Italy in the summer of 1984, this man of football style and substance ran the midfield roost.
Signed from Middlesbrough for a record fee between English clubs of £350,000, Souness bypassed the usual settling-in period in the reserves, being catapulted into the European Champions’ midfield. Manager, Bob Paisley explained, “There are not many players who come up to our standard. Graeme can pass a ball, he’s got vision and he’s got strength. He’ll play in central midfield, which is his position, and we’ll sort out the rest from there.”
In just his third game, he announced himself on the Anfield stage with an exquisite, controlled yet rasping volley from a Terry McDermott cross into the roof of Alex Stepney’s net against Manchester United. Souness, having instigated the move with a trademark, diagonal curling pass, peeled away in celebration, fists clenched, arms aloft, signalling a rabid desire for success. His first goal in that classic, unspoilt, blood-red Liverpool shirt was later crowned the Goal of the Season for 1978 on Match of the Day.
No doubt he marked the occasion later that evening with more than a few drinks back at the Liverpool Holiday Inn. According to local journalist John Keith, in his book Bob Paisley, Manager of the Millennium, Souness’s bar bill there during his first fortnight on Merseyside hit £200, principally through a penchant for expensive champagne. If the club were naturally suspicious, they were prepared to turn a blind eye for a while. Kenny Dalglish, staying in the same quarters and noting his fellow Scot’s liking for a drink into the small hours, joked that his teammate should bring him his breakfast on his way up from the bar. Though light-hearted, these jibes from a respected colleague helped Souness soon knuckle down to a cleaner way of living.
However, for all the impact that Souness and a rampant Dalglish in his first season made, inconsistent league form saw the Reds struggle to reel in leaders Nottingham Forest. After a 4-2 defeat at Derby County in March, Paisley snapped and declared to reporters: “If I were in the horseracing world I would be dragged before the stewards for putting out non-triers.” This uncharacteristic public dressing down of his underperforming players seemed to work as a 12-match unbeaten spell saw Liverpool recover to finish as runners-up to Brian Clough’s emergent Forest. More importantly the Reds secured a passage to a second consecutive European Cup Final.
FC Brugges proved durable opponents at Wembley, seemingly intent on forcing a goalless stalemate and a penalty shoot-out. Wave after wave of Liverpool attacks foundered on the defensive Belgian rearguard. Mid-way through a tense second half Souness, bringing a ball down on his chest held off the challenge of two players on the edge of the penalty area. In the same movement he threaded an inch-perfect angled ball into the path of Dalglish who famously dinked a 65th-minute winner over goalkeeper, Birger Jensen to send what seemed like the whole of Wembley into raptures. This was the vision Paisley had recognised in Souness; a moment of inspiration enough to secure a second European crown.
The following season saw Liverpool intent on regaining their First Division title. With Souness now the fulcrum of a peerless midfield quartet which featured the tireless running of Terry McDermott, left-sided guile and presence of Ray Kennedy, and on the opposite flank the all action meanness and shooting prowess of Jimmy Case, the Reds swept all before them in the league, an 11th championship secured with a record points tally of 68. They remained unbeaten at home, conceding just four goals at Anfield and scored 85 league goals in total.
Operating just in front of the back four, Souness displayed all his natural gifts. Never blessed with lightning pace, he nonetheless dictated the tempo of a Liverpool midfield which monopolised possession.
Before the days of pass-completion statistics Souness’s unerring, arcing balls to switch play from left to right stretched the opposition to the limit, with full-backs Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy supplementing the wide midfielders Case and Ray Kennedy. In tighter confines the Scot, amid the passing triangles that became an on-field Liverpool Way, played shorter, intelligent wall-passes with team-mates to create space before seeking a more imaginative ball. Often the recipient would be McDermott galloping through the middle on one of his surging runs. Rightly lauded as Liverpool’s greatest midfield, the foursome’s effectiveness was predicated on Souness’s ability to resist challenges, retain the ball, draw in opponents and release it into space at the apposite moment.
Given that Souness prompted from deep-lying midfield territory, the 1978-79 season saw him weigh in with a healthy tally of eight goals in 41 league starts. And yet, for all his creative talents, his reputation among those too young to admire from the terraces centres on his destructiveness; of Souness, the Hard Man.
This standing isn’t without foundation as for every caressed pass there was a ferocious, bone-jarring tackle. In a more lenient era of refereeing, Souness would regularly clean out man and ball with aplomb, sometimes pausing to deliver a moustachioed snarl over a pole-axed opponent. While a fine exponent of the game’s more cultured arts, he would relish a scrappy passage of play which would see him loiter with intent, like a cat stalking its prey, before snapping into a brutal tackle to pump blood through the veins of 50,000 Anfield onlookers.
If Souness in his pomp was the perfect blend of silk and steel, sadly, he was always admired more than loved. The Kop recognised and spoke in glowing terms of their artist-cum-assassin but reserved their open affection for his fellow Scot, Dalglish and to a lesser extent the local lads, Case, McDermott and Phil Thompson.
The admiration for Souness and the integral role he played in the same team was seldom communicated from terrace to pitch, something that confused his understanding of the supporters’ respect for his talent. He was all too aware that his off-field reputation went before him; a glamorous, affluent lifestyle setting him apart from the man on the street. Souness appeared determined to leave a working class Edinburgh background behind, to the extent that he deliberately cultivated an aloofness and persona that was hard to love. On the field though, it was impossible not to drool over his majesty.
In his autobiography, No Hard Measures (1985) he wrote, “I can understand to some extent why the Liverpool supporters are not mad about me. It was emphasised when Bob Paisley made me captain saying he wanted a bit of style, arrogance and commenting I had so much class I would probably toss up with a Gold American Express card. All very nice, but how can the average punter at Anfield relate to that?”
Ironically, the swagger that Souness portrayed throughout his Liverpool career was lapped up by the image-conscious hardcore of travelling supporters who possessed a shared cockiness, borne of success and an innate feeling of Scouse superiority, albeit espousing an alternative kind of “style” on the terraces and experiencing entirely different lives away from football.
A second league title in 1980 and another European Cup in Paris in 1981 cemented Souness’s standing as the one of the continent’s most admired footballers. Following an alarming slump which left Liverpool languishing in mid-table half way through the 1981-82 campaign Souness usurped Phil Thompson as captain at the behest of Paisley. Despite the inevitable dressing room acrimony that came with such a move, a stark revival in fortunes propelled the Reds into title contention once again.
In May, with just five games left, Souness, struggling with an injury, was left on the bench for a match at White Hart Lane. At half-time Spurs, inspired by the imperious Glenn Hoddle, led 2-0. In his book, A Matter of Opinion (1999), Alan Hansen recalled that “Hoddle produced one of the most exhilarating midfield shows I have ever seen. The accuracy of his passes – over 20 to 60 yards – was remarkable.” Souness was introduced at the break and “from then, Hoddle hardly got a kick. He was anonymous.” With the Liverpool skipper now pulling the strings, two second half goals from Dalglish rescued a crucial point. Twelve days later we were Champions for a 13th time – a recollection enforced by the iconic image of Souness receiving the trophy as captain, skipping blithely across the turf and tossing it joyfully in the air to be caught by an alert Ronnie Whelan.
The following spring, during Paisley’s final season as manager, an extra-time defeat of Manchester United in the 1983 League Cup Final saw Souness forsake the opportunity to parade the silverware. Instead, he encouraged Paisley – who famously missed out on the opportunity to climb the Wembley steps as a player when left out of Liverpool’s 1950 Cup Final side – to collect the trophy. Souness had grown into the captaincy role, had become a leader of men and added maturity to his demeanour, as portrayed by this selfless act which recognised the manager’s influence on him and Paisley’s historic Anfield career.
Under the new management of Joe Fagan, The Reds were less fluent in 1983-84, especially after losing Dalglish to a smashed cheekbone after Christmas. Fagan was a hard task master but carried and cajoled by Souness in his prime – scoring seven goals in 37 starts – Liverpool’s players took their fondness for this elder statesman into battle and ground their way to a record-equalling third consecutive league title.
Souness again demonstrated his ability to produce the grand recital when it mattered most in the League Cup Final replay against Everton at Maine Road. After a vapid team display at Wembley, Souness almost single-handedly dragged Liverpool to victory, dominating Peter Reid in midfield and scoring with the only goal – an improvised volley lashed in from 25 yards.
But it was in Europe where Souness, six years on from the pass that unlocked Brugges at Wembley, had begun to stamp his authority. He marshalled the Reds through the troubled waters of difficult away ties against Benfica and Athletic Bilbao, where he made light of the notorious Butcher of Bilbao, Andoni Goikoetxea. Still protecting the defence with effortless efficiency, Souness was also now supplier in chief to the prolific Ian Rush whose 47 goals underpinned an illustrious campaign.
In the semi-finals Liverpool faced Dinamo Bucharest described by Souness as “the nastiest, most physical team I have played against.” First among evil was Lica Movila, an otherwise gifted playmaker who caught the Reds’ captain three times with punches off the ball in a violent first half at Anfield.
Souness bided his time before retaliating when the referee’s back was turned. “I threw a short right hook which broke the Romanian’s jaw in two places.” He didn’t let the incident affect his game and guided his team to a slender 1-0 first leg victory. “I felt nothing at all for him as he was helped off but later when I was told of the extent of the injuries, I was full of remorse.” More to the point, Souness was at pains to explain that no-one would outdo him in battle. “I meant no real harm other than to warn him he had picked the wrong person to intimidate.”
The Romanians were in no doubt as to the perpetrator and when Liverpool arrived in Bucharest for the return leg Souness was a marked man; the local police gesturing to him at the airport that he was likely to have his eyes gouged out.
Far from being intimidated, Souness appeared to relish the frenzied atmosphere that welcomed him on arrival at the stadium. “I was greeted by a chorus of boos every time I touched the ball in the warm-up. I thought I would give the fans some value for their money and did a bit of (ball) juggling. That really made them hysterical.” Soon after came his piece de resistance. When the next pass rolled towards him and the barracking intensified, he dummied over the ball, leaving jeers in the throats of his 80,000 foes with this scarcely credible feint.
It seemed that Souness was no longer interested in the Liverpool European aways game maxim of quietening the crowd.
What followed though was a master class in midfield control. Not a single pass was wasted as Liverpool snuffed out the early Romanian threat. The crowd were now audibly wilting as the Reds took a grip on proceedings and in the 12th minute a volleyed Souness pass stroked precisely into the path of Rush gave Liverpool the vital away goal – the striker accepting the ball in his stride; expertly chipping the goalkeeper with a deft left boot.
Liverpool went on to win 2-1, but not before Dinamo’s players had exacted some measure of revenge for the Souness assault on Movila at Anfield. The architect of the Reds’ triumph recalled, “The tackles became progressively worse, going from shin to knee to thigh. My socks were in shreds and one (shin) pad was split from top to bottom.”
The Reds’ away-day passage to the final, courtesy of four epic wins on foreign soil was the ideal preparation for what was to prove the last act and finest hour of Souness’s glittering Liverpool career. UEFA’s choice of venue was Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and the opposition, the local heroes, AS Roma. Italian football was at its zenith in the wake of a World Cup win two years previously. Serie A was saturated with foreign talent and this Roma side, featuring Francesco Graziani and Bruno Conti was further decorated with the Brazilian midfield flair of Toninho Cerezo and Roberto Falcao.
Liverpool entered a Roman cauldron. The stadium was ablaze, huge banners and flags illuminated by the ultimate in pyrotechnics. Where lesser mortals might have cowered, Souness led out Liverpool as though he owned the place – head tilted back, chest thrust forward and loose limbs sauntering towards the half-way line to eyeball the hosts.
From the first whistle, Souness conducted the game entirely at a pace of his choosing. The Roman throng, though volatile throughout, were stifled by Liverpool’s patient possession and tireless effort without the ball. Cerezo shone only in patches and Falcao was anonymous. If a 1-1 draw after two hours was more absorbing than thrilling, it was testament to the Reds’ tactical plan which seemed to have Souness’s gliding presence at its core. Despite Roma’s abundant craft, Liverpool’s defences were seldom breached with Souness patrolling in front of the back four. He appeared more imperious than ever on the ball, head tilted slightly backwards in typically upright style, always looking for that probing, decisive pass to Dalglish or the quicksilver Rush.
Stalemate meant a first-ever penalty shoot-out in a European Cup Final. This was more akin to psychological drama than a game of chance; with Bruce Grobbelaar’s goal-line antics and bandy legs routine panicking the experienced pair Conte and Graziani to loft their shots high above the goal. Liverpool overcame Steve Nicol’s initial miss to triumph 4-2 and secure a fourth European Cup; a third for the skipper in seven Anfield years. His emphatic penalty, rifled with the instep between the angle of post and bar high to the Roma keeper’s left, proved to be the final kick of his Liverpool career.
Only a man of Souness’ prescience could exit in such a fashion. There was however, silverware still to collect and here Souness was in his element. Brushing aside fussy carabinieri with disdain, he led his triumphant colleagues, as though a gladiator himself, through a corridor of crestfallen Roman onlookers towards the gleaming trophy. First an embrace with Chairman and Liverpool statesman John Smith, followed by his last act in a red shirt; raising the cup one-handed in suitably stylish fashion, towards the Scouse hordes who had watched this erstwhile rough diamond morph into one of Europe’s most polished midfield gems. Prior to departure for Italy and Sampdoria, Souness had matured into the serene playmaker, possessed with the ultimate in iron fists shrouded in the archetypal velvet glove.
History tells us of a different legacy but those who separate the memory of Souness the player from Souness the manager reminisce over a talent and temperament to rival all of the time-honoured Anfield greats.
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