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Memories of Souness and Stein

Thirty years ago Jock Stein collapsed in the dug-out at Ninian Park, Cardiff. An equaliser against Wales from Davie Cooper meant Scotland had qualified for the 1986 World Cup - but that was of no consequence as medics fought to save the manager’s life after the final whistle.

Graeme Souness, suspended for the game, waited outside the room where Stein lay on the physio’s table. After 10 minutes, Stewart Hillis - Scotland’s doctor and Jock’s GP - knew there was nothing more that could be done.

He came out and gave Souness, the captain, the grim news. The midfielder wandered down the corridor in tears. Devastated, all he could say to the players and media was: “He’s gone…”

The whole football world was in shock at losing one of the game’s true greats but Souness felt it more, much more, than most for no-one really knew the depth of their relationship.

Stein was shrewd and circumspect, even dour at times, and had learned to cleverly manipulate the system. Souness was explosive, flamboyant, fearless. They were like chalk and cheese and should never have been the closest of friends - yet they were.

The story about how these giants of Scottish football, with such contrasting personalities, became almost like a father and son has only recently come to light - for reasons that will soon become clear.

It starts when I met Stein in 1984, the year before his awful death. I had helped to arrange a charity fundraiser for recovering drug addicts and he kindly agreed to appear. He arrived early so we had a cup of tea and a blether for half an hour or so.

I was in rarified company and knew it so didn't waste any time trying to pick the brains of the man who had masterminded Celtic’s golden era.

Naturally, football topped the agenda and I asked him who was the best player he’d worked with. “Oh, Bobby Murdoch,” he said without hesitation. “Mind you, he couldn't run…” Then he added: “But the best team player, by far, is Graeme Souness.”

The Liverpool star was a ferocious talent. From 1978-1984 he was at the heart of an awesome Anfield machine that won a staggering five titles and three European Cups. Quite simply, they were the best club side on the planet.

But he had critics who disliked his combative style and seeming arrogance - a trait you would normally equate with selfishness rather than teamwork.

So I was surprised at Stein's revelation. But what he told me about Souness was a riveting insight that resonates to this day. He said: “Graeme plays in central midfield, the busiest position on the park. There is seldom a moment in a game when you play there that you are not involved but he still finds time to do things way above and beyond what's required.”

I was puzzled and asked the great man what he meant. He said: “He helps players in his own side without them even knowing. If somebody has a bad touch or makes a mistake, Graeme will be just a few yards away from him every time he gets the ball so he can take an easy pass.

“And he’ll keep doing that till the player’s got his confidence back. If another one goes off the boil then he’ll do the same with him. That will go on throughout the game. I’ve never known anybody in football to do that. He’s the best team player you could ever wish for.”

As Stein spoke about his skipper I sensed it was with a distinct fondness and pride. “Oh aye,” he said. “He’s some guy. There’s no doubt about that.”

Scotland’s next game was a World Cup qualifier at Hampden against Iceland in October and Stein arranged a ticket for me in a little private enclosure behind the dugout. I watched Souness closely and full-back Arthur Albiston had a few nervy touches early on.

Sure enough, every time he got the ball, for the next ten minutes or so Souness would appear at his side asking for an easy square pass then he would move the ball further upfield with ease. Like all classy players, he made everything look simple.

Albiston went on to have a decent game. As did Scotland thanks to a 3-0 win, which included a 30-yard screamer from a young Paul McStay. Now I understood why Stein admired his captain so much.

Fast forward to 2nd August 1990, and a Thursday afternoon, the day the first Gulf War broke out. Souness was now the Rangers manager and I had a one-to-one interview with him in his Ibrox office. Walter Smith, his assistant, sat in the far corner in training gear, a tray with tea and sandwiches on his lap. He was glued to the small portable TV as US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney spoke about the momentous events unfolding.

When I entered the office, Smith stood up out of courtesy to be introduced to me but Souness just nodded at him to go - and quickly. As he shuffled past sheepishly holding his tray, I thought Souness had been unnecessarily rude - even arrogant - and feared we wouldn’t get on.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was in wonderful form, talking humbly about his upbringing and how he played football non-stop as a kid because his family couldn’t afford a TV. How his mother would call him in for bed then he’d sneak back out, hitting a ball against a wall and learning to trap it stone dead with both feet before being caught and summoned back in with a flea in his ear.

He said: “I suppose I was a bit lucky because my dad was a school janitor so the football pitch was on my doorstep. There would be a bounce game every night until it got dark and everyone went home. I would stay on, playing with the ball before I got called in. But then I’d slip back out again…”

That early dedication paid off and he was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur at 15. The bright lights of London though were his undoing and he was undisciplined and difficult in that period.

By 21, he’d failed to get in the first team at White Hart Lane and Middlesbrough signed him for just £30k. When Jackie Charlton arrived the next season to take over he persuaded the immature hothead to buckle down or his career would be over before it began.

Souness said: “I was too cocky and thought I knew it all then. I had a lot of growing up to do. Jackie Charlton convinced me I could be a player but I’d have to change my ways. Something clicked within me and from then on I strived to become a model professional. I owe him a lot.”

There was not a trace of arrogance in anything he said and he came over as warm and acutely intelligent about the game.

After an hour my recorder ran out of tape and we ended the interview. He said: “If you’re not in a hurry I could phone for tea and sandwiches…” It was an offer I gladly accepted.

We eventually spoke about Stein and he said: “You know, I still miss him so much. There wasn’t a day we didn’t speak, if not face to face then by phone. Every day. It was a terrible blow to lose him. He was like a second father to me…”

I hadn’t told anyone about Stein’s insight as he insisted it was a private matter which he didn’t want publicised. He also said Souness’s team-mates didn’t know he was helping them on the field and felt that’s the way his captain wanted it to remain.

But now I thought Souness should know. I told him the story and as I did so he looked at me with disbelief. He was genuinely lost for words, gobsmacked that Stein had revealed this. That he was even aware of it.

His eyes welled up and his voice softened as he said: “I didn’t know he knew that… Oh, that is really something.” He paused then added: “But I should have. His knowledge of the game was unbelievable. What a loss he is. What a loss...”

Clearly emotional, it was astonishing to see this guy, one of the hardest men to have played the game, close to tears, still grieving for his friend and mentor five years after his passing.

It was time for me to leave him in private with his thoughts. He shook my hand and said: “Thank you for telling me that. It’s a great comfort. Anytime you want an interview let me know…”

I never did take advantage of his offer as it didn’t seem right to cash-in. I was simply an unwitting conduit, albeit privileged, between two friends. I didn’t reveal any of this in the subsequent interview either as it was a private matter and thought it should remain that way. However, I feel enough time has passed now for it to be told.

Fast forward again to 1998. I was editing Hearts’ official magazine and Jambos star David Weir penned a superbly funny diary for me on life at Tynecastle. Now David is a bright guy, one of life’s thinkers, and only got into football after bagging a degree.

I’d often wondered if other players at the top level did what Souness did so I told him the story. He was stunned at the brilliant midfielder having the time and ability to do all that while tasked with driving his side forward from the engine room.

He said: “There is so much happening in the game that you just wouldn’t think of it. You have your area of the park to control and it takes all your focus. I’ve never known any player to do that. For Souness to have done it, and at the highest level, just shows what a class act he is.”

History, of course, will treat Stein and Souness rather differently I suspect. Not in terms of their achievements in football - both were world class and Scotland will never see their likes again - but because of their differing personalities.

However, they found something in each other that brought them together in a way few would have thought possible. Perhaps it was simply down to Stein seeing on the park what no-one else saw - the real Souness. A man who was neither arrogant nor selfish but, in fact, selfless.

The best team player he had ever known...

A version of this article was published by the Daily Record on Thursday 10th September 2015.