Graeme Souness and the Transformation of Rangers
- 08 April 2016
It started with five simple words:
"Welcome to the club, Graeme".
It is hard to believe that five simple words could have such a seismic effect on a grand Scottish institution, the wider sporting environment or indeed Scottish society. But the context of these five words is important. They weren't just the mumblings of some random guy. They were uttered by the then Rangers Chairman, David Holmes, to the new player-manager Graeme Souness on the day that Rangers announced to the world that they were a sleeping giant no longer.
Graeme Souness's arrival at Rangers as the club's first player-manager sparked a period that would be dubbed "The Souness Revolution". Such a title seems dramatic, but it is a worthy one when you consider his impact on Rangers and the Scottish game in general.
With the benefit of hindsight, and with thirty years having passed from that momentous day, there is an argument to say – with some justification – that Souness's arrival sparked an attitude and business model that Scottish clubs could ill afford, with Rangers the ultimate casualty. But there is no denying that his time at Rangers is one of the most interesting periods in the history of Scottish football.
The fault lines of the catastrophic summer of 2012 lead back to Souness's arrival. No Souness; no David Murray. No David Murray; no Craig Whyte. No Craig Whyte... you get the picture.
But to lay the blame for Rangers' recent ills at the door of Souness is unfair. His arrival invigorated a club that had been in such a slumber it had won as many league titles in the preceding 22 years as Aberdeen had won in the previous seven.
Souness's arrival would sweep out the lethargy that had consumed the club for the majority of the previous two decades and reverse the slump. That in itself is not an overly unique feat. The key to Souness and his 'Revolution' was how he did it.
Mindful of the plight of English clubs and their ban from European competition after the death of 39 fans in the Heysel disaster, Souness saw an opportunity to reverse the age-old trend of Scottish players heading south. He cleverly used the carrot of European football to attract the best that England had to offer – including the captain of the national team at the time – to head north to ply their trade.
The excitement this generated made the weeks and months after Souness's arrived more exciting than any other period I can remember. Such a scenario developing today is unimaginable and that in itself makes his achievement in attracting these players unique.
Souness had all the qualities that Rangers needed at the time. He was headstrong, he was arrogant, he was determined. He was also, however, naïve and the passage of time would ensure that these character traits would create insurmountable problems that would lead to his exit. His ability to create enemies made it near impossible for him to continue. Initially, however, all his attributes and imperfections served Rangers well.
With Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Graham Roberts in tow – alongside a healthy contingent of the Scottish lads already at the club – Souness secured Rangers' first title in nine years at the end of his first season, alongside the Skol League Cup.
The second season saw Souness's naivety kick-in. His constant tinkering with personnel and some poor player recruitment, mixed with a resurgent Celtic determined to win the title in their centenary year, saw the season end with only the Skol League Cup secured.
Souness, in typical fashion, went away, licked his wounds and came back stronger for the experience.
After Celtic's title win in '88, Souness would regain it the following season and never see it leave Ibrox for the rest of his time at the top of the marble staircase: Rangers won the league title in four out the five years he was in charge. The only domestic trophy he failed to find success in during his reign was the Scottish Cup.
But the trophies only tell half the story of the success of Souness. As mentioned earlier, it was the way he went about things that set him apart. Nothing exemplified this more than when he shook the footballing world its very foundations on the 10th July 1989 – the day Rangers signed Maurice Johnston.
The signing of Johnston was a master stroke from Souness and arguably his greatest act as Rangers manager.
First, and most importantly, it ended a practice that had become an embarrassment for the club.
Second, it knocked Celtic back by a good number of years. It wasn't until Fergus McCann and Tommy Burns arrived at Celtic Park that the club would again claim silverware. Johnston had inspired Celtic to win the Scottish Cup final in '89 just by sitting in the stand, having allegedly re-signed for his former club. Souness, who had so often incapacitated opponents through more physical means, took Celtic out the equation for a six-year, trophy-less period by persuading Johnston to reverse that decision and sign on at Ibrox. The pen apparently proved to be mightier than the thighs on this occasion.
Johnston went on to be a very successful Rangers player who was popular among supporters. He opened the door for the likes of Neil McCann and Chris Burke and countless other Catholic players to sign for the club – all of whom have been made very welcome.
Towards the end of his time at Rangers there were signs that things were not well with Souness. He seemed to be constantly clashing with officials, his own players (Roberts, Jan Bartram and McCoist being obvious examples) and even, on one famous occasion, Aggie Moffat, the tea lady at St Johnstone.
But it should be remembered that Souness was incredibly young at the time, his marriage to his first wife was unravelling and he was also, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, seriously ill with a heart condition.
When his time at Ibrox did come to an end in April 1991, not everyone was sad to see him go.
But with the passing of time, and with some mellowing and contrition from the man himself, there is a renewed vigour about Souness among Rangers supporters. Where he once divided opinion, he now appears to have the majority of the supporters at Ibrox back onside. Which is pleasing.
Watching Souness in his role as a pundit on Sky Sports, he cuts the cloth of man who is more relaxed and open-minded about things, which I have to say it suits him. He still has the ability to show some tenacity and I defy anyone to shake his hand and not come away grimacing, but overall he seems to have found a level of contentment on the fringes of the game away from the cut and thrust of things. It is rewarding to see this content and calmer side to him. It enriches his character which was already a fascinating one.
I will always look back fondly at his time in charge. It was a rollercoaster of a ride under him but it was a fantastic time to support Rangers. Big name stars, controversies and famous victories replaced the mediocrity that consumed the club in the early-to-mid-80s, and he made my Rangers-supporting life a far richer and more enjoyable experience.
And anyone who does that is alright by me.