Review: 'Football: My Life, My Passion' by Graeme Souness

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My candidacy for this review of Graeme Souness's new autobiography is tenuous to say the least. I have only ever bought and read one sporting biography previously*, believing them to be essentially ghost-written exercises in bank-balance bolstering released in October to maximise on a lazy notion; that the one occasion when football fans wander into a bookshop is in the last-minute pre-Christmas panics. Of course, that isn't always the case, but it colours my attitude to the 'revelatory football biography.' Disappointingly, they tend to be a mix of retrospective score-settling and anecdotes as dull and uninteresting as a contemporary Liverpool v Manchester United derby. I was relieved that this one didn't fall easily into those stereotypes. Graeme Souness has his name attached to three previous books as far as I can determine. What makes this one different to the others is difficult to pinpoint. I imagine that he'd argue his opinion on modern football, reinforced by decades of unquestioned experience, remains valid, and his later years as an analyst have offered another level of subjectivity. Souness continues to appear as a valued pundit on Sky Sports, and I for one, like his approach to such analysis. Even though he is regularly the oldest on the channel's panel, his grasp of the way the game has changed since he played it is astute. I sense he laments the gradual eradication of the physicality that characterised his era, and the comparative observations he makes between then and now were the parts of the book that I found most interesting. It begins with a defence of the positives television and media coverage (or saturation, if you prefer...) have brought. Nothing especially surprising in this since Sky are Souness's current principal paymasters, and it's evidently a job he loves. Interestingly, he believes that the relationship between football and television is just 'scratching the surface' in Britain. He acknowledges China and India as the main markets for football's growth, but draws back from the negative consequences of such a widespread selling of its soul. For what it's worth, my own view of this is that the traditional fan will mean less and less to those making decisions about the game's future. And consequently, football will come to mean less and less to the traditional fan. The book is subtitled 'Football: My Life, My Passion'. It's a concern that the only people in future who'll feel passionate about football are the fortunate minority taking money from it, rather than the ignored majority who put it in, and Souness has perhaps missed an opportunity in addressing this pivotal conundrum more extensively. *Muhammad Ali 'The Soul of a Butterfly'

The basic sections of the book are chronological. 'Getting Started' describes his early life as the youngest of three brothers growing up happily in a supportive family context in Edinburgh. There's a reference to winning a 'Body Beautiful' contest at Butlins; a reputation for personal vanity finding an early touchstone. Following a successful time as a youth player in Edinburgh, an opportunity to join Celtic - with whom Souness trained as a young player - came and went, and after this he was off to England, and Spurs. A number of people are credited with making Graeme Souness the player he became. Dave Mackay and Jack Charlton, his manager at Middlesborough, are the most prominent in his early career. But unsurprisingly, his reverence is reserved for Bob Paisley, the manager at Liverpool who dominated English and European club football in the late 70s and early 80s of Souness's golden years as a player. Souness's comparison of players and their relationships to managers then and now is predictable in the sense that he naturally feels more respect (or perhaps, written differently, fear...) existed to maintain dressing room hierarchies. Few managers can now command a dressing room like the Alex Ferguson of a decade ago, and despite his staunch defence of the way television has changed the game, it seems odd to me that he doesn't overly lambast the consequential strength of the player's contract and of how the agent now essentially holds all the cards. Despite this, and again perhaps this isn't a major shock, he believes the Liverpool of his era would easily compete at the highest level today. The positives would outweigh the negatives in his opinion. It's a moot point, and although it's an enjoyable football fan pre-match staple, that whole 'who's better: Pele or Messi' type of argument is ultimately pointless. In management terms - and declaring some personal interest here - Graeme Souness is forever linked to the revolution at Rangers which began in the late 80s and when Souness was still young and fit enough at 33 to play. The years on the pitch at Ibrox prior to his appointment were abjectly dire. Many will now argue - for different reasons - that his appointment off the pitch would usher in the equally abject legacy that the club continues to suffer from. He writes little about the administration of Rangers beyond believing it damaged Scottish football. In this, he would undoubtedly acknowledge that his target demographic would agree and it seems unlikely that fans of rival teams - be they Celtic, Manchester United or even Fenerbache - are unlikely to be putting his book on their Christmas list. Nevertheless, I'd have hoped for a bit more depth and insight into a tempestuous period for Rangers that Graeme Souness is arguably better placed than most to comment on. One area that Souness is due credit for is in the controversial recruitment of Maurice Johnston. Beyond the circumstances of acquiring a player of real quality from under the noses of a bitter rival, the welcome breaking of Rangers ludicrous policy of not signing a Roman Catholic was largely down to a relentlessly determined Souness. The impact of the Mo Johnston signing at the time remains hard to understate. It may reasonably be argued that in those 30 years since, little has changed on the terracings but I don't fully accept that. There are regrets expressed throughout. That his arrogance about returning from Italy to play in Scotland led directly to his deserved dismissal in his first game for Rangers at Hibs. That he shouldn't have left the manager's job at Blackburn when he did. But by far his biggest regret is reserved for his participation in the Sun article which appeared on the anniversary of Hillsborough. He acknowledges that a relationship with Liverpool fans who once adored him is fractured irreparably. The article was printed at a time when Souness was recovering from complications of triple heart bypass surgery and the chapter is the book's most personal and insightful. It highlights the natural fears of a man being faced with his own mortality and the physical and psychological effects that serious illness has. Souness was 38 at the time.

I met Graeme Souness about a year ago. Although I remember it clearly, I'm certain he wouldn't. The meeting was unplanned, and happened in a Glasgow city centre coffee shop as we both waited for people who were late. I resisted the temptation to tell him I'd created a fictional literary character from Shettleston, named after him. I instinctively felt that any further discourse along those lines would've been reminiscent of the scene in 'Boys From The Blackstuff' where the troubled Yosser Hughes meets Graeme Souness in similar circumstances. So instead, we talked about football; something that he obviously had far more experience of than me. I found him to be extremely pleasant and whilst our chat was a notable occurrence for me, I'm sure it's something that people like Graeme Souness contend with every single day. So why am I boring you with this anecdote when it doesn't even feature in his book 'Football: My Life, My Passion'? Well, such encounters are inevitably viewed through the myopic football fan's prism. I like Graeme Souness primarily for the player (or manager) he was at Rangers, and also in a Scotland team which had genuinely world-class players surrounding him. Others with different attitudes to him based on their own specific footballing outlook will view this book differently, no doubt. But I expect Graeme Souness is completely fine with that too. A final point: I worked my way through this book believing that the former Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary had helped Graeme Souness with this, and previous autobiographies. As surreally impressive as this would have been, it's a different Douglas Alexander who collaborated.

'Football: My Life, My Passion' by Graeme Souness is available to buy from today at all good bookshops. To purchase the book from Amazon click here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Graeme-Souness-Football-Life-Passion/dp/1472242521