Following the sacking of Graeme Souness as Benfica boss, Phil Town explains why the Scotsman was doomed from the start
Graeme Souness, sacked last month by Benfica, had a rocky ride at the end of his season and a half with the club, but it was not always so. He had been a trump card in candidate João Vale e Azevedo’s campaign for election to the club presidency, and his name helped the Lisbon lawyer sweep to power in late 1997.
This season, though, it seemed Souness couldn’t put a foot right. He released some very promising Portuguese players and replaced them with a cartload of British has-beens: Mark Pembridge, Michael Thomas, Brian Deane, Steve Harkness, Gary Charles and Dean Saunders. As performances misfired and Souness insisted on picking the British faction, resistance to the man and his methods began to build up a considerable head of steam.
The prime scapegoat for the growing ills became Michael Thomas, whose sluggish performances proved that he just didn’t have the legs any more. On one occasion, Souness had to pull him off during a home game, such was the volume of whistles every time he touched the ball.
One of the president’s key manifesto promises had been to give the team a backbone of Portuguese players and to have them playing with the flair of the Benfica of old. Souness was seeing to it that neither promise would be fulfilled. There were never more than four or five Portuguese in the starting line-up and the team was asked to play to rigid, predominantly defensive patterns, often regardless of the opposition.
In fact, insufficient intelligence on the opposition was a frequent failing, brought into sharp focus in an interview given to sports daily Jogo by Souness’s assistant, Phil Boersma, after the sackings. Asked to give his opinion on the best player in the Portuguese league, he named Porto’s striker Mario Jardel, winner of this year’s Golden Boot with 36 goals. Fair enough, if a little predictable (any viewer of Eurosport might have come to the same conclusion).
Phil had a bit more trouble when asked to name his top 11 from the league: “I don’t know players well enough to remember their names. I was more interested in the Benfica team.” Say no more. And it is by no means certain that Souness could have done any better if ask- ed the same question. Trips back to Blighty before crucial games became a common occurrence.
But this was only one manifestation of Souness’s breathtaking arrogance. The one that galled the Portuguese most was his stubborn refusal to venture even the tiniest utterance in Portuguese – not even a bom dia (good morning). He did claim after a couple of months in charge that he had a teach-yourself-Portuguese book at home, but in the same breath admitted he hadn’t actually opened it yet. In the interests of (unilateral) cultural exchange, however, Souness did supply his hosts with the occasional sample of salty British vernacular, the F-word and Thomas’s “big balls” being just two examples.
The final straw came, though, when the team received eventual runners-up Boavista with ten games to go and all to play for, in front of an exceptional 80,000. A ramshackle Benfica were trounced 3-0. It hadn’t helped that, after a week of rain, Souness had ordered the pitch watered before the game (Boavista’s first goal came after a slip by Benfica’s Paulo Madeira). Or that the starting line-up included Steve Harkness (or simply “Steve”, as his shirt suggested he would like to be known) who had arrived in Portugal just a few days beforehand.
That game effectively did for Benfica’s league aspirations. Souness rather naively agreed to hold the wheel until the (very) bitter end and had to suffer the humiliation of having future coach Jupp Heynckes looking on as Benfica drew with eventual champions Porto (a record fifth title in a row – poison to the Benfica faithful).
He desperately tried to divert blame on to the players, aided and abetted by the president, who publicly called them “spoilt rich kids”, at a stroke wiping out any team spirit that might still have existed. Then came the breach with the hitherto-supportive Vale e Azevedo when Souness was alleged to have said that he knew “some Latinos” who could “sort out” the club president after complications arose over compensation. It was hard to find a Portuguese person who was prepared to put it past him.
One thing is for certain. By the end, such was the intensity of the dislike for Souness and all his ways that it will be a long time before let any other British coach within a trillion light years of the top post at the Luz.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month