Least said Souness forgotten

Graeme Souness made quite an impression in Istanbul. David O'Byrne reports

Draw up any list of controversial managers and the name Graeme Souness is sure to figure. At Rangers he had been presented with carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to achieve the desired success. At Liverpool, his fortunes took a dive. There were people there who had their own ideas about football and weren’t about to be steamrollered. More importantly, money for new players wasn’t in unlimited supply and the competition was harder than in Scotland. With one FA Cup and a lot of bad feeling, Souness departed and dropped out of football circles. It was, he was later to admit, a difficult time. He needed the thrill of a big job to lure him back into the game.

Enter Galatasaray, reputedly the biggest club in Turkey, known as Cim Bom Bom to its fans, supported by intellectuals and millionaires, courted by politicians, Mafiosi and media stars alike. For Galatasaray, success is a matter of tribal, almost religious pride.

Despite proving themselves capable of buying any Turkish player they want, Galatasaray have been incapable of turning domestic success into a Rangers-like hegemony or of attaining the international prestige they still feel they deserve.

The club’s owners, notorious for involving themselves in the buying and selling of players and, according to some reports, team selection, had in recent years brought in a succession of German managers with mixed success. None stayed for more than a year.

Into this milieu steps Souness, gambling perhaps that a successful season abroad might boomerang him back into the top flight back home. Clearly these two were made for each other. But probably not in the way either had in mind. (And with that moustache he even looked Turkish . . .)

With four daily papers devoted almost exclusively to football the press in Turkey is powerful and influential. £500,000 for an unemployed Scot with mixed references wasn’t universally acclaimed as good value but a pre-season friendly against Turkish team Diyarbakirspor produced a convincing win. English signings Barry Venison and Mike Marsh had performed well. A third signing, Dean Saunders, was well on the way to recovering from a knee injury.

Souness made bold predictions for the team’s chances in a forthcoming tournament in Corsica, but in a disastrous performance Galatasaray went down three-nil to Nantes. Further embarrassment was saved when club officials announced that in deference to Bosnian Muslims, Galatasaray would pull out rather than play Serbian team Red Star Belgrade.

Pre-season matches are taken much more seriously in Turkey than they are here and the next set of fixtures, in Germany, produced more worrying surprises, a drubbing by Borussia Dortmund being followed by a narrow victory over a third division team. The defence, it seemed, was in disarray. Communication problems between Barry Venison and his new team mates were held to be responsible. The press had a field day, with Venison reportedly responding by threatening to leave. Further disappointing performances saw both Venison and Marsh dropped. Souness, however was still talking big. Both the league and the UEFA Cup were theirs for the taking, he claimed.

Following a disappointing defeat by Sparta Prague in the first leg of the UEFA qualifier, press reports took on a new edge of viciousness. The Galatasaray chairman even threatened to resign in protest. And the season proper hadn’t even started. For an already beleaguered Souness the prospect of lighter domestic opposition must have seemed enticing. Sure enough the first fixture, away to Vanspor, resulted in a convincing Galatasaray victory.

Just as surely things started to unravel in a way even the most hardened of cynics could never have predicted.

Post-match celebrations in the conservative, Eastern city of Van took a very British turn. Banner headlines announcing outrageous drunken behaviour from Venison and Marsh were undoubtedly exaggerated, but reports and photos of the incident occupied the press for days to come. Dalian Atkinson, meanwhile, could do no wrong. He was photographed next to a bust of Turkish hero Kemal Ataturk, giving the thumbs up. And not a beer glass in sight.

As both Saunders and Atkinson settled in and started scoring, Souness’ continued selection as the luckless Marsh and Venison, at the expense of more talented Turkish players, came in for heavy criticism. Duly, the holiday ended with first Marsh and a few weeks later Venison being given the return half of their air tickets.

In the league, though, the damage had already been done. Further expensive purchases didn’t help matters, American goalkeeper Brad Friedel exciting particular criticism. By the end of the year, a run of poor results, including a defeat by neighbours Besiktas and a devastating 4-1 annihilation at the hands of Trabzonspor, saw Galatasaray lying a poor fourth, their worst mid-season position for 5 years.

Cim Bom fans were easily spotted in crowds, they were the ones wielding pocket calculators. Not just to calculate their team’s increasingly mathematical chances of winning the league but also to tot up just how much money had gone out for so little return. The press went into a frenzy of speculation. Souness and Saunders were leaving. So were Swiss international Kubilay and Turkish international Saffet whose 24 goals the previous season had made him the league’s third-best scorer. The latter pair departed amid bitter recriminations and shortly after the club chairman was ousted in a boardroom coup.

Souness and Saunders stayed and despite reports of a serious falling out with some of the other players, the team’s fortunes improved slightly. Both Friedel and another recent signing, Dutch defender Van Gobbel, were playing well. With the league title all but out of reach, attention focused on the Turkish cup. The two-leg final against bitter local rivals Fenerbahce promised some reward. Galatasaray travelled across Istanbul for the second leg carrying a narrow one-goal advantage. Fenerbahce took a one-nil lead and the tightly fought match looked like going to extra time until Dean Saunders unleashed a searing shot from a seemingly impossible angle. Galatasaray had won. With jubilant fans streaming across the pitch, Souness did something no one could have ever predicted but which indicated more than a little bitterness on his part. In a staggeringly adolescent display he grabbed a huge red and yellow flag, sprinted to the centre of the Fenerbahce pitch and speared it into the centre spot.

Reaction was swift and unsightly. A hail of untethered objects rained down on the celebrating Galatasaray team. Galatasaray fans looked on aghast as Turkish President was hit by a bottle and medal presentations had to be temporarily halted. Press reaction was equally swift. This was an insult of the highest order. Responsibility for the Fenerbahce fans’ riotous behaviour was laid squarely on Souness’ shoulders.

This was not the FA Cup Final. In Turkey the league title is the only trophy carrying any great prestige, a fact apparently lost on Souness. Celebrations were short and with the league title a two horse race between Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor, the season was all over. The following Saturday saw Galatasaray crash to their worst-ever home defeat, at the hands of Kocaelispor and discarded Cim Bom striker Saffet.

Any question of Souness’ contract being renewed was by now beyond contemplation and press reports centred around possible legal action over money he claimed he was owed. Fenerbahce, coached by Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira and featuring Dalian Atkinson, clinched the league title and with the week-long celebrations still in full swing it was a subdued Graeme Souness that flew out of Istanbul, at the time reportedly intent on buying Queens Park Rangers. Souness has lately taken to describing himself as “a different human being with a completely changed outlook”, no longer the confrontational hard man of Ibrox and Anfield. Matt Le Tissier in particular might like the sound of that – but he’d be advised not to relax too much . . .

From WSC 115 September 1996. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by Antepli Ejderha 2011-05-30 14:02:25

Nice article, Souness claimed the decision to plant the flag was spontaneous after he saw a Fenerbahçe director who had taunted him over his heart surgery.