On a flight back to Ireland many years ago, a member of the Ireland coaching staff left his seat at the front of the plane and headed in the direction of the journalists at the back.
He was looking for one individual in particular whose criticism had lingered with him. “You can’t let them live rent free in your head,” he would subsequently explain.
He wasn’t sure what the journalist looked like but after standing in the aisle studying some suspects, he approached the man he considered to be the most likely candidate. “Are you?” he asked using the name of the journalist who had taken up a position in his head. “Yes,” the journalist replied.
“You’re a c***,” the member of the coaching staff said, turned around, walked up the plane and went back to his seat. “I felt a lot better after that,” he said later.
When he defended his comments on Jack Grealish this week, Graeme Souness added a typically Sounessian flourish. “The modern player doesn’t take criticism very well,” he said.
Grealish and Souness had spent the week in a back and forth which seemed designed for the modern age. Souness, like Roy Keane, demonstrates the appetite in a complicated world for straightforward thinking: the past was better than the present, the values of the old world were better than today’s and the golden age is within our grasp if people would only listen to what I’m saying.
For Souness, the modern game, maybe even the modern world, is the original sin, even if modern in this context remains any time when Souness hears something said that jars with his core beliefs.
More than three years ago, Souness went on Virgin and laid out his philosophy or, at least, what was not his philosophy. “I’m fed up listening to people talk bull about tactics and formations and too much football science,” he said, pointing out that getting to the ball first was the first requirement for a team.
For Souness, football was a simple game that was in danger of being lost to the boffins and the ever present danger that is the softness of modern life. He fights an endless battle to get back to this lost paradise where 22 footballers could go “at it” without having to listen to woke nonsense about protecting the game’s most creative players from violence.
Bob Paisley, Souness’s manager at Liverpool, said all midfields needed a “a buzzer, a spreader and a cruncher”. Souness, he pointed out, was all three.
So Souness occupies a privileged position in that he was a creative player whose most viral moments from his playing career are acts of aggression. On YouTube, a video which promises “Graeme Souness’s Skills and Goals” has four thousand views while a video with the title, “Graeme Souness showing why players today wouldn’t survive the 1980s” has 2.2 million.
It is a viewpoint Souness would have few difficulties agreeing with. On Sky Sports this season, he remarked after the Chelsea-Spurs game – where the referee had obeyed the direction to “let it flow” – that “I think we’ve got our football back, as I would enjoy football … men at it, blow-for-blow”. He was later criticised for referring to football as a man’s game in the same passionate oration.
The let it flow directive will inevitably end in tears and recrimination when the players who have driven the success of the Premier League find it a more hostile climate. When these players are unavailable for long stretches due to injuries picked up during the let it flow project, then people might wonder about the wisdom of it.
But in Souness’s worldview, the best way of playing the game has not changed which is important because if it had, it would mean that his opinions might not be given the weight they are. The game, in his Platonic ideal, is a game where “men are it” and the geeks, scientists and other experts know their place. For Souness, this utopia is still achievable, even though everything has changed and it might not have existed in the first place.
If, when Souness made his move to Liverpool, he received criticism from people who explained that in 1934 this was how they played the game, it would be easy to dismiss these comments as coming from a different and ancient land. They would have been seen in Pathé news footage, in long shorts, playing in a flickering black & white inaccessible era. Now, Souness the player remains a live presence.
Times seems more compressed these days and it is easier to link the footage of Souness scoring for Liverpool in 1978 to the present day than it is to see similarities between football in the 1930s and the 1970s.
But more has changed in football between Souness’s era and the modern day than between his and the time and the pre-war era. Players are richer, fitter, more disciplined and globalisation has changed the game.
In the 1934 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Plymouth, all the players were either Scottish or English. In 1978, they had diversified a little. Ipswich Town only had English and Scottish players but their opponents Arsenal had three Irish players alongside the English and Scottish stalwarts. 44 years later, in 2022, Liverpool and Chelsea had five English players and one Scottish among the 22 who started the game.
This is the most obvious manifestation of change, but it would be illogical to suggest that a talent pool that drew almost exclusively from players within the UK and Ireland would produce teams that are as good as those that play today when the best players in the world are available to those clubs.
“Don’t be so precious,” he advised Grealish, explaining that if he had received criticism like that when he was a player, he would have brushed it away like “dandruff”.
Souness, it was clear, never let anyone live rent-free in his head and anyone who has encountered Souness would know this to be true. He is direct but also helpful and engaging.
“Jack doesn’t have to listen to me,” he added, although it is harder today, as we all know, to block out the ever accessible criticism.
For years, sportspeople would claim that they paid no notice to criticism. They would say they didn’t read the papers but occasionally friends would tell them what had been said which seemed like a strange act of friendship. Occasionally they would wander down a plane to get some space in their heads.
Players would obsess about the rating section in a newspaper and it was not unusual for them to call a journalist to complain when they received a six rather than what they believed they were worth at least an eight.
Today, they might tweet a response or they might ignore it as it washes over them alongside the abuse they receive on social media. It is a constant accompaniment to their lives and there is no escape. A player like Grealish is well rewarded but the idea that the modern player is more sensitive is as ridiculous as the idea that football today is the same game it was forty years ago.