LONG before the Magnum PI moustache, the afro-perm and the European Cups with Liverpool, Graeme Souness’ footballing odyssey began on the cobbled streets of Gorgie. He even rejected an opportunity to sign for Hearts as a teenager.
The reek of brewing yeast, the tenements of Gorgie Road and marvelling at Jim Cruickshank are standout memories from what he recalls as a warm childhood.
Souness’ origins in Edinburgh may seem like a distant memory, but for him they are vivid. He is now 59 and hasn’t worked in football for six years since leaving Newcastle United as manager. Thursday’s Europa League play-off tie pits the club in whose shadow he grew up against the one with whom he won three European Cups. It’s fair to say the memories are flooding back.
He puts one lingering myth to bed by admitting he wasn’t strictly a Hearts fan as a kid. At least, not the home-and-away-every-weekend type. Souness was too busy honing his own skills to idolise others. Such dedication saw him become one of the most decorated players in Scottish football history, and it must be regarded as a shame that he only graced his native league for a brief period as player-manager of Rangers.
To achieve what he did, he had to have a good grounding. “Because I lived in Gorgie, obviously I went to see Hearts. But I wasn’t a great watcher of football,” says Souness in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I was too busy playing it so there wasn’t any one team I used to go and see. I remember standing on that great big terracing at Easter Road. I recall a few games there when the place was full.
“I would go to Ibrox, I would go to Tynecastle and, occasionally, Easter Road. My family were all from down in Leith originally, although I was brought up in Saughton Mains and Hearts were the local club. I stayed in Gorgie for three years when I went to live with my grandmother. She stayed in Wardlaw Place, which I remember was three streets along from Tynecastle on the left hand side as you head along Gorgie Road towards Saughton.
“I was very much a local boy in terms of Hearts. I remember going to see Tommy Traynor play, Jim Cruickshank was in goal, Donald Ford was up front. I watched all these players but it wasn’t a week in, week out kind of thing. I didn’t walk in with my maroon scarf on. It was an occasional thing.
“I did actually train with Hearts for a period of time when I was a young boy. I was about 13 and I used to train at Tynecastle and at Parkhead as well. I did have an opportunity to sign for Hearts but I decided to go to England instead.”
He did so by following a path paved for him by another local lad. “Dave Mackay was a truly, truly, great footballer who played for Hearts. Arguably the best player they’ve ever had,” said Souness. He does admit to idolising Mackay but, then again, was it possible not to in that era?
“I played for Scotland Schoolboys against England Schoolboys at White Hart Lane and I was just taken by the place. Dave Mackay, who had broken his leg for the second time, was watching that game I played in. He recommended me to Spurs and that’s how I ended up there. Dave Mackay looked at the programme and saw that I went to the same school as him so he took a bit of an interest in me. Sorry, I’m giving you my life story here.”
He shouldn’t apologise, for the conversation is fascinating. Souness and Mackay attended Carrickvale Secondary School before earning legendary status in England, albeit in different decades. Mackay also had the distinction of winning the league, Scottish Cup and League Cup with Hearts before transferring to Tottenham. Souness went straight to Tottenham, on to Middlesbrough and eventually found his niche in the Liverpool midfield in the late 1970s.
So what of today’s crop at Anfield? And how will Hearts fare against them? “There is a gulf between the Premier League in England and the SPL in Scotland right now,” he says. “Although Liverpool are not one of the great teams any more, they certainly still have some good players. And they have one truly great player in Steven Gerrard. He would get into any Liverpool team of the past.
“If Gerrard plays, he’s the one you have to concentrate on. Keep him as far away from goal as possible. Andy Carroll can be unplayable if he gets the right sort of service, so you need to stop the ball getting to him. There are so many threats, maybe just too many. It’s not just Hearts. If Liverpool were playing any team in Scotland right now, it would be the same.
“It’ll be a different Liverpool to last year but it’ll still be a very strong Liverpool. Like any Scottish club playing a team from the Premier League, Hearts have got it all to do. Although Liverpool aren’t the force they were and are just behind some of the teams down here, they’re still arguably the second biggest club in England. They’re still an enormous club on the world stage so you have to respect their fantastic European pedigree.
“Hearts have always got an outside chance over the two games. They are the underdogs, though, and realistically you have to fancy Liverpool because of the quality of player they have. You’re relying on lots of them having two off nights for Hearts to go through.”
A 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was hardly the ideal debut for new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. “They won’t be completely settled but I don’t see that being an issue over the two games,” says Souness. “How much is that going to influence them? Very little, I would think. I just feel Liverpool will have too much quality in too many areas and I think that will decide the tie. Hearts would need more than half the Liverpool team to have two off nights to have a chance.”
Souness’ hope is that Hearts have learned big lessons from last year’s capitulation to Tottenham at the same stage of the Europa League qualifying process.
“You don’t want the tie settled in the first 25 minutes of the two games. You want to give your supporters something to shout about and I think Hearts will have learned from last year.
“The problem Hearts are faced with is they need to have a go, but have a go in a sensible fashion where they don’t leave themselves exposed. Against Tottenham they were 3-0 down inside half an hour. That’s the dilemma a smaller team has against a bigger team. You have to try and win the game at home, but when you do that you’re exposing yourself.
“I still believe Anfield is the best place in Britain to play football. That’s an up-side for the Hearts players for the second leg next week.
“England isn’t the most atmospheric place in the world for football but Anfield is something to look forward to. Liverpool’s players are used to the big stadiums down here and throughout Europe so Tynecastle isn’t going to hold any fears for them.”
No venue anywhere in the world intimidated Graeme Souness in his pomp. Then again, he did come from an Edinburgh generation where fear wasn’t in the dictionary.