Graeme Souness talks Rangers - 30 years after becoming manager

By Chick YoungBBC Scotland
Graeme Souness playing for Rangers against Celtic
Graeme Souness says he could have signed John Collins or Ray Houghton for Rangers

Graeme Souness has revealed that current Celtic assistant manager John Collins could have been his first high-profile signing for Rangers.

And Republic of Ireland midfielder Ray Houghton was another who had the chance to pip Mo Johnston to the headlines that were made around the world.

It is 30 years this summer since Souness succeeded Jock Wallace at Ibrox and quit Sampdoria in a move that stunned the Scottish game.

And only the consequent signing of Johnston matched - or maybe even eclipsed - that fuss.

"It wasn't about signing Catholics, it was about signing good players," he told BBC Scotland in an exclusive interview reflecting on how he revolutionised life at the Ibrox club. "I didn't care what religion they were and Collins and Houghton were top players

Maurice Johnston and Graeme Souness
Graeme Souness caused shockwaves through Scottish football when he signed Mo Johnston

"My wife was a Catholic, my kids were christened catholic and I really couldn't see what the problem was.

"The signing of Mo was a result of a chance meeting. I saw the headlines which suggested Mo had signed for Billy McNeill from Nantes and I didn't plan to hi-jack that.

"Days later, Mo's agent, Bill McMurdo, was leaning against a radiator in reception at Ibrox and, as I passed him, I commented that, if he had let me know, we would have been interested.

"He asked me if I meant it and I asked him if Mo would come. He confirmed he would and then he crossed the reception in about half a second.

"We talked in my office and, by the time I was driving home to Edinburgh, the idea in my brain had grown from an acorn to a medicine ball."

But Souness had pledged three years earlier to sign a Catholic.

On a flight across the Atlantic to the 1986 World Cup when I was working for the Glasgow Evening Times, he pulled me aside, ordered a first bottle of Champagne and asked me - as a Glaswegian - about life in the city.

He was wearing a cross round his neck and he explained that his wife bought it for him and that it was trendy. I had absolutely no issue with that, but I suggested to him that, at that time, some Rangers fans might see it differently.

By the time the second bottle of bubbly arrived, I asked him if this stuff was for use in the paper. He agreed it was and, by the time I arrived in Santa Fe, where the Scotland team were basing themselves ahead of Mexico, I had a belter of an exclusive.

Graeme Souness playing for Rangers against Bayern Munich
Graeme Souness playing for Rangers against Bayern Munich

He says now: "I was naive about what Rangers were about. In a sense, I was a 'foreigner' because I had left Edinburgh for a career played out entirely in England and Italy.

"None of that religious stuff mattered to me. It used to be the second or third question when I was interviewed. Would I sign a Catholic? Of course I would.

"We changed things and have they changed for the better? Of course they have.

"I remember that conversation. I paid for the Champagne."

In truth, it was either the Scottish FA or the airline, British Caledonian, who footed the bill, but either way Souness was off and running.

"Rangers were in turmoil," he said. "You don't get a manager's job at a big club unless it is in a mess. The pressure was on.

"You have to remember that, save for being let go by Spurs as a kid, I had known nothing but success.

"I was sold by Middlesbrough to Liverpool for a record fee between two English clubs and then won European Cups at Anfield, but I couldn't have been prepared for Rangers.

"I was a fan as a kid and attended a lot of European nights at Ibrox. I knew the club were big. But not how big."

Graeme Souness and Walter Smith
Graeme Souness (left) and Walter Smith

Souness appointed Walter Smith as his assistant and never regretted it. "He was fabulous for me," he said. "Although his dress sense was desperate. We sorted that out and he was great. I was completely raw as a manager and nothing had prepared me.

"I wish they had come for me when I was 30 so Rangers fans could have seen the best of me as a player. I had become a hothead."

And that was never better underlined than on his debut for the club in the sunshine of Leith at the beginning of the next season.

"It was all Walter's fault," he recalls. "He suggested that Billy Kirkwood of Hibs might leave a bit of his studs in. It was a red rag to a bull.

"I was hyped up and, by the time of that challenge on George McCluskey, I had made a complete fool of myself. It was outrageous what I did and I have apologised 100 times.

"It wasn't a case of mistaken identity, I just couldn't see for the red mist.

"I was sent off, of course, and then I remembered my dad was in the directors' box and, as I walked towards the tunnel, I could only see the top of his head.

"It was bowed in embarrassment or shame. I knew immediately what a fool of myself I had made."

Graeme Souness after being sent off for Rangers against Hibernian
Graeme Souness after being sent off for Rangers against Hibernian

That is only one of the regrets Souness has as he reflects on his time in Glasgow. He reflects on letting winger Davie Cooper leave the club for Motherwell.

"I let him go because of our personal friendship," he said. "He wanted to play regularly, but I couldn't guarantee that and I did him a favour.

"But he could open doors as a player and I should have kept him. It was a big mistake. He was a fabulous player."

Souness also put the record straight on his relationship with striker Ally McCoist.

"Could he have looked after himself better? 100%. I got after him," he said. "I pushed him, but there was no personality clash and I loved his company.

"We had the most incredible dressing room and the single biggest reason was McCoist.

"His banter with the English players was magnificent. He used to give Terry Butcher dogs' abuse and it was a miracle big Tel didn't strangle him."

Souness eventually quit Ibrox for Liverpool after twice rejecting their advances but was invited by Rangers' owner David Murray to take a year out and return.

"I should have taken his advice," he admitted.

You can listen to Chick Young's interview with Graeme Souness on Friday's Sportsound on BBC Radio Scotland, the programme starting at 18:30 BST.

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