Belfast Telegraph

Graeme Souness's bitter return to boot room offers a warning to Andre Villas-Boas

By Glenn Moore

At the start of the season, Graeme Souness forecast a difficult year for Chelsea arguing Andre Villas-Boas lacked sufficient playing and management experience and dismissing his success at Porto as irrelevant.

Villas-Boas responded with a withering critique of Souness's lack of success as Liverpool manager. He would have been better advised to talk to Souness about that episode in the Scot's management career. It would have been instructive.

Twenty seasons ago, Souness returned to Anfield, where he had been an outstanding player, charged with a brief which mirrors the one handed to Villas-Boas by Roman Abramovich last summer. It was, Souness later wrote, "to introduce new blood as quickly as possible into an ageing team". A team, moreover, which had achieved great success but now needed "major surgery" with "half the team past its sell-by date and nobody in the wings waiting to take over". It was, he added, "a team going backwards".

If that sounds familiar to Villas-Boas so might the immediate consequences. Souness set about the task with gusto, seeking to repeat the revolution he had successfully conducted at Rangers. However, his reign swiftly became acrimonious with senior players alienated and supporters disgruntled as results dipped and performances declined.

Souness had backing from the club just as Villas-Boas insists he has from Abramovich. Peter Robinson, the influential club secretary, and key director Tom Saunders, both warned Souness he had a huge job on his hands and stood firmly behind him as he attempted to execute it. Nevertheless, Souness felt compelled to resign after two and a half seasons when the impact of poor league form was compounded by an embarrassing FA Cup defeat to Bristol City.

Souness subsequently reflected that he was "guilty of changing too much, too soon", but added he had acted that way as he had previously been successful at Rangers despite "a massive turnover of players". Indeed, in Glasgow he shipped out 15 players in his first season, signed nine, and won Rangers' first title in nine years.

Three further titles followed. Thus emboldened, he strode into Anfield and swiftly sold eight players, including several members of the 1989-90 title winners such as Peter Beardsley, Steve McMahon, Gary Gillespie, Glenn Hysen, Steve Staunton and Gary Ablett. Ian Rush, Bruce Grobbelaar and John Barnes, the club's senior players, survived the purge, but each complained they went months at a time without speaking to the manager and each was forced to endure periods out of the side.

Injuries did not help Souness, but nor did the quality of his signings. While Beardsley, at Everton of all clubs, played every league game that first season, scoring 15 goals, his expensive replacement, Dean Saunders, managed only 10 (still Liverpool's top scorer) before being sold at a loss the following year. The likes of Istvan Kozma, Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough, Julian Dicks, Torben Piechnik and Neil Ruddock were even less successful.

Souness also upset players by dispensing with some of the training-ground practices which had served the club well in the glory years but which Souness, with his experience in Serie A, felt with some justification to be outdated.

Much of this will strike a chord with Villas-Boas: an ageing side resistant to change, old players critical of new methods, new players struggling to settle, grumbling supporters. It is a dangerous cocktail. Suddenly matches which once appeared straightforward, such as today's Premier League match at home to Bolton Wanderers, seem fraught with peril. With difficult fixtures approaching in the Champions League, in which Chelsea must overturn a 3-1 deficit against Napoli, and the FA Cup, in which Chelsea face a replay at Birmingham, a Champions League qualifying place could soon be all there is to play for.

Villas-Boas said yesterday he was prepared for things to get worse before they could better. That very same phrase was used by Frank O'Farrell, one of the men who sought to rebuild Manchester United after Sir Matt Busby allowed his last great team to grow old together.

O'Farrell, who managed United from June 1971 to December 1972, told Peter Keeling, for the book Masters of Old Trafford: "When major surgery is needed it's often a case of getting worse before you get better." One of the problems O'Farrell experienced was the close relationship Busby, who remained a presence at the club, maintained with key players such as Bobby Charlton. O'Farrell said senior players complained to Busby if they were dropped, undermining him.

His predecessor Wilf McGuinness, who also lasted 18 months, had a similar difficulty. He told Keeling, "I'd left Bobby Charlton and Denis Law out at Everton in my first year [after a 4-1 home defeat to Southampton] and it had upset people." Charlton and Law were returned to the side and outlasted both McGuinness and O'Farrell. Food for thought for Villas-Boas given John Terry's close relationship with Abramovich.

So, too, is an extract from Souness: The Management Years, in which the Scot wrote: "I had such a high opinion of myself after achieving success at Rangers I thought, 'Hey, this job is easy.' If I could have looked at the situation with the benefit of hindsight I would never have moved to Liverpool when I did. But I convinced myself that despite the obvious weaknesses I could prevail – that is how confident I felt about my own ability."

Villas-Boas projected the same air of confidence bordering on arrogance when he arrived at Stamford Bridge following his impressive successes in Portugal. But when he writes his own book he may find himself penning a very similar passage.

Five Asides

1. Time for spot-kicks to pay the ultimate penalty?

The current issue of When Saturday Comes carries an intriguing piece advocating the abolition of penalties. Madness, surely? Maybe not.

Ian Plenderleith argues that many matches are settled by a spot-kick given for fouls or handballs in situations where a goal would probably not have occured. He adds that many offences – especially holding – are currently not penalised because of the sheer number of spot-kicks that would result.

Abolition would make life easier for referees, notably by reducing the incidents of diving, also by minimising the consequences of a wrongly-awarded penalty. Red cards would still be awarded for denying a goalscoring opportunity, and, in a further rule change, a handball denying a goal would result in a penalty goal.

It is worth considering.

2. Arsenal prices are frozen in time. Like the trophy cabinet

How considerate of Arsenal to freeze their season-ticket prices for next season because, explained chief executive Ivan Gazidis: "We understand the pressure fans are under in the current economic climate." Nothing to do then, with the fact that supporters are increasingly mutinous at the team's continued failure to win a trophy.

3. Good news, but it's still not nearly enough

With the appointments of Terry Connor and Keith Curle at Wolves and Notts County respectively, the number of black managers has doubled in a week. The Prime Minister must be impressed at such a prompt response to his midweek bandwagon-jumping, publicity-grabbing, Downing Street summit. Good luck to both men, but four is still nowhere near enough.

4. Shanghai look unlucky in love with Manset move

A spokeman for Shanghai Shenhua, the Chinese club who signed Nicolas Anelka last month, described the process of courting Didier Drogba as "like flirting with a girl. Perhaps she will resist at first, but if you continue to ask her out it always ends well". The spokesman may be lucky in love, but yesterday Shanghai finally accepted rejection and signed Reading's Mathieu Manset, a striker of similar physique to Drogba, but rather lesser achievement, on loan.

5. Here's hoping we've seen the last of badge-kissing

Carlos Tevez is back, and may even play again for Manchester City. If he does it is to be hoped he scores, and kisses the badge, thereby surely bringing this meaningless gesture of insincerity into such disrepute no player ever does it again.

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