Graeme Souness’s 98-day disaster as Torino coach

“Graeme Souness, not Ferguson, knocked Liverpool off the top,” former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher once claimed. The defender was of course was responding to the famous comment made by Ferguson in 2002, in which he declared that his greatest challenge as Manchester United boss was “knocking Liverpool right off their f****** perch”.

Carragher ‘s comment inferred that it was the Scot’s mismanagement during his spell in charge of the Anfield club between 1991 and 1994 that was to blame for their subsequent decline.

Souness’s unsuccessful stints at Liverpool, Benfica and Galatasaray, where he’s infamously known for the flag-planting scandal (he plunged his team’s flag into the centre of Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce’s pitch), obscured the good work he did at Rangers.

Coming to Ibrox as manager in 1986/87, Souness took charge of a team that had finished fifth in the Scottish Premier League the season before. Nurturing the likes of Ipswich defender Terry Butcher and Norwich goalkeeper Chris Woods, Souness built a side that were able to win four titles before he left for Anfield in 1991.

This was maybe the only peak in Souness’s managerial career, although he kept Southampton up in the old First Division and also had a good stint at Blackburn where they gained a promotion and won a League Cup, building a squad featuring talents such as Damien Duff and Andy Cole.

Those were two great recruits considering the manager had a bad track record when it came to signing players: At Liverpool, he spent £2.3m on Paul Stewart and bypassed the opportunity to sign Roy Keane; Mark Pembridge and Scott Minto both failed to make an impact when recruited at Benfica, while further money was wasted on Jean-Alain Boumsong at Newcastle. And of course, who could forget Ali Dia?

That said, even if there is already enough evidence to suggest Souness doesn’t belong in the same category as fellow Scots Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein and Matt Busby, you can’t forget his most controversial coaching job of all – his ill-fated spell at Torino in 1997/98.

It was in fact Souness’s second stint in Italy. Back in the summer of 1984, the fiery Scot joined his friend Trevor Francis as a player with Sampdoria. He played two seasons with the Blucerchiati, impressing with his skills and leadership, and finished his spell there with 11 goals from 78 appearances. But coaching is very different than playing, a fact to which many great footballers can testify (Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Diego Maradona etc.)

When Torino appointed him, the club were languishing in Serie B, far away from the glory days of the ‘40s. On paper, his recruitment appeared a left-field decision. In his previous managerial experiences, Souness didn’t show the tactical acumen needed to enjoy success in a tactical-obsessed country such as Italy.

To compound matters, Souness’s complete lack of Serie B knowledge was a major issue. Calcio’s second tier is maybe a more complex championship than Serie A, due to its ridiculously long schedule and the pugnacious playing style that is common throughout the division.

So, the football environment where Souness returned to in Italy was very different from the one he left in the mid-80s. Moreover, the midfielder wasn’t fluent in Italian and this represented a major problem for him – how was he supposed to convey orders to his players?

Historically, Torino had good links with British players: English forward Joe Baker played for Torino in 1961, former Manchester United and Manchester City star Denis Law also joined the club in the same year, while striker Gerry Hitchens (a former England player in 1962 World Cup) spent three seasons in Turin.

To help the Scot achieve his target of bringing Torino back into the top flight, club President Massimo Vidulich brought in former Leeds United and Chelsea full back Tony Dorigo. However, it didn’t help the Scot. Dorigo soon recognised that the former Liverpool manager would have a tough task adjusting to Italian culture on the field of play. “He was certainly not a typical Italian-style coach and very much managed in a ‘character’ style.” Dorigo stated.

“My experience was that Italian players are tactically astute and want to be told/shown in minute detail their roles and responsibilities, whereas Graeme Souness would give the team a framework, whereby allowing the good players to play. I also think it was hard for him to get a lot of his points and instructions across to the players due to the language barrier which would then diminish his effectiveness.” Dorigo said of his manager’s struggles.

Dorigo, now a pundit for BT Sport, recalled an example of Souness’ behaviour during training: “One that sticks that sticks out was when we were warming up playing ‘torello’ (the Italian equivalent of the Spanish rondos) before training. So were in a big circle with 2 players in the middle and we were 1-touch keeping the ball away from the 2 chasers. There was lots of laughing and joking with Marco Ferrante knocking the ball through players’ legs etc. Graeme Souness then decided to join in and after a few attempts, gave the ball away and ended up in the middle chasing to get the ball back. So the ball arrived at Marco Ferrante’s feet with Graeme Souness chasing the ball, as Marco passed it to someone else with a crazy flick and laughing. Graeme just kept running straight into him and knocked him flying!! Marco was on his back and almost unconscious. I was laughing but none of my team mates were because I think they thought that “Mister” was a little crazy!”

The season started badly with Torino losing 1-0 at Ancona in the opening game, but the following week Souness’s side got their first win, beating Padova 2-1 at home. The win proved to be a flash in the pan as things quickly went south. With Torino showing a worrying lack of continuity and with the club lying 14th in the league, team President Vidulich thought something needed to be done. So, after a 4-0 defeat to Verona, Souness was sacked.

The Scot lasted only ninety-eight days as the club’s manager, posting a record of seven points from six games. In 1999, Souness recalled his time in Italy: “When I when I left Southampton, I took the first offer that came along, without taking in any background research. It didn’t work out.’

In defence of the beleaguered boss, he suffered a bit of bad luck as he inherited an ageing side featuring veterans such as Lorenzo Minotti, Roberto Cravero and Gianluigi Lentini. The former, a local hero who returned five years after his turbulent transfer to Milan, did not come close to resembling the player whose £13m transfer fee caused uproar in the Vatican.

Dorigo thinks Torino still had a good roster: “I certainly believed so and after playing all the teams that season I felt, apart from maybe a Marco Di Vaio inspired Salernitana, we were a match for anyone.” He added, “We had some excellent players and a squad that was good enough but at the highest level it is about the mental side of the game and I believe we lost against certain lesser teams that year that we never should have done.”

So, led by an inexperienced owner, having an overrated roster at his disposal and with no knowledge of Serie B or the language, Souness was put into an environment where he looked destined to fail the minute he accepted the job.

“I believe the language was a big barrier for his style of management,” Dorigo says “He was very much a communicator aimed at your “character” but this would have been lost in translation. He is now one of the best TV pundits, he communicates his points wonderfully… but in English!”

Edy Reja was drafted in to replace Souness and led Torino to a promotion playoff game against Perugia. Unfortunately, the match went to a penalty shootout where Dorigo missed the decisive penalty.

Despite the failure, Dorigo cherished his own adventure: “I remember that year very fondly,” said the former Leeds player. “That wonderful experience with Torino always makes me think I should have played in Italy a lot earlier in my career when I was at my peak. It was a big change but a great learning curve even at 32 years of age, a new challenge which me and my family thoroughly enjoyed…apart from the last kick of the season.”

It’s fair to say that Souness, who remains the last British Coach to have tried his luck in Italy, probably doesn’t share Dorigo’s sentiments.

Words by Michele Tossani: @micheletossani78