There is a moment when Graeme Souness thinks a question dismisses his playing career as that of a destroyer, and the prospect momentarily rises of facing the midfield legend at his most stern.
“With utmost respect, you’re referring to some of the challenges I was involved in,” Souness says, when asked where he would have seen himself in the modern game. “You’re forgetting something. I could play… it would be a lot easier for me to play today than it would have been when I played. Och, easy. Easy.”
“On the pitches today, an absolute doddle… easier than a doddle.”
As with his playing career, where he was one of the most accomplished midfielders in the world, Souness has always been a much more multi-layered figure than some like to caricature. He has been one of the most progressive pundits around on issues like race relations and homophobia, especially when talking about the contrast with his era as a player. There is an open and soft side to one of football’s most famously uncompromising hard men.
You only have to take the reason he is doing this interview. Souness speaks with real emotion as he talks about children suffering from Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), and was so touched that he decided to become vice-president of Debra UK, the national charity that funds research and healthcare to support individuals and families affected.
The disease is a rare genetic condition that causes easy blistering of the skin, and immensely painful blisters from the most minor trauma, with symptoms tending to start in infancy.
“There is an argument for it being the very worst out there in terms of quality of life,” Souness says. “I know that’s an enormous statement to make, but the reason I say is that this is something you are born with. Every waking moment you are in either excruciating pain or extreme pain. You live with it. The light at the end of the tunnel is not very bright for most of these kids.
“It’s not something they have a cure for, or even treatment to make their lives more comfortable.
“I was like: if I have not heard of this, there must be millions who have not heard of it. All I can do is make people aware of it.”
Professor Jemima Mellerio, consultant dermatologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, explains why it is described as ‘the worst disease you’ve never heard of’.
“It affects people from birth, all the way through their life,” Professor Mellerio says. “You don’t get any respite from it. Because of the blisters you get in the skin, and the blisters you get at other sites such as the mouth or the oesophagus, you get a lot of pain with it. It is a really extreme amount of suffering. If you’ve ever had a blister from a pair of shoes, you know that’s really sore, but if you extrapolate that to cover large areas of the body you can imagine how agonising it is for someone who suffers with EB.”
Souness was struck by the bravery of those with the condition when invited to a dinner by a friend two years ago.
“There was a young lady called Myra who spoke at it and is an EB sufferer, as well as another guy called Olly Thompson and I was beside his parents, and she was magnificent. It just got me. I thought, ‘I am at an age now where I have a lot of time on my hands and if I have not heard of this, there must be millions who have not heard of it.’ I am not professing I am an enormous charity worker, but this is something that robs children of their day-to-day functions as kids should be able to. They have very little quality of life.
“These kids have to take diamorphine when they are having their dressing changed, they might have to have the dressing changed three times a week. They are in constant pain.
“Anything to do with kids I think if you are a parent it gets to you… for the parents there must be a feeling of hopelessness.
“It is truly, truly horrendous. I come back to this, as terrible as it is on the child, the sufferer, it impacts on every single member of the immediate family and beyond. You feel helpless, there’s nothing you can do to make your children’s life any easier, or any better. Again, to witness it, for me, I find it very emotional.
“That night was where someone flicked a switch for me.
“Because I am Scottish obviously, I make contact with Debra Scotland and through Jaye Hamilton, who runs DEBRA in Scotland, I have met little Isla Grist, who lives in Inverness. She is 12 years old, recently gone to the big school and she has a severe form of this EB. Every time I am in her company, even every time I talk about her, I get quite emotional… because it has become very personal.”
Part of the issue now is that there are currently no approved treatments for EB, although there is promising data on Oleogel-S10, a gel derived from birch bark and developed by Amryt Pharma that can alleviate suffering.
Souness is determined to use his profile to further research, and awareness.
“That’s the aim: coming up with something that is ultimately a cure but in the immediate future can enable these kids to have some sort of quality of life.
“That is how I see my role. Because I still have a bit of a profile and on the telly, I can make people aware of it.
“My profile is the biggest thing I can bring to the table. It’s just talking about it to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen to me. That’s my job. Make people aware of this truly horrendous affliction.
“As I have explained to Jaye, I am a team player. I am in this for the long haul. This is not something I am going to do for five minutes.”
Souness knows that it is by talking about football that he can also draw attention to the charity, although so many conversations naturally veer into his career.
The fact he is so forthright of course helps. That is how he comes to talk about the contrast between his day and now. Souness insists that the question is usually the wrong way around. It is not how he would adapt to today. It is whether today’s stars could adapt to the aggression of the past. Souness actually believes it won’t be long until going to the ground to win the ball will be banned.
“The question to ask is could the guys today have played in the ’80s and before that. Obviously, going to ground today is nigh on 100% of the time a foul, and I believe that will ultimately be outlawed: going to the ground on purpose to win the ball. You won’t be able to.”
It’s here where you get a bit of vintage Souness.
“You’re seeing it exaggerated today in games, with no crowd there. What happens is a player gets challenged, he screams, and every single one of his teammates to scream, wanting a foul. So the referee’s panicking. ‘Oh, he’s injured, it’s a bad one. Everyone’s saying it’s a bad one.’ And the amount of yellow cards for zero-rated challenges, it’s ridiculous. It’s only because the referee’s under pressure. So, yeah, it’d be a doddle playing today… easier than a doddle.”
Souness actually feels the majority of midfielders are far too passive.
“Modern midfield today… it’s passing sideways far too much. If you came to Melwood on any day of the week, and you were there when we were having our small-sided games, the most common thing you would have heard Ronnie Moran and Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley saying on the sidelines was ‘looking forward, pass it forward’. That would have been ringing in your ears. The modern game – I’m choosing my words carefully because I don’t want to give you a headline! – is happy to pass it to the same coloured shirt, and that might be backwards and sideways too much for my liking. The recyclers.
“The best players still get it forward quick and early.
“Because if you ask any striker, they want it quick and they want it early. They don’t want it low and wide, or the guy in the wide area turning out and going back into midfield, and going square across the pitch and then the same thing happens again. Strikers want it quick and early and that will never change. The very best teams do that better than anybody else. You mentioned Kevin De Bruyne – who’s arguably the best midfield player out there right now – he’s one of the few players who plays it first time without looking.”
It is why Souness maintains the principles of the game – and success – have stayed consistent. It’s also when he gets into his stride.
“The teams that win the league are the teams that have the best players, work harder than anybody else, and enjoy a wee bit of luck. But I can’t get away with saying that!
“In my seven years at Liverpool, only once – once in seven years – did we do anything tactically, and that was the semi-final of the European Cup, playing Bayern Munich. We’d drawn 0-0 at Anfield, so we were up against it in the Olympic Stadium. The buzzer goes to go out and play, and Bob Paisley stands in front of us as we’re lined up in single file. ‘Tonight, Sammy [Lee], will you man-mark Paul Breitner?’
“Now, think of the psychology there. It wasn’t something he thought to do when he got to the stadium. This must have been on his mind for two weeks, from the very first game. He chose not to work on it, and spring it on Sammy Lee five minutes before kick-off. Why? Do you know why? Because we were top players. The rest of us started laughing, and looking at Sammy. None of that fazed us, and it didn’t faze Sammy. Sammy says ‘OK boss’. Two weeks he could have been working on that, but he chose not to.
“Has the game changed? Not a bit. You have the best players, you enjoy a bit of luck with injuries and suspensions, and you ask your players to work harder than the team you play. ‘You’re playing a team that’s in the bottom three today,’ Joe Fagan would say. ‘I’m asking one thing from you. Work as hard as they do, and we win the game.’ And that was it, that was our team talk.”
It is an attitude that Souness is now taking to a bigger issue, in his new role. And, whatever about the modern game, he is serious about making real change with EB.
Graeme Souness is the vice president of the charity Debra UK, the national charity that funds research and healthcare to support individuals and families affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). For more information visit www.debra.org.uk.