It’s very much the zeitgeist that nobody in the media is allowed to be too critical about a manager, team or player. Managers spend too much time defending themselves through counter-attacking, while some areas of the media – especially local press – go to great lengths to grease-up to their neighbourhood football club for fear of being excluded from the newsflow. On the field, players react to criticism, or the merest suggestion they are not playing well, with tight-lipped sarcasm or gestures that display their defiance.
Football pundits on TV, especially former players, are invariably safety-first in their approach. Most do not want to bite the hand that may feed them should a decent coaching job come along. But Graeme Souness is different. He doesn’t mind expressing an opinion at the best of times. You don’t always agree with his views, but he can be hard-hitting, to the point and necessarily provocative.
Souness was a great player. Hard – sometimes over industrial – determined, a great passer and a scorer of spectacular goals. He gave 100% and suffered no fools. Often he strayed into the territory of the assassin – there were plenty of grass verges in Souness’ career – but he never hid in the shadows that Mourinho referred to. You couldn’t help but admire him as player or covet his services.
Souness upset Jose Mourinho because he said what everyone was thinking, even the most loyal patrons of the Matthew Harding Stand. Chelsea played far too conservatively and unintelligently in a home leg of the Champions League against Paris St. Germain. They also behaved deplorably at times. PSG were no angels, but the way Chelsea helped push Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the field was unacceptable. A crowd of 40,000 was deprived the chance to see one of the world’s most enigmatic players in action. Souness said Chelsea’s players were “pathetic” and you just had to agree with him.
Mourinho responded by reminding people that Souness and his bench-mate, Jamie Carragher, have a history that includes mobbing the referee. He added that PSG had been “clever” in their tactics, the sort of intelligence that has been a feature of Chelsea teams over the past decade, in fact. Mourinho, like Souness, is entitled to his opinion, but frankly, there’s a lot of greenhouse glass at Stamford Bridge.
The whole evening did little to endear Chelsea to the football world. Like Don Revie’s Leeds, Chelsea will always be respected – and feared – but they will never be loved, apart from in London SW6. As Brian Clough told Leeds’ orphaned squad when Revie left. “You haven’t been great champions.”
Souness was never a great manager, but he won a lot of trophies, which he admits would be the envy of better managers. Mourinho is the ultimate “balance sheet manager”. His balance sheet looks outstanding, but the figures do not always reveal the method. If he’s your manager, you love him, but if he’s your opponent, you hate him. Hence Mourinho will always be the subject of abuse from opposition supporters. Against PSG, quite a few Chelsea fans were left with a bad taste in the mouth. If the approach proves successful, nobody will ever say a word, but when the ethos becomes destructive, as it did against PSG, you question it.
Mourinho is by no means the only football manager – or player – who fights back when criticism comes his way. Witness Louis van Gaal’s challenge on United’s apparent “long ball game”, or Gareth Bale’s cupped ears when he scored at the weekend. What seems to have been forgotten along the way is that the public is entitled to voice its opinion about a player or team. If you pay the sort of exhorbitant ticket prices you can find at Premier League grounds, you are more than entitled to express an opinion – as long as it stays within the boundaries of decency.
Nobody, not Mourinho, not Gareth Bale, not Louis van Gaal, not anyone, should be fooled into believing that following a team (or a player) should be a case of blind loyalty or that the media will ignore the less appealing side of the game of football. Paying your admission fee allows anyone to pass judgement, it’s a philosophy that has been in place since the days when the Roman Emperor stuck his thumb up or down to signal his satisfaction or disatisfaction. Fair play, Souness, you were spot on.