Graeme Souness has opened up on the Ireland players who left the biggest impression on him throughout his career in football.
Speaking ahead of the Premier League’s return this week, the former Liverpool captain singled out two former Irish international teammates as having left an impact on him.
Souness also put John Giles, Irish footballing legend, in a bracket alongside the great Brazilian midfielder Zico as somebody Souness could never lay a finger on.
Souness has worked with a host of Irish-related talent dating back to his early years at Middlesborough, where he was managed by Jack Charlton. While, later in life, he would go on to manage Irish internationals such as Damien Duff and Jason McAteer.
After joining Liverpool in 1978, Souness would go on to win five league titles and three European Cups alongside a number of Irish players, including Steve Heighway and Michael Robinson. However, it was Ronnie Whelan and Mark Lawrenson who stood out for Souness.
“Paul McGrath was ridiculously good, Liam Brady from my generation, Roy Keane. All those have been fantastic players.
“If you asked me to mention one, it would probably be Ronnie Whelan. I knew how good Ronnie Whelan was. I saw a young man come into the team slightly feeling that he didn’t belong, then I watched him grow into one of the most fabulous footballers in terms of understanding the game and being cute.
“He was really talented and a great footballer for Liverpool. He scored some very important goals. He quickly got what being a Liverpool player was all about for someone so young.”
Souness detailed the battle Whelan faced to get into the Liverpool team from Kevin Sheedy, the Ireland winger who made just three appearances with the club before going on to carve out a fine career at cross-city rivals Everton.
“Him and Rushy came into the team at the same time, and as is the way the striker gets the goals and the spotlight goes on him. Ronnie played with me and started over on the left-hand side. The people at Liverpool had a very difficult decision when Ronnie was coming through because they had Kevin Sheedy as well.
“Kevin Sheedy had a wand of a left foot and was every bit as talented as Ronnie, but Ronnie had a steeliness about him. You don’t really talk about that when you talk about Ronnie Whelan, but Ronnie Whelan could look after himself big time. No-one messed with him.
“He was caught a couple of times early on, but as he grew he was very much someone who could look after himself on a football pitch. He played on the left, then he gravitated in and became a fabulous central midfield player. He was the guy on the pitch that had the most touches and could be a major influence tactically at the club.”
Souness also shared his thoughts on Mark Lawrenson claiming that the 39-time capped Ireland international would get into any Premier League side today.
“I’ve watched some games with Mark Lawrenson. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the European Cup final from 1984 against Roma. That partnership between Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen, if you remember the players they were playing against for Roma, they never gave them a kick.
“Mark Lawrenson was the outstanding defender of the day. Alan Hansen was silky and he caught the eye because he was so good on the ball, but for an out-and-out defender, he was as good as anyone.
“Put it this way, I would say Mark Lawrenson would get in any Premier League team today.”
Earlier this year, Irish football legend John Giles picked Souness in central midfield in his all-time Scotland XI describing him as a “top-class player”.
Asked whether he remembered some of his battles with Giles, Souness joked that the Leeds great was an “absolute rascal.” He then regaled a story of how Giles once gave him “six studs” during Souness’s early career at Middlesborough.
“Yeah, I remember them vividly. He was an absolute rascal.
“I was a lot bigger than Johnny and I was a lot bigger than Billy Bremner. But I remember playing against that Leeds team when I’m 20 years old and I’m diving into tackles and I might have been trying to catch Johnny, never did, or Bremner.
“I was a young man learning the trade and I can remember Ayresome Park [Middlesborough’s former stadium] the corner flag and someones put a short corner to me and as I’ve played it first time, I didn’t know he was on my shoulder and he’s gone ‘hey, have some of that’ and he’s given me six studs, a real stinger.
“Apart from being someone who could very much look after himself, he was a top performer, a master craftsman. You know, proper player but a nasty little bastard. He could look after himself.”
Souness then placed Giles into a bracket alongside Zico and Alan Ball as a player he could never lay a finger on.
“I say to people, there are two players, there is now three.
“There are three players I’ve never laid a finger on in my career. You know, in those days that was part of my job because I was big for a midfield player and one was Zico… too cute. Another one was Alan Ball and I’ve got to throw Johnny Giles in there. I caught Bremner a few times but could never lay a finger on Johnny.”