Graeme Souness leaves Sky Sports after 15 years with a mixed legacy, but also a very important capacity to learn about a rapidly changing world.
This will be a summer of change at Sky Sports. The departure of main anchor Jeff Stelling is a big loss to the broadcaster, but it had been expected. He first announced that he would be leaving the company at the end of last season, only to be persuaded to stay for another year. But Stelling’s won’t be the only exit after it was confirmed that Graeme Souness will also be leaving after 15 years in the punditry chair, less than a week before his 70th birthday.
Souness is one of the last remaining links with the pre-Sky era. A player in the 1970s who became a manager in the 1980s until well into this century, he was present and correct throughout an era of enormous change in the game in this country. When he left the coaching game and went all in on a career in punditry he became best known for views on the game which could best be described as ‘old-school’, with a penchant for pointing out if someone was starting to talk over him.
Considering his reputation as one of the least compromising players of his era, it’s hardly surprising that he should have been so forthright as a pundit. But Souness also showed that he had the capacity for change and reflection. After visiting Brighton Pride in 2019, he spoke both honestly and powerfully about his own changing attitudes and homophobia in football, and about the changing times which he hoped would result in players feeling comfortable in coming out.
Graeme Souness on why there are no openly gay footballers in the Premier League
🗣"I came from a generation which was extremely homophobic. I went to the Brighton pride and learn't so much, it changed my attitude" pic.twitter.com/ysbBlZshJ7
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) December 8, 2019
The Premier League still hasn’t had an openly gay player, but that time is now surely getting closer and closer and the importance of this sort of comment from a personality like Souness should not be understated. To demonstrate that it is possible to reconsider the way in which you view the world in rapidly changing times is important. Souness admitted that the environment of the dressing room in the 1970s and the 1980s was “extremely homophobic”, adding that his experience of attending Pride had been “extremely educational”.
Of course, Souness was far from consistent and plenty capable of getting things as wrong as anyone else. When the anti-Glazer protests intersected with the announcement of the European Super League in April 2021, he was correctly called out by Jamie Carragher over his claims that the anger being aimed at the Manchester United owners was being “misdirected”. Carragher reminded him that the formation of FC United of Manchester and the green and gold protests at Old Trafford far predated the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson after Souness said that: “It’s only since Fergie stopped that the success has stopped and I think that irritates supporters and they have become the focus of their anger.”
He was also capable of being – perhaps unintentionally? – humorous. His comment that on the subject of Kurt Zouma’s animal maltreatment, “looking at that video, that cat hadn’t done anything wrong”, provided a small moment of levity to an otherwise pretty depressing story.
But Souness the pundit will probably be best remembered for his ongoing issues with Paul Pogba. Souness got stuck into the Manchester United midfielder almost the moment that he signed for them from Juventus for £89m in 2016. Over the intervening six years before Pogba’s return to Turin he described him – among other things – as, “a long way off” from being the “finished article”, “yet to be convinced”, lacking “a football brain”, “playing well within himself”, “struggling to find his best position and best form”, “a bit of a YouTuber”, lacking “a basic understanding of his position”, “absent when his back four are under the cosh”, “selfish”, “not up for the fight ahead” and “an absolute doddle to play against”.
Finally, shortly before his return to Juventus, Souness declared that “all United’s rivals will want Pogba to stay this summer”.
Those comments often crossed an uncomfortable line and attracted accusations of borderline racism, and it’s not difficult to see how this conclusion might have been reached considering some of the language he used was close to a number of tropes that do tend to be primarily directed at black players. But it should be added that he again showed a capacity for reflection on the subject of racism, telling Sky Sports in 2020 that: “Only twice in my life, in the football world, and that’s the world I know, was I confronted with racist remarks. And I didn’t challenge them, and I’m angry with myself now, I brushed it off at the time.”
Furthermore, it should be added that after Liverpool’s first black player Howard Gayle confronted the openly racist Tommy Smith following a considerable period of racist abuse, Gayle himself noted in his autobiography 61 Minutes in Munich that:
‘Graeme Souness was the only one that came over in the immediate aftermath. “Well done, Howard,” he said. “Tommy deserved that”. Graeme was a true leader.’
The loss of Stelling may well come to change the look of Sky Sports more than the loss of Souness. After all, Stelling has become one of the faces and voices of football in this country, even though he’s only been available to watch on a subscription channel. Culturally speaking, the Sky Sports anchor became the first to give Sky’s coverage a personality of its own and his role over the last 30 years of sports broadcasting in this country is almost without parallel. His position as the glue that holds Soccer Saturday together will be difficult to replace.
Another long-time Sky employee, commentator Martin Tyler, may soon be joining him. Now 77 years old and another with more than 30 years with them under his belt, it surely cannot be long until he decides to hang up his microphone.
But while the departure of Souness may not be as quickly noticeable as that of Stelling, his exit does also mark a break with the past. Souness came to be characterised as one of the last Proper Football Men to be holding his own in the mainstream football media. Like most pundits, he could be infuriating, controversial, contradictory and stubborn at times, but he also had the capacity to learn from his own mistakes and his own past, and that’s a trait that many of his contemporaries could have done with in recent years. The world is changing, just as Sky Sports is changing, and whoever replaces him will have big boots to fill, in generating headlines if nothing else.