Proving you’re only as old as you feel, Graeme Souness swam the English Channel in June.
He is 70 years old and according to the quotes from him at that time, although he lived on the beach, he never entered the sea. Souness was raising £1 million ($1.25m) for people affected by epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a painful skin condition you may have heard of before it started getting publicity.
Isla Grist, a teenager, is suffering from severe E.B.B. He spoke tenderly of the teenage girl who was suffering, and it was in those moments that people saw the difference between the average man known for diving at Shin-Hye Stadium and the man with a caring streak.
Earlier, Souness spoke out against his generation’s homophobia in a broadcast on Sky Sports on gay rights. A Pride march in Brighton changed his attitude. “It was enlightening,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
🗣 “I went to Brighton Pride and it was brilliant. We need to create an environment where they feel comfortable.” @MattMurray20 and Graeme Souness discuss the lack of gay players in the @premierleague .
More: #RainbowLaces pic.twitter.com/5z76yt57ad
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) December 8, 2019
His sympathy and thoughts resonated deeply because Souness faced a difficult time in the context of his career as a footballer. If you care to find it, there’s a video from the 1980s, a game involving Rangers at Ibrox, that gets the most blood. “And that’s a booking,” commentator Archie Macpherson said without a hint of sarcasm as Souness planted a boot on an opposing player’s bottom. That was the sport. And that was Souness, a dynamic combination of brain and bed.
It is in the case of Paul Pogba, where the sympathy dries up and the desire to go two-legged is still there.
Not that Pogba is the only subject to talk about. Sky ended Souness’ 15-year senior run with them at the end of last season, and he has been a traditionalist in paying attention to his ideas. But there has been personal criticism with Pogba, a bone Souness refuses to let go easily.
He’s back at it this week, as seen on the Second Captain podcast. Pogba is, in all fairness, news at the moment, not to say anything more. Now contracted by Juventus, he has been temporarily suspended after returning a drug test for testosterone and is awaiting the results of further sample analysis and tests. Reports in Italy said he intended to challenge his innocence, saying he took it either knowingly or unknowingly.
The drug test was released on the podcast, with Souness – surprisingly – refusing to give the Frenchman the benefit of the doubt. Then he had little sympathy for Pogba: the transfer fee started, Souness paid Manchester United too much in 2016 for £89million. He moved on to performance and intelligence, or what Souness saw as a lack of “football brains”; And then to the “selfish” stream. Sunny’s tone has always been the same: if this guy really gets it in him to pull a leg, he can be the business.
And this is where the talk about Pogba becomes problematic. At various points over the past seven or eight years, Souness has referred to him as “a bit of a YouTuber”, “unprepared for the fight ahead”, a “doodle to play with”. Gradually and commentarily, Pogba paints a picture of a playboy or a part-time player, a highly gifted player who emerges now and again, but in reality for his showbiz experience and, when he is not winning. He’s as concerned with haircuts as he is with France at the World Cup.
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On the second captain’s podcast, Souness said he had been unfair to Pogba, admitting he was “extremely talented” but was more interested in “showing the world how beautiful and intelligent he is” than dominating the opposition. He says he’s “the type of person who breaks your club” before launching the “I’m lazy” coup.
Now, Pogba and Manchester United were not successful either the first time or the second time. While it is possible to argue all night about who is responsible for the clown show at Old Trafford, this one can be agreed. But Souness’s comments belied the character of the footballer, who he had never caught or spoken to: the Scot suggested a meeting between the two had been floated for some years. They offered Pogba the benefit of experience, but it never happened.
As usual, Pogba chose not to spend much time responding to his critics. In the year In 2020, while still at United, he (Souness) openly said he didn’t even know who he was, but in his total silence, the image continued.
Tactical analysis of a professional athlete is one thing. Picking Pogba’s positioning, movement or passing in a technical way is perfectly acceptable and football has a tradition of keeping a strict watch on big-money signings. It’s worth analyzing running stats and seeing how they stack up if physical effort is under a microscope.
It’s fair to treat him like any other footballer but Souness’s view of him veers dangerously into character assassination, making you question how well he, or any of us, know Pogba.
Is he a prodigal? Did he get it wrong? How many people entered his head? And when it comes down to it, is the accusation of laziness itself lazy? There is a history of black footballers being wronged in this way, as ex-Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson did worse in 2004 with Marcel Desailly, one of the most successful footballers of recent years, who called Ron Atkinson “fat” and “lazy” a racial slur. Before you use it. The comments were made on microphones that Atkinson thought were missing and cost him his job as a television presenter.
Not that Souness isn’t alive to feelings around language and race. In June 2020, he publicly chastised himself for failing to stand up to racist abuse during his playing days, saying “I’m angry at myself now”, but apologized after Sky reported Erik Lamela’s displeasure at a meeting between Manchester United that year. And Tottenham as “very Latin”.
His sense of being a product of the times was exacerbated by his colleague Karen Carney calling football a “man’s game” last year. But while Souness has refused to back down on those comments – even as he’s drawn heavy criticism – he’s just a one-track mind who can’t deviate from his own line of thinking.
By his own admission, he was happy to explain the issue of gay rights, to change his views because of education. But there is no movement on Pogba, no willingness to assess or speculate that the Frenchman – who has a lot going on in his life – is someone he can help find out more about. Maybe Souness has him right. Maybe we can’t be sure. But with nearly a decade of one-way friction raging, maybe enough is said.
(Top photo: Greig Cowie/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)