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'You're either a f***ing player or you're not' - Why United have more in common with Rochdale than Liverpool

The former Reds captain and manager lays down the law to The42 about the failings at Old Trafford and what could be an historic season – for all the wrong reasons.

Virgin Media pundit Graeme Souness.
Virgin Media pundit Graeme Souness.
Image: EMPICS Sport

HALF A CENTURY has passed but Graeme Souness is still quick to tell the tale.

“The FA Youth Cup is an interesting one… do you know the story?” he asks.

When the reply is negative, just like that, the 66-year-old transports himself back 50 years to his days as a scholar with Tottenham Hotspur, and the culmination of the 1969/70 campaign.

“A two-legged final, we won the first 1-0, it was against Coventry City. I scored the goal at White Hart Lane. We lose 1-0 in the second game so it goes to a third game. In the second game I got booked, the third game was 2-2 and I got sent off,” Souness reels off, before dismissing whether he worried he would miss the second replay because of that red card.

“Did I fuck! I was just angry,” he bellows, lamenting the broken promise that followed from the doyen of Tottenham Hotspur, former manager Bill Nicholson.

“The fourth game was back at White Hart Lane, we won 1-0 and I scored the goal. But the rules were that if you got sent off in the final you didn’t get a medal. I got my six quid bonus and Bill Nic always promised that he would get a medal for me, but never did.

“I have been so lucky in what I’ve won. What is it? 24, 25 trophies? I really don’t know. There have been some fabulous players that have won next to nothing. That [FA Youth Cup] is the one medal I’ve never got.”

leicester-city-vs-liverpool-in-leicester-uk-26-dec-2019 Jurgen Klopp is on the brink of Anfield immortality. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

So why does this matter now?

It is just one perceived slight, a grievance stretching back decades, that gnaws away at someone with the sort of decorated career not even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen could envisage.

It’s that relentless hunger for success which Souness, who captained Liverpool to three league titles and one European Cup, sees in the squad assembled by Jurgen Klopp, one which is so close to ending the club’s 30-year wait for the league championship.

“If you look at the consistency they’ve shown going back to last season and this season, it’s incredible. Incredible. Injuries have hurt Manchester City, moving Fernandinho from their midfield to the back certainly props up their back but they’ve missed him in midfield and I think Vincent Kompany going who, if fit, was still their best defender.

That’s hurt them but the consistency from Liverpool has been quite phenomenal. It’s just not normal. That comes down to, it’s not just the manager, that’s down to the type of players he’s got. The Milners, the Hendersons; really, really good types who, everyday I would imagine, turn up and train properly and make other people train properly.”

Those qualities – an unbreakable will to win and to perform to the maximum at all cost – set Liverpool apart from today’s opponents, Manchester United, even if they are the only ones who have taken points from Klopp’s men in 21 Premier League games this season.

A 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last October is the sole blot on a copybook that so far reads a stunning 20 victories and 61 points. A win at Anfield today will take them 30 points clear of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in fifth place and Souness is under no illusions as to why they are so far behind.

“It’s the players,” Souness says instantly. “You’re either a fucking player or you’re not a player. You’re a big player or you’re not a big player.

“I’m sure there are [proper players] but they don’t show it enough. When you say proper players, Marcus Rashford needs help there. The goalkeeper (David De Gea) is a top goalkeeper, the centre back (Harry Maguire) could go and get in any team, they have got some proper players but they haven’t got enough.

“That’s why, one week, they’ll excite their supporters and the following week they will come away thinking ‘where are we going?’ This is the weakest Man United group since the advent of the Premier League.

“What you get, I could go and watch, you could go and watch, Rochdale or Barnsley play. You’d say ‘bloody hell, that kid could play in the Premier League, one of the big teams’.

“But he has three, four, five games a season like that. He might only play like that five times, but the big players at Liverpool and at City are bang at it and perform, giving it an 8 out of 10 every week, and that’s what makes you a big player. That’s why the guy is playing at Barnsley or Rochdale.

wolverhampton-wanderers-v-manchester-united-fa-cup-third-round-molineux Souness reckons Marcus Rashford needs much more support. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Right now, United have players that one day you think ‘oh, they’ve turned a corner’, then they let their supporters down the following week. That’s the point I’m making, everyone who plays professional football, you could go and watch and think, wherever they are playing, “he could play for Liverpool”. But go and watch them the following week and you’d go…” he trails off, picking things up again.

“I don’t think Liverpool have ever been that far away [from United]. In the Premier League years I don’t think that gap has been there.”

United ended last term 31 points adrift of their great rivals and that chasm will only grow if the pattern of this term continues. It could be the largest margin since the Red Devils returned to the English top flight following their relegation to the old Second Division in 1974.

To date, the 37-point gap in 2011/12, when Liverpool finished eighth and United actually had to settle for runners-up courtesy of Sergio Aguero’s historic injury-time winner, is the record.

Between 1975 and 1992 – at which point the Premier League was born – the biggest gulf came at the end of the 1989-90 campaign as Alex Ferguson finished 13th while league champions Liverpool were 31 points clear.

“I won the Second Division with Middlesbrough but when I went to Liverpool it was slightly different,” Souness recalls. “Within five months I’d won a European Cup, and I’m in a dressing room where it was more or less expected to win the league.

“I was looking around the dressing room and there were serial winners, guys who had won the league all the time.

“It’s different for this lot, most of them wouldn’t have got anywhere near winning a league, other than last year. The belief you get from winning it does help you go on and do it again. That winning mentality.”

That mentality is well and truly there. James Milner may be the only member of the current squad to have won the Premier League, but nine of Klopp’s charges have tasted top flight glory elsewhere; Fabinho (France), Virgil Van Dijk (Scotland), Gini Wijnaldum (The Netherlands), Dejan Lovren (Croatia), Naby Keita, Sadio Mane, Takumi Minamino (all Austria) and Mo Salah (Switzerland).

We were very similar. I think it’s a different game today. A very different game in as much as in our day we had to be two teams,” Souness adds. “The two major changes in football, the pitches are like carpets and the refereeing is stricter so no one is allowed to mess anyone around physically. We never went out and had an easy game, just like Liverpool don’t now.

“The thing we had to deal with was the physical challenge because teams weren’t saying: ‘let’s take Liverpool on in a game of football’. It was like ‘let’s go out and see if some of them really fancy it?’ We had to get over that challenge, which was a physical one, because the referees would allow a great deal of it.

“Then we could play once that settled down, and obviously we could play because we would go into Europe on a Wednesday and right away it was a game of football and we were successful doing that as well.”

The same goes for Liverpool now, but certainly not their opponents today. “But Man United will be back,” Souness insists. “Nothing lasts forever, but it’s hard to see it happening any time soon.”

Especially not at Anfield this afternoon.

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