Graeme Sounness’ Brits in Benfica
Have you ever been abroad? It’s not for everyone, with its funny food and incomprehensible language. But if you’ve exhausted the options in your native land, abroad can offer an appealing alternative. Why don’t more English footballers move abroad? When options at the top of the English game are limited, and most of the elite clubs fill their squads with foreigners, why don’t English players look elsewhere for first team football at a decent level, and a nicer living standard?
Joe Cole is enjoying his time in France, tucking into frogs legs with great relish (‘blinding’, apparently), and scoring the occasional goal for Lille. Chris Waddle loved it in Marseille, and look at Glenn Hoddle, who was practically forced out of the country in search of a league that would appreciate his talents (i.e. France). These are all English players with flair and technique – not all our exports have been such rare birds. Last week I read a quote from Brian Deane suggesting more English players should move abroad.
I’d almost forgotten that Deane – a classic English target man who made ‘the mixer’ his second home – had experienced the glamour of top flight football in Portugal with Benfica. Fair play, that’s a hell of a name to have on your CV. Any striker who gets to lead the line for the club with a statue of Eusebio outside the stadium has done something right. Deane did a reasonable job before he was prematurely lured back to England by Middlesbrough. Lesser men would have hurled themselves under one of Lisbon’s trams at the prospect. But, enough about Deane, this isn’t about him; it’s about the bigger story of the surreal experiment he was a part of.
You see, Deane wasn’t the only ex-Premier League man seeking a new life in Lisbon. He was joined by Mark Pembridge, Dean Saunders, Gary Charles, Steve Harkness, Michael Thomas and Scott Minto. What a treat for the supporters of Portugal’s largest and most successful club. Arsenal had the cream of French football, Chelsea the Italian invasion, Liverpool boasted some of the best talent in Spain, and Benfica got the Brits. It must have been quite a culture shock, but with an endearing display of cultural awareness, Harkness took his Christian name as his moniker, and had ‘Steve’ on the back of his shirt. Real Madrid had Raul; Benfica had Steve.
How had this unlikely rabble ended up at one of the giants of European football? For that gift, the lucky fans at the Estadio da Luz had one man to thank, Graeme Souness. With Dean Saunders and Brian Deane up front, Souness had bought a classic British front two – big man, little man – to try and restore some pride to Benfica, who were by now a declining force. In contrast, Porto had recently signed Mario Jardel (166 goals in 169 appearances). What were Benfica thinking? The widely touted view is that they were skint, and there may be evidence to support this conclusion. However, another possible, but unsubstantiated answer, is that the Club’s directors had been on the mother of all drinking sessions, and what started as a bit of joke had got wildly out of hand.
Sure, there would have been some awkward conversations when they sobered up and the hangover kicked in. It can’t have been easy trying to break it to Graeme that there’d been some sort of mistake, and they didn’t need him to stay on after all: “You speak to him, it was your idea!”, “No fucking way, this was your idea”, “Bollocks, you said, ‘let’s get the guy who looks like Magnum, the one who stuck the flag in the pitch, haha! he’s mental’”, “Shhhhh! He’s right outside the… Graeme! Good to see you, how are you?”, “Great, just popped in to tell you I’ve had bids accepted for Noel Whelan and Francis Benali.”
You think I’m embellishing (I am), but while Pembridge and Thomas were turning out in midfield, Souness was ignoring the incredible talent that was right under his nose. It was Souness that allowed a young playmaker called Deco to leave the club on a free transfer. He might as well have personally delivered the next umpteen trophies to Porto himself. Needless to say, Souness’s reign did not end well, and all reports suggest he was universally despised by Benfica’s fans when he moved on in 1999.
If you look at the Benfica page on Wikipedia, the period including the Souness era (1994-2003) is simply referred to as ‘the dark years’. There is no mention of players or coaches involved, as if whoever wrote this entry did not want to remind anyone of the events that took place. I’m not surprised. You would probably find many Liverpool fans who describe Souness’ reign at Anfield as their club’s dark years too. Two massive clubs, two dismal records. Oh, Graeme.
It’s hard to contemplate a more drastic and ill-conceived project than the British Benfica. So, next time you’re encouraging our boys to pack their suitcase, spare a thought for the natives. To think that Benfica’s recent line ups have featured Angel De Maria, Javier Saviola, Oscar Cardozo and Pablo Aimar. It could have been Steve Bruce managing Paul Konchesky, Jay Bothroyd and Jermaine Jenas.
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