18 Months in Lisbon
Graeme Souness’s time at Benfica was characterised by British signings and presidential scandal
When Dr João Vale e Azevedo was elected Benfica president in 1997, he promised to return the club to their rightful place at the top of Portuguese football. Graeme Souness was hired to provide results on the pitch, but despite reaching the Champions League group stage and some famous results against great rivals, his reign was deemed one of the most disappointing spells in the history of the club, lying in the middle of eight years without a trophy.
The former Liverpool midfielder had 18 months in charge, bringing in six British players in the process, while he also inherited former Chelsea defender Scott Minto who was signed in the summer of 1997. British footballers don’t have much of a history of travelling well and their importation rankled with many locals who saw this as a needless invasion, with many of the players taking the places of local heroes. And their arrival caused an understandable shake-up in Benfica’s style.
Minto jumped at the chance to head to Lisbon after deciding to leave Stamford Bridge at the end of his contract having won the FA Cup. He had no idea what would become of Benfica over the next year, thinking he would spend his time there as the sole Englishman. “It was the best pre-season I’d had, coming off the back of what was a really good season, finishing on a high with a cup final,” he said. “I was told I was the first Englishman to play for Benfica; I was also told that the coach hadn’t seen me play and actually quite liked another left back – it was the sporting director who had actually bought me.”
The season started poorly as the team struggled to pick up points and the omnipresent issues in the boardroom became apparent; uncertainty over the presidency meant the manager, Mario Wilson, was under pressure. He was sacked on November 1 with Souness taking over 24 hours later.
One of the Portuguese players who aided Minto’s settling-in process was the future Fiorentina striker Nuno Gomes, who was prolific for Benfica while Souness was in charge. He has fond memories of the time on the pitch but found it hard to adapt to Souness’s methods on the training ground. Nonetheless, he has a lot of sympathy for the situation Souness found when he was appointed by the Lisbon club. "When he arrived,” Gomes said, “the atmosphere at the club was, in my opinion, in a difficult period, so it was difficult for him to do a great job, as there were big changes in the club with the new president and the club were really struggling.
"For the players and the team it wasn't a bad situation as I remember we were a big team in the locker room, everybody was happy with each other, no problems between Portuguese and English, as I remember at the time a lot of the newspapers were talking about that situation. Between the players there were never problems. I used to have lunch with the English players and Scott Minto lived near me. On the pitch, I had a great season alongside Brian Deane and then played with Dean Saunders.”
After reviewing the players available to him, Souness sought to bring in some of his own men. The Scot felt the club needed more aggressive players and he knew where to find them. Brian Deane, a journeyman striker with three England caps, arrived from Sheffield United, then in the second tier of English football. Deane was not going to reject the chance to join a legendary club like Benfica.
“It’s very hard to turn down Benfica,” he said, “and I was very excited about it. For me, one of the top ten clubs, supporters-wise, in Europe. I just felt if I didn’t take this opportunity, I would never get as good an opportunity again.”
Souness had an immediate impact as the team dragged themselves up the table, with the club recording a famous 4-1 victory against their arch-rivals Sporting in February as part of a seven-match winning streak that secured Champions League football for the following season.
Overall Souness had a fractious relationship with the fans, not helped by the issues between the owner and the Benfica faithful, leaving Souness in the middle to take a lot of the flak. The press also had plenty to say about Souness’s signings and tactics.
The acquisitions of Mark Pembridge and Michael Thomas in midfield saw them start ahead of upcoming youngsters Deco and Maniche, who would both go on to be full internationals and to win the Champions League with Porto. As a pairing, Pembridge and Thomas were functional in the middle, but it didn’t go down well with fans. The pair were joined by Dean Saunders and later Steve Harkness and Gary Charles as Benfica’s style evolved – or regressed.
“He wanted physical and aggressive players and we weren’t like that,” Gomes explained. “Maybe that’s why he brought in some of the players that he knew, who had a more aggressive nature. The problem was more with the fans, as Benfica fans are special. In Portugal, fans live the club day by day and they were used to having a lot of Portuguese players in the squad. Benfica was almost like the national squad. It was the fans who didn't like to have a lot of foreign players in the team.
“They love to see youth players from Portugal and Benfica progress and play in the first team. They were saying there was no way a Portuguese player could reach the top as there were so many British players. Between the players, the relationship was perfect, we used to have a lot of lunches and dinners together, with the families, too. I was one of the captains of the time, I met a lot of my teammates’ families.”
The methods introduced by Souness carried the team to third in the table and qualification for the Champions League, a success considering the state of the club off the pitch and the league position when he arrived.
Deane became a cult hero for the club, his robust style and impressive scoring-rate allowing him to avoid criticism but his British teammates were repeatedly scapegoated when things didn’t go well in Souness’s second season in charge. The former England striker sympathised with Souness, but recognised all was not well at the club.
“The fans were great with me as when I came over there was myself and Scott, and we were the only English players at the time,” Deane said. “Because I’d helped the team qualify for the Champions League, I think I got a little more leeway than the others. The fans saw me as part of the process to get them where they were in Europe that season. It helps when you score in the derby game and it helps when you score at home against Porto, as I did.
“You have to remember that there were Portuguese players coming through and they want to see their own players in the team. Deco only trained with us a couple of times as he was out on loan at Alverca, a satellite team.
“There were Deco and Maniche, who were young guys – if you look at it now you can understand why they wanted them in the team. People will look at it and wonder why Deco didn’t get the opportunities, but no one knew he was going to go on and be such a fantastic player. There were players there at the time, good Portuguese players, who certainly looked better prospects than Deco and Maniche.”
As Deane departed early, his replacement was the 34-year-old Saunders, who also came from Sheffield United, then a Championship side. “I was going to a massive club in Benfica,” he said. “At my age, I thought it was a dream come true. I had no hesitation; I met the president in Paris, thrashed a deal out and went straight out there. They were in the Champions League when I got there.
“Mark Pembridge, Scott Minto and Michael Thomas were there, which made things easier. Most of the players spoke English, so it impacted on my mastering of the Portuguese language because we spoke English all the time. I did learn a bit of Portuguese and my children went to school there so I used to read their books to learn.”
Part of Saunders’s role was to show the likes of Gomes what was expected from a striker in Souness’s charge, as the experienced Welshman was known for his commitment and pride on the pitch, along with prowess in front of goal. Souness felt Gomes could learn and add what the manager believed was lacking from his key man’s game.
“I was 34 and was helping them, as Nuno Gomes and João Pinto were young lads. I could put the English spin on their attitude and approach. I was showing them at my age I will still train properly and still trying to practice and keep the standards up and I still wanted to win. I learnt off them, too; I’d played abroad before in Galatasaray and I learnt a lot off their players about how they approach things and I did the same at Benfica.”
While more British players came in, others struggled to adapt to what Souness was doing on the training pitch, as he refused to change his methods, much to the chagrin of locals. Souness didn’t learn Portuguese, something Gomes admits was an issue within the dressing room as he struggled to get his message across to the squad.
“To tell you the truth, it didn’t help, as not all the team could understand English at the time. For a coach it’s always better to try to explain what he wants and sometimes, his way of talking created some misunderstandings between the players and him because sometimes he was talking loud, but not being rude, but some of the players who didn’t understand the language were always asking me why he was being rude like that. It would have been better for him if he had learned Portuguese. I think any coach now that comes in from the outside will learn the language as fast as they can, as they know how important it is to explain things.”
However much the players tried to avoid their own issues with Azevedo, as the president failed to stand by promises made to players, it was becoming impossible as the 1998-99 season was drawing to close. The club were a long way behind Porto in the league and were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage.
“There were all sorts of things going on with the president, Azevedo, that have come to light now,” Saunders said. “If the people above you are not right, then nothing’s right and it filters right through and that’s what happened at Benfica, as Mr Azevedo wasn’t doing things correctly it sunk right through. I don’t think it was right at the top and once that was going on, the foundations were rocked.
“We were promised bonuses if we did this or that, but the money never arrived. If you tell a footballer something and you don’t come up with the goods, then they don’t let it lie.”
For the Portuguese players, the pressure mounted as Azevedo’s tenure became increasingly precarious. The media and fans were united in anger about how the club was run and how the team were playing as Souness’s reign drew towards its conclusion. Azevedo would later go to prison for fraud after syphoning money from transfer dealings – including those that brought Minto, Charles, Amaral, Tahir and the goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov to the club. Azevedo was eventually sentenced to eleven and a half years for a number of financial crimes, including money laundering through accounts based in the British Virgin Islands. He was released in 2016 after serving five sixths of his sentence.
“Every day there was something new in the newspapers about the president,” Gomes said. “Even if you didn’t think so, your subconscious was affected by those issues around the team, so the atmosphere wasn’t the best. When you have a lot of issues around the team, the team suffers.
“At the time, the president started to change a lot of things, the fans didn’t like it, a lot of players were coming in and going out. It was a mess between the fans and the president. At the end, you cannot send away the team, it’s easier to send away the coach. I think he suffered the consequence of the atmosphere not being very good between the president, the fans and the team, so the president tried to change something and he chose to change Graeme Souness.”
Gomes’s relationship with Souness went further downhill after he left. "After he left the club, we had Euro 2000,” the forward said. “We beat England 3-2. We were losing 2-0 and I scored the third goal. I remember some journalists told me that Souness had said Tony Adams and Sol Campbell would just need to show me their teeth to stop me as I would run away in fear. I’ve never been more determined to score in a game and I proved Souness wrong once more.”
The remaining Brits in the squad were all offloaded in the summer of 1999 after the arrival of Jupp Heynckes as Souness’s successor. “We all lived near each other,” Saunders said, “so we got our gear together for pre-season, got in the car to go to pre-season training and we got there the players were already training, we’d been told the wrong time and when we got into the dressing room someone else was at our pegs and had our gear on,” Saunders explained. “We were all told to go see the president, he said the new manager had come in and it was time to leave.”
The club was becoming rotten from within thanks to the work of Azevedo. Relationships had broken down within the hierarchy and the team slipped down the league. Players were not always paid on time, the club had huge debts and were becoming a shadow of their former selves.
Unfortunately for Souness and his band of Brits, his spell in charge was doomed from the start due to the antics of a corrupt president. The Scot may not have helped himself with his activities in the transfer market, but the circus at the top and the anger in the stands turned the heads of players, as the club staggered through arguably the most disastrous spell in history. Two third-place finishes just don’t cut it at Benfica.