Graeme Souness recalls infamous flag-planting incident and 'great memories' from Turkey

The Liverpool great spent one season as manager of Galatasaray - and that was all he needed to cement his legacy

Graeme Souness spent one season as Galatasaray manager, in 1995/96, and led the club to the Turkish Cup. Souness met fans of the Turkish club in London recently. PA
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The restaurant in London’s Soho was packed this week and the special guest was cheered as he arrived. Graeme Souness, 70, was invited by the Galatasaray Association UK, fans of the huge Turkish club who live in the UK.

Some had travelled from Turkey to see their former manager. Souness was only at the Istanbul club for one season, 1995-96, and his side finished a disappointing fourth, 16 points behind arch-rivals Fenerbahce, yet his actions after that season’s cup final are still talked about to this day.

“What he did was so meaningful for us – even now,” said Umit Erbek from the association. “It was like he conquered the pitch, Fenerbahce’s pitch. We were so proud of that. Fenerbahce’s fans became so anxious and angry. We call Souness Ulubatli in Turkey.”

Souness’s actions – and we’ll come to them - were likened to those of the Ottoman general Ulubatli Hasan, who raised the flag of victory at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Seeing the Ottoman flag inspired his troops and kept their spirits up until, finally, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, now Istanbul.

In London, the association presented Souness with a Galatasaray shirt with Ulubatli on the back and the No 24, signed by all the current players. What it commemorates took place on April 24. They are also hoping to win a 24th league title in 2024.

Let’s wind back to 1995. Souness has resigned as Liverpool manager, then had open-heart surgery. Choosing to manage Galatasaray was hardly a relaxing option, but it was the opportunity that most excited him, not that he had ever been to Istanbul.

He met Galatasaray’s directors in Paris and was impressed by their passion. The next step saw the Scot fly to Istanbul, where thousands of fans met him at the airport. He watched a game where Galatasaray came from 3-0 down to win and was amazed at the passion.

Souness accepted the offer and moved his family to Turkey, a country he knew nothing about. His daughter would attend the international school.

Fenerbahce were the top team in Turkey and when Souness signed, a director of the club wrote, ‘What are Galatasaray doing signing a cripple?’ - a deeply offensive remark. Souness took note.

Nine months later, his side met Fenerbahce, managed by the former Brazil manager Carlos Parreira, in the two-legged cup final. Galatasaray won the first leg 1-0 in the old Ali Sami Yen stadium, but were losing 1-0 in the second leg in what Souness called the “extremely hostile environment” of the old Sukru Saracoglu Stadium.

Four minutes from the end of extra time, the ball dropped to former Liverpool striker Dean Saunders, who had scored 15 league goals that season. Souness was out of his seat as soon as Saunders struck it, he knew it was going in. The visitors were soon celebrating and they went to the Galatasaray section where a huge flag on a pole was handed over.

The players took it in turns to wave the flag. When Souness took his turn to wave it, his players were moving towards the halfway line to receive the cup. Souness followed them and then looked to the directors’ box only to see the Fenerbahce official who’d offended him.

“It was not something I had planned, more was a moment of madness on my part, of thinking ‘I’ll show you who is a cripple’, so I went to the centre circle and planted the flag there,” Souness said. “I quickly realised that the Fenerbahce fans were not terribly thrilled by my actions.

"I made it to the tunnel, although I had to duck under the plastic shields of the police to do so unscathed. I was just thinking, ‘I’ve got away with that’ when I was confronted by a Fenerbahce supporter who had got into the tunnel, so I ended up having a bit of a stramash with him.”

Souness made it back to the dressing room and thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I will be on the first plane out of here tomorrow, they’ll sack me for sure’. Yet when the Galatasaray directors came into view, their reaction was very different.

“They had tears in their eyes and I’ve never kissed and hugged as many mustachioed men in my life,” said Souness. “I was sitting in the dressing room with my hand in an ice bucket because I’d punched the guy who attacked me, thinking ‘This is strange’.

Souness wasn’t sent home to the United Kingdom but instead had armed guards placed around his Istanbul home for a while afterward.

It was not something I had planned, more was a moment of madness on my part. I quickly realised that the Fenerbahce fans were not terribly thrilled by my actions
Graeme Souness on planting the Galatasaray flag in the Fenerbahce centre-circle

“The flag planting was not me trying to demean Fenerbahce, it was me making a point to a guy who’d been extremely rude and disrespectful when I arrived in Turkey,” he said. “I’ve come across a few Fenerbahce fans and I have to say they’ve been fine – they understand why I did it.

"If you go into the Galatasaray office in the city centre now, behind the reception is a life-sized picture of me planting the flag.”

In 2014, Galatasaray fans unfurled a giant tifo of the flag incident.

Souness saw parallels in Istanbul with Glasgow, where he had managed Rangers in the Old Firm derby, yet he enjoyed his year in Turkey.

“I have to say that Galatasaray see themselves as the aristocrats of the football world and the way they dealt with me justified that," he said. "Everything they said, they kept their word.”

Souness only signed a one-year contract because the club’s board were in the final year of their three-year term and couldn’t offer more. They said they’d offer him a new contract if they were re-elected, but they weren’t.

“It’s one job I look back on and think life could have been very different,” Souness said. “Because whoever got that job at that time was taking over a young team that was going to dominate Turkish football for six or seven years. That’s exactly what they did, because they had the nucleus of the team that won the Uefa Cup in 2000 and the Turkey side that finished third at the 2022 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

“If I had signed for another two years, then I might still be living in Turkey right now, that’s how much I enjoyed it. Istanbul was an exciting place and I only have nice things to say about it. It’s the one job that might have tempted me back into management.”

Souness’s best two players were Tugay and Hakan Suker, their top scorer, who both enjoyed stellar careers. Another was Okan Buruk, the current coach of Galatasaray. He sent a video to Souness this week, which the fans loved. He said he learnt much from Souness as a manager.

The non-Turkish players Souness took there mostly enjoyed it, too.

“I took Dean Saunders, Mike Marsh, Brad Freidel and Barry Venison. I went to meet Dean Saunders at the airport and there must have been 10,000 people in the airport to meet him," Souness said. "They carried him out of the airport. I said to his wife ‘I think he’ll be ok’.’

Souness was happy to meet fans this week as he was to go back to Istanbul last season and wave the Galatasaray flag in celebration.

It’s a giant of a football club and the atmosphere is incredible. I loved my year there, the friends I made. I came away only with great memories
Graeme Souness on his year as Galatasaray manager

“Good food, good family, people enjoying each others’ company and their shared love of their football club which they’re extremely proud about,” he said of this week. “I also go back to Istanbul at least once a year, it’s a great city. London on steroids, it’s such a buzz with an unbelievable history. For a long time it was the centre of the world.

"I’d fully recommend for players to go there. If you want to play for a big football club then the price to pay is the passion of the supporters. That’s the case with Galatasaray. Wherever we went we had the majority of the supporters – apart from teams like Fenerbahce, Besiktas or Trabzon.

"It’s a giant of a football club and the atmosphere is incredible. There’s nothing in England that compares to it in terms of atmosphere. They’re in the stadium two hours before the game singing their hearts out, with flags and flares and it continues all the way through the game. I loved my year there, the friends I made. I came away only with great memories. Not good memories, great memories.”

Souness still watches his old club – who are top of the league, four points ahead of Fenerbahce with four games to play.

“They’re enormous rivals, they don’t like each other very much and it looks like Galatasaray are in the box seat after Fenerbahce drew at the weekend because they have to play Fenerbahce at home on 19th May.”

Galatasaray fans want Souness back next month to wave the flag again – they hope in celebration.

Updated: April 27, 2024, 8:24 AM