Benfica, the most decorated club in Portugal with a total of 67 titles, are a household name. The badge of the Aguias is known and respected as one of the proudest in football, however, that was all in danger during the mid to late 1990s. A period in the club’s history best remembered for a group of British footballers, a manager massively out of his depth and an extremely crooked owner.
Scott Minto, Brian Deane, Michael Thomas, Dean Saunders, Mark Pembridge, Steve Harkness and Gary Charles all found themselves donning the famous red jersey and suddenly thrust into Europe’s most elite club competition in the process. Seven names whose careers can be best described as earthy, most of them had their moments to be remembered for one reason or another, but were surely too far past their peak when the Portuguese giants came calling. So how did this rag-tag motley crew end up there?
In October 1997, Dr Joao Vale e Azevedo, a former law consultant to Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao, and member of the International Bar Association, narrowly won the election to become Benfica’s new president, clinching just 51% of the votes. One of Dr Joao’s key promises during his electoral campaign was that, if victorious, he’d bring in a manager he was certain would bring the good times back to Lisbon. That man was Graeme Souness.
Souness had considerable experience of football outside of the UK. Having spent time in Canada, Australia and Italy as a player, he had also sampled the Old Firm with Rangers, the Kitalar Arasi with Galatasaray, where he famously planted a Gala flag in the centre circle after a fiery Turkish Cup final victory in 1996, before taking the helm at Torino for four turbulent months.
It’s easy to scoff, but Benfica were already struggling long before he arrived. On paper, Souness represented a sound investment. But the former Liverpool man struggled to win over the club’s hardcore supporters. He set out to remedy the situation by taking a rather radical approach.
It’s commonly regarded that managers tend to like signing players that they know and Souness was no different, only what followed was more unusual than fans ever could have had in mind.
Early season results had been poor despite an opening day 4-0 thumping of Campomaiorense. Benfica had slumped to a five game winless streak, crashing out of the UEFA Cup in the first round to French side Bastia in the process. By the time Souness arrived in November he was already facing an uphill struggle to turn things around.
The first Brit to join the club, Scott Minto, was already there, having been signed by Mario Wilson the previous season, and Brian Deane soon joined him in 1998. The burly striker, who had the honour of scoring the first ever English Premier League goal, was brought in to add something different to Benfica’s attack. A more direct option that their lightweight strike force lacked.
For Benfica he was a viable option, for Deane it was the opportunity of a lifetime: “My agent had asked me if I wanted to go abroad before but I’d turned it down. This move came at the right time,” he confirmed.
This was far from a payday for Deane too, he sought to fully embrace the experience and make the most of his time in Portugal; “Scott helped me to settle in – I appreciated that, and it’s a fantastic place to be. It’s hard to believe we lived there and played in that weather, I couldn’t fault anything.”
Souness found the pressure difficult to bear. The expectation of the Benfiquistas was high to say the least: “Each game was all or nothing,” he’d later go on to say, and the media intrusion was intense, as an army of TV crews and sports writers descended on the training ground daily. For Souness it seemed that no one noticed, or cared perhaps, that his hands were being tied by the club’s financial difficulties.
Debts spiralled, and Benfica suddenly found their accounts frozen when Manchester United took them to an arbitrational court with FIFA after the funds for Czech international Karel Poborsky failed to materialise.
Despite this, Souness managed to guide the club to a respectable second place finish, securing a Champions League spot along the way, but things were about to fall apart for him on an apocalyptic level.
More British players arrived. Dean Saunders signed on from Sheffield United to form a classic ‘little n’ large’ partnership with Brian Deane. Porto, in response, signed Mario Jardel who would go on to score 166 goals in 169 games. Saunders’ Welsh international teammate Mark Pembridge was brought in to add some grit to the midfield and former Arsenal man Michael Thomas was acquired for further strengthening.
Things began brightly, Deane and Pembridge both got their names on the scoresheet against Beitar Jerusalem during a 6-0 thrashing in the first round of the Champion’s League, but that was as good as it would get for Benfica in Europe as they limped out at the group stage having suffered a humiliating 2-0 defeat to HJK Helsinki.
Benfica were becoming increasingly reliant on playing direct football, which didn’t suit their philosophy, their fans or the majority of their players. A young Nuno Gomes complained that he never received adequate service and as a result his contribution suffered. Souness also couldn’t see the considerable talent in a 21-year-old Brazilian playmaker by the name of Deco, shipping him out on loan first to Alverca, where he scored 12 times in 32 games, and then to Salgueiros, before deciding that he’d never make the cut and allowed him to join Porto on a free transfer.
The manager’s behaviour became increasingly un-endearing as the season progressed. Souness struggled with the language and his backroom staff possessed little knowledge of the league they were working in. In an interview coach Phil Boersma was unable to name a single player from another team that had impressed him besides the headline grabbing Jardel, and it wasn’t long before it became common knowledge that the manager had been racking up the frequent flyer miles on regular trips back to the UK.
Events on the field were just as bad. Michael Thomas, the man who dramatically sealed Arsenal’s first title in 18 years in 1989 was clearly past his best. His sluggish, ineffective movement prompted fans to boo his every touch and he managed just five appearances in a Benfica shirt. This didn’t stop him getting into to trouble though. After a training ground brawl with Ukrainian international midfielder Sergei Kandaurov, the club decided to just stop paying him, and even on one occasion locked him out of the ground. Thomas was eventually forced to take the matter to FIFA where he was awarded £750,000 for his troubles.
From the bizarre to the ridiculous, another new signing, Steve Harkness, a man who had somehow managed to make over 100 appearances for Liverpool (albeit over a ten year period) decided to join in with continental nomenclature by having the back of his shirt adorned with “Steve”. Sadly, “Steve” only fared marginally better than Thomas as his European adventure ended after just nine games.
Finally, Gary Charles, who had been a league cup winner at Aston Villa just three years prior, saw his time in Lisbon curtailed by injury, but it’s now accepted that he was in the early stages of the alcoholism that drew his career to a premature end.
Results slipped and not even the figure of Eusebio could help. The most iconic player of the club’s history would sometimes take sessions with the strikers. However, Deane suggests that he was “more of a mentor to the squad”.
Animosity, pressure and financial irregularities were building to a peak and in April 1999, Souness was told that his job would be given to Jupp Heynkes at the end of the season. He agreed to see his time through to the end and as the old gang broke up and returned to Britain, the stricken boss saw his reign come to a close during a 3-0 defeat to Boavista, which all but ended Benfica’s slim hopes of taking the title back from Porto. 80,000 fans waved handkerchiefs at the former Liverpool midfielder that night, partly in mock farewell and partly in genuine delight that he now only required a one-way ticket back home.
Souness believed that he did a good job in Portugal, and that anyone would have struggled with the financial constraints placed on him; perhaps he’s right. During 71 games in charge he managed to win 57% of matches played, but it would be fair to argue that his recruitment policy helped him dig his own grave. Not learning the language, not paying attention to the teams around him and suggesting that Latin players didn’t have the mentality that he had to ‘put a shift in’, did him no favours.
A year later Souness returned to management with Blackburn Rovers where he won the League Cup during a four-year spell, but the man who perhaps came away from the experience best is Brian Deane who looks back on his time in the Portuguese capital with fond memories.
Signed for £1 million he lasted only a year before being sold to Middlesbrough for three times that amount. “I’ve got no regrets about it and I didn’t want to leave, but the situation off the pitch forced the sale,” he told me recently.
Deane is also deeply reflective on the importance of young British players moving overseas, “The football is very different, slower, you were allowed a lot more of the ball and they only closed you down in their half instead of all over. It was great coming up with new solutions, but we (England) will play the same way until more players start leaving.”
Deane makes a valid point, but British players have achieved mixed results when moving abroad. For every Jimmy Greaves or Ian Rush, who both famously failed to settle in Italy, there is a Hoddle and Waddle who managed to light up the French Riviera during the late ‘80s. At the moment, the only young British player abroad of note is Michael Mancienne, who is struggling to get off of Hamburg’s bench. With eight goals in seventeen appearances, Brian Deane did well at Benfica and loved his time in Portugal, “I was out of my comfort zone and sometimes you don’t appreciate that when it’s happening”.
So could this be seen as a failed experiment? Maybe. A decade before, Real Sociedad broke the ‘Basque only’ rule by bringing in John Aldridge, Dalian Atkinson and Kevin Richardson to minor success. Aldridge in particular being a hit as the other two, like most of the Benfica boys, lasted just one season.
So it can work, and it’s only now that the actual state that Benfica were in at the time has become clear. In 2001 Azevedo was placed under house arrest whilst he was investigated for fudging the books. He had run up an extortionate amount of debt during his three years as president, and was frequently unable to pay the players’ wages or the club’s taxes.
A total of fouteen counts of embezzlement were charged against him, which included an allegation that he’d kept $1 million from the sale of Russian international goalkeeper Sergei Ovtshinikov from Benfica to Alverca in 1999 to help pay for a yacht. Azevedo was prosecuted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison as the full extent of his financial trickery was exposed, citing that he’d embezzled a further $1 million from the club and laundered the cash through various offshore banks.
In 2006, upon his release, Azevedo moved to London where he is now the CEO of a financial company.
So, the situation wasn’t entirely the fault of the manager, or the players, it was more of a case of bad timing. Benfica still find themselves in Porto’s shadow despite bouncing back from those self inflicted dark ages, and Anglo-Portuguese relations on the pitch are still fragile, but it’s hard to say if the affair was enough to put British players off from moving to the continent en masse.
If there’s one positive to take away from the ordeal; it’s that it’s a brilliant example of comical mishandling by an owner who had it blow up in his face, and as a result suffered more than the fans did, for a change.