Neville Southall was a fixture in the Everton goal for an entire generation, wowing crowds with his goalkeeping, which seemed at times to defy the laws of gravity and age. A man of intense contradictions, Southall was at once grumpy, unsociable and eccentric, but carried a charisma that saw him adored by all who saw him in an Everton shirt. He is the club’s greatest servant and most decorated player, as unconventional as he was brilliant, and one of the few genuinely world class players to serve the club.
Born in Llandudno, Southall was a boyhood Manchester United fan who initially escaped the notice of league clubs. As a schoolboy he played for the Caernarfon district team, both as a goalkeeper and centre half. His manager was a fortunate man indeed because he had two youngsters in his side who would go on to keep goal for Wales. Southall’s rival at that time was Eddie Niedzwiecki, later to play for Wrexham and Chelsea before injury prematurely ended his career. Southall also played for Llandudno Swifts and on leaving school played for a succession of semi professional teams in order to supplement his income. His full time jobs were as unglamorous as the teams he played for (Bangor City, Conway United and Winsford United) and he took up roles as a labourer, a hod carrier, bin man and waiter in a Llandudno café, called The Ritz, where he worked seven days a week for £18.
In 1980 his break into league football finally came when he joined Bury for £6,000. Under the tutelage of the club’s assistant manager, former Manchester United boss, Wilf McGuinness, Southall overcame a shaky start to his league career to attract notice further up the league. In July 1981 Howard Kendall paid £150,000 to make Southall one of his first signings as Everton manager; the goalkeeper learned of the move from his local newspaper.
Initially an understudy to Jim Arnold, Southall’s chance came in October 1981, in a 2-1 win over Ipswich Town. Mick Lyons said of the debutant: ‘At no time did the defence feel nervous because we had a new keeper. Neville had impressed us all with his ability in training and when it cam to the crunch that ability was there along with the right temperament. He came through a test with flying colours.’ Arnold reclaimed his place after recovering from injury, but shortly before Christmas Southall claimed the number 1 jersey.
Arnold had been ‘on edge’ according to Kendall. ‘I felt it was time for Jim to take a break,’ added the manager. ‘How long that break will be depends on Neville Southall.’ The 23 year-old kept his place for over a year.
Arnold later recalled: ‘I started the first season. But Neville’s ability later came through and I ended up being more of a spectator than a goalkeeper….It was never a case of hoping he would slip and he’d get a chance. I am sure that goes for Neville too.’
His performances for Everton led to a Wales call up, and Southall made his international debut against Northern Ireland at Wrexham in May 1982. But this swift progress came to an abrupt halt in November 1982, after Everton’s cataclysmic derby defeat to Liverpool. Southall conceded five times, including four goals to his team-mate, Ian Rush, and was dropped and subsequently loaned to Port Vale. He returned to reclaim his place in April 1983, and would hold onto it for the next 15 years.
A great colossus of a man, few players of Southall’s physical stature had been seen in an Everton shirt before. He imposed himself on the penalty area like a great bear, plucking even the most fiercely whipped crosses from the sky as if the ball had been tossed to him in an under arm throw. His mantra was thou shalt not pass, and he pursued this ethic with the relentlessness of a fundamentalist, flinging himself in front of opponents, trailing ankles and arms in an effort to stop it from entering the net. He was hideously brave, throwing himself through barrages of opponents and colleagues to claim the ball. Always dishevelled: hair plastered to his forehead, socks rolled around his ankles, overheating in layer upon layer, he never looked much of an athlete, but could always pull off the most spectacular reflex save with the grace and seeming ease of a gymnast.
Southall controlled his defence with verbal barrage after verbal barrage. Sometimes, on a bad day at Goodison when crowds were stuck below the 20,000 mark, Southall’s expletive-laden outbursts at his own defence were louder than the crowd itself. A teetotaller in an age when most footballers drank heavily, Southall was always one to spurn convention. Pat Nevin later described him, ‘The classic eccentric with a complex character.’ At times he seemed a mass of contradictions. A man who trained religiously, whose idiosyncrasies and indifference to the press have cultivated the image of a former bin man: sullen and withdrawn, happier in domestic bliss with his wife and daughter than living it up with his team-mates.
Yet there was another side to Southall that few saw. He was a committed helper of charities, particularly Alder Hey hospital. He always shared a great rapport with young fans. He possessed a droll sense of humour and delighted in mocking his colleagues. A favourite training ground jape was standing against a post to give a team mate a full goal to shoot into. Invariably Southall would make it across for a save. Graeme Sharp described such antics ‘soul destroying.’
Barely a year after his return from the Potteries, Southall was appearing at Wembley in the 1984 Milk Cup Final. His form was integral to Everton’s renaissance and he returned in May to lift the FA Cup, the first trophy of an illustrious career. The 1984/85 season saw Southall at the height of his powers as he lifted the League Championship and European Cup Winners Cup. His part in Everton’s successes was recognised by the Football Writer’s Association, which made him only the third goalkeeper to be awarded its Player of the Year.
One save that lingers long in the memory came on April 3, 1985, with a dozen games remaining. Everton were top of the league, and travelled to Tottenham, their principle title challengers. If Everton won, it would underline their title credentials; but if Spurs got a result it opened up the title race again. Everton were leading 2-1 after goals by Andy Gray and Trevor Steven, but with two minutes remaining Mark Falco bulleted a header towards the roof of the Everton net. It looked goal bound, but Southall acrobatically twisted his body through the air and somehow tipped the ball over crossbar. After the game, Spurs manager, Peter Shreeves, said: ‘The talk in our dressing room was all about the save near the end that stopped us getting the draw. It was world class.’ Southall’s description was typically modest. ‘Everyone went on about it,’ he shrugged, ‘But it was straight at me.’ The importance of the save was less in the points that it secured, but the psychological blow it dealt Everton’s rivals. Spurs dropped out of the title race, while Everton kept on winning. ‘The ‘85 side was the best I’ve ever played in by miles,’ Southall later told this author. ‘The only thing I’d maybe change is have Dave Watson in it.’
Southall’s fine form continued into the 1985/86 season, by which time he was considered the best goalkeeper in the world. As he looked set to win a second consecutive League Championship medal disaster struck. In March 1986, with Everton top of the League, he was playing for Wales against the Republic of Ireland at Lansdowne Road. On a ragged divot ridden pitch, Southall slipped in a pothole and suffered a severe dislocation of his ankle and ligament. At first doubts emerged about his future, but he managed to pull through, and was back in the Everton team within seven months. Despite the worthy efforts of stand in keeper Bobby Mimms, many supporters believe that his absence in the season’s concluding months ultimately cost Everton the League and FA Cup double that season. On his eventual return to first team action, fifteen games into the 1986/87 season, he helped inspire Everton to their ninth League title and remained there, virtually ever present, in the decade which followed.
Subsequently he was a constant in a fluctuating side and as consistently outstanding as the majority of his team-mates were mediocre. In a succession of teams lacking character he remained as irrepressible as ever. He refused to collect his losers’ medal after the 1989 Zenith Data Systems Final (‘Who wants a ZDS runners’ up medal?’ he asked) and, after being denied a transfer request, walked out of Colin Harvey’s half time talks on the opening day of the 1990/91. Neither Harvey nor Everton’s fans were impressed and he was hit with a fine of two weeks wages. At the next home game the banner of one disgruntled supporter bore the legend, ‘Once a bin-man, always a bin man.’ Typically Southall let his play do the talking, and was said to have turned down £10,000 to sell his story to the press. Of course, he remained an Everton player. During the 1993/94 season he surpassed Ted Sagar’s Everton league appearance record, which he would eventually trump by more than 100 appearances. The same season he also overtook Peter Nicholas’s Welsh International caps record, and would go on to claim 92 appearances for his country.
A succession of understudies – Bobby Mimms, Alec Chamberlain, Mike Stowell and Jason Kearton – were all seen off, but had the talent to forge good careers elsewhere. In his mid-thirties when Joe Royle became manager in November 1994, Southall was one of the core of veterans around whom Everton’s survival hopes were placed. His response was magnificent: a record breaking run of seven league clean sheets in Royle’s first weeks in charge. Most memorably he was outstanding as Everton lifted the FA Cup, with a superlative double save from Paul Scholes crucial to securing victory. After the match Southall told reporters that he intended on playing for another ten years – and then drove home to spend the evening with his family.
Despite Southall’s assertion that he intended to stay around, it was inevitable that thoughts turned to a successor. In 1996, Royle signed former England under-21 goalkeeper Paul Gerrard, and earmarked him as a long term successor to the Welshman. Southall held talks about a transfer to Wolves, but decided that his heart still lay at Goodison and signed a new two-year contract. All Evertonians were united in their appreciation when, on the opening day of the 1996/97 season, he made his 700th Everton appearance and showed that he’d lost none of his brilliance by making a succession of excellent saves, denying new world record signing Alan Shearer a goal on his Newcastle debut.
Now aged 38, Southall held his own against Gerrard’s challenge. But after Everton were dumped out of the FA Cup against Bradford the following January, Royle unwisely made Southall a scapegoat and dropped him. Gerrard, however, did little to impress and when form failed to pick up, Royle was out of a job. After he took over as caretaker manager, Dave Watson restored Southall to the team and he helped Everton move clear from another relegation dogfight
Southall, however, was nearing the end. He kept his place at the start of 1997/98 season during Howard Kendall’s disastrous third spell in charge. But after a 2-0 home defeat to Tottenham left Everton bottom of the Premiership, Southall was again dropped – but this time for good. It was an inauspicious end to a great career.
Later that season he joined Southend United on loan, but was never on the winning side in nine appearances. He then joined Stoke City as player-coach, but Stoke were relegated – the same fate endured by Southend. He was presented to the Goodison crowd for an emotional send off on the last day of the 1997/98 season, when Everton played Coventry City needing to stay up, and told the ground that they never wanted to play outside the Premiership for it was a ‘horrible place.’ His words carried great resonance and seemed to stir the crowd: Everton just about held on to their top flight status, in the process saving Southall the ignominy of playing for three relegated clubs in a single season. Did Southall’s parting shot have a subliminal effect on his old club?
Barely a week later, he was released by Stoke following the sacking of Alan Durban. Clubless for six months there followed a fifteen month spell at Torquay United. Southall then returned to the Premier League with Bradford City, aged 41. There was then a tour of lower league and non-league clubs as he searched for a role within the game.
As early as 1995, Southall had applied for the Wales manager’s job, but was overlooked. He was Bobby Gould’s assistant (1995-99) within the Wales set up and subsequently worked with Mark Hughes. He had spells in charge of Dover Athletic (2001-02) and Hastings United (2004-05), but it seemed that he was too outspoken to get a role in professional football that his experience and talents surely merited. And yet his services to the game deservedly earned him an OBE in 1996.
When he joined Everton from Bury Southall was asked why he’d played for so many non-league sides. ‘I dunno,’ he replied, ‘Maybe I get fed up easily.’ At Goodison he clearly found a second home, seemingly becoming a permanent fixture. As such, it was a strange day indeed when the tragi-comic hero that is Neville Southall, moved to Stoke City and Evertonians knew once and for all that he was never again to occupy the Everton goal.