Neville Southall: A Man Too Good for Mere Mortals
07 April 2019
Southall is unquestionably one of the greatest goalkeepers that the game has ever produced – even if many outside of Everton don’t know it. At his peak, he exuded skill and confidence and had few equals amongst his contemporaries.
On 22 February 2019, a new centre for victims of domestic violence opened in Birkenhead to honour the memory of Paul Lavelle, a fanatical Everton supporter who had been a long suffering, silent victim of abuse culminating in his death at the hands of his girlfriend in May 2017.
Attending the unveiling is a corpulent figure, casually attired in a tracksuit top, a blue football shirt and shorts. He delivers a poignant message whilst unveiling the plaque in commemoration of Paul, in front of his close friends and family who are visibly moved by his presence and touched that this man has taken such a personal interest in their project.
This is not a red-carpet venue where you would expect to find celebrities vying for attention whilst craving tabloid headlines. Yet one man has taken a personal interest in the project out of genuine conviction rather than the opportunity to post an Instagram selfie. This person is Neville Southall, an Everton and Wales legend who, in the period from 1984 to 1987, was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.
It is still bewildering that Big Nev does not always receive the acclaim he richly deserves. A recent issue of FourFourTwo carried a feature on iconic goalkeepers that highlighted John Burridge yet failed to reference the Welshman. The Outsider by Jonathan Wilson lays claim to be the definitive study of the art of goalkeeping but over the course of 330 pages fails to say a solitary word about Southall whilst finding space for the likes of Les Sealey and Kasey Keller.
However, Big Nev has never been one to actively seek the spotlight. He has never played the media game. He has always spoken his mind. He lets his record speak for itself.
The position of goalkeeper has always held mythical status for the Everton cognoscenti. Ted Sagar and Gordon West have cast long, intimidating shadows over those who have followed in their footsteps, yet even in such lofty company, Southall, alongside Dixie Dean, has a serious claim to be the greatest player to have worn an Everton shirt.
He appeared in 751 competitive games for the club – more than any other player. Until he was surpassed by Chris Gunter in November 2018, he was the record cap holder for Wales, with 92 all earned whilst at Everton. He won two league titles, two FA Cups and the Cup Winners Cup. Any chance of adding to his European haul was sadly prevented through unfortunate circumstances beyond his control after the events of Heysel in 1985.
That same season he was voted the Football Writers Footballer of the Year, becoming only the fourth keeper and the second Welshman to achieve that accolade. No other custodian has earned the award since. No less an authority on the art of goalkeeping than the legendary Pat Jennings once stated that Southall was a keeper “without a weakness”.
Howard Kendall arrived as Everton manager at the start of the 1981/82 campaign. During the summer, he undertook a frantic burst of transfer activity which heralded the arrival of a septuplet of acquisitions to which the media tagged the nomenclature “The Magnificent Seven”. Unfortunately, the likes of Alan Biley, Mick Ferguson and others never became headline acts at Goodison and were discarded by the end of the season. History will show that only one individual lived up to that billing – the person whose purchase attracted the least coverage at the time.
Kendall inherited a situation where the regular keeper happened to be the uninspiring Seamus McDonagh. The priority was to attract a reliable number one. He returned to Blackburn, the club he had recently departed as manager to obtain the services of one he trusted, Jim Arnold, who was still only 32 and looked capable of holding down the position for the next few years.
Since Gordon West departed in 1973, the side lacked a keeper who inspired confidence on the Gwladys Street terraces. A raw north Welshman called Neville Southall also arrived from Bury as cover for Arnold for a fee in the region of £150,000. He was relatively inexperienced with just 39 league games under his belt at the age of 23. It was to prove to be the best signing Kendall ever made.
Arnold was the first choice at the start of the campaign and appeared in the first ten fixtures. However, an injury brought that run to a halt and suddenly the spotlight was on the nascent Welsh goalkeeper to whom Kendall handed his debut. Southall, who undertook meticulous preparation for matches, was thrown into a state of near panic when, an hour before kick-off, he discovered he was playing.
On 21 October 1981, in front of a crowd of 25,000, Neville made his first team debut against Ipswich, a side who were UEFA Cup holders and came close to winning the league the previous season. Everton gained an important 2-1 victory and Southall proved himself to be a competent deputy. Despite that, Arnold was back in goal for Evertons next fixture.
Alf Tupper is a name familiar to any member of the baby boomer generation who read comics in the 1960s. Tupper was an athlete from an impoverished working-class background who became famous for his prowess on the athletics track, winning a succession of races , turning up at venues after completing his night shift as welder. He was scruffily dressed and constantly mocked for his unkempt appearance. One could make a convincing case for drawing some parallels between Southalls early football life and that of the comic book hero.
Neville Southall was born on 15 September 1958 in Llandudno, north Wales. As a schoolboy, he played in goal for the Caernarfon District side and turned out for Llandudno Swifts in the local Sunday league, competing against adults twice his age. Just like Tupper, he left school with no formal qualifications and at the age of 16 ended up in a variety of low paid occupations such as a dishwasher, a hod carrier and a refuse collector, working seven days a week whilst turning out for a local non-league side Bangor City.
With Bangor being 20 miles away from Llandudno, Southall relied upon his father to transport him, although on one occasion he forgot to collect him and, with no public transport available, the keeper had to sleep in the stadium itself.
Southall was now working full-time on the building sites whilst Bangor were enduring a financial crisis which resulted in him leaving for Conwy United in the Welsh Alliance, a step down the non-league pyramid. Even worse, it transpired that a managerial change at Bangor meant he had missed out on a prospective trial for Everton.
Nevertheless, his performances were attracting attention and Winsford United of the Cheshire League soon came calling. Yet, not being able to drive meant that the keeper was still reliant on others for lifts, and in a classic Alf Tupper moment was late for one game, arriving at half-time as the train he was travelling on suffered a delay after a brick was thrown through a window.
Neville made an instant impression at Winsford. He was named player of the year and his side finished as champions. His dedication to the game was starting to pay dividends although at the age of 20, the possibility of making the grade as a professional never really entered his mind. On a train journey home from a Winsford fixture, he started chatting to Harry Jones, the father of Wales International Joey, whose words “just keep going because youll make it one day” really struck a chord.
Towards the end of the 1979/80 season, Howard Kendall received a tip-off from a friend regarding this young Welsh star. Coincidentally, this person also managed a pub called The Neville. He went to watch him and by the end of the game wanted to sign him. Unfortunately, Howard was managing Blackburn at the time and the board felt that they didnt need another keeper. Wigan were also interested but Neville decided to sign for Bury. Becoming a full-time professional involved taking a pay cut but the opportunity was impossible to resist.
Neville understood that he was the back-up keeper to club legend Jim Forrest, who had played for Bury for 14 years. Nevertheless, a poor run of results culminated with Forrest being dropped and Big Nev made his debut against Wigan on 20 September 1980. It was an unnerving experience; Forrest still retained a strong contingent of admirers on the Gigg Lane terraces and from their perspective he was being replaced by a non-league nonentity.
They greeted the debutant with a cacophony of abuse during the warm up. Fortunately, Neville played his part in a 2-1 victory and by the end of the campaign he achieved 15 clean sheets, with Bury supporters bestowing upon him the dual accolade of player and young player of the year. Southalls dedication to improving his skills were so intense that apparently the Bury forwards, depressed by their constant failure to score against him in training, were being drained of confidence.
Kendall maintained his interest in the keeper. Although he couldve signed him for just £6,000 as Blackburn boss ,the fee was now £150,000. In fact, the transfer nearly stalled due to a dispute between Winsford and Bury over their percentage of the sell-on fee, but matters were resolved and in typical Southall fashion he was forced to rely on Bury manager Jim Iley to drive him to Liverpool.
Southall returned to the reserves after his debut, but Kendall was also turning out for them, offering the manger a unique opportunity to assess the keepers skills first hand. He recalled Big Nev to the side for the game against .hampions Aston Villa in December 1981, and he repaid the confidence placed in him by keeping nine clean sheets in 26 gamesc By comparison, Arnold achieved four in 20 games. Kendall, although impressed by the Welshmans dedication in training, still held some reservations about his decision-making in matches, notwithstanding the fact that he was now clearly the number one.
During the following campaign, in November 1982, Everton collapsed to a humiliating 5-0 defeat at home to rivals Liverpool. Southall was one of the players to pay the price as Kendall recalled Arnold to the first team, with the Welshman reverting to his role as back-up custodian.
Two months later, Port Vale approached Everton to take Southall on loan. Vale were in the Fourth Division at the time and werent a club synonymous with football glory. Southall, however, loved their eccentric manager John McGrath, whose determination and work ethic made a lasting impression on him. As he so succinctly noted, “They maximise everything theyve got, and they work their bollocks off.”
He played just nine games for Vale but is still fondly remembered by their supporters who placed him 21st in a poll of their best-ever 100 players. McGrath liked what he saw and tried to sign him on a permanent basis, but Everton rejected the approach and he returned to Goodison. Towards the end of the season. Arnold suffered an injury that meant that Big Nev was back in goal for the final four games of the season.
Kendall was still unconvinced so Arnold started the first game of the new season. Colin Harvey oversaw the reserve side and pushed for Nevilles recall after a series of outstanding performances in the Central League. A disappointing start to the campaign led Kendall to reconsider his options and, on 1 October 1983, Southall was back in the side. Arnold never played for the club again and ironically signed for Port Vale two years later, no doubt Nevilles tales of the delights of living in Burslem convincing him.
Evertons form slumped from desperate to abysmal and fans were demanding Kendalls dismissal. Harvey recalled that the manager made it clear to Southall that he was far from happy with his performances. Under intense pressure and possibly just a game away from the sack, he spoke to his keeper before the Coventry game on 31 December, asking him bluntly if he could guarantee a clean sheet.
Southall equally bluntly replied “no”. He then asked Arnold the same question to which he received the same response. If Arnold had answered yes, the course of history may have taken a different path. Ironically, the game finished 0-0 anyway, and despite 1983 proving to be a desperate year for Everton, their fortunes were about to change.
A combination of factors contributed to Everton suddenly clicking into form. The return of Peter Reid from injury, the acquisition of Andy Gray, the appointment of Colin Harvey as first-team coach and the backing of the board seemed to instil a new-found confidence into the team. By the end of the season, Southall was now the proud owner of an FA Cup winners medal and was unfortunate to be on the losing side in the League Cup final.
That year, Everton nearly crashed out of the FA Cup to Third Division Gillingham in a fourth-round replay. Tony Cascarino recalled how he was through on goal with only Southall to beat yet somehow the keeper psyched him out by narrowing the angle and standing his ground, forcing the striker to take the shot early straight into his hands. That save kept the Toffees in the cup.
Southall was an ever-present as a rejuvenated Everton side claimed both the league title and Cup Winners Cup in 1985 and came within an ace of a historic treble, narrowly losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup final, making 63 appearances and keeping 31 clean sheets.
Throughout the campaign, Southall demonstrated his full repertoire of skills. He displayed an astonishing ability to change direction at the last minute, an unerring instinct to produce unorthodox saves, and the skill sadly lacking in his modern counterparts to deal decisively with crosses into the box, which inspired confidence in his fellow defenders.
Two memorable performances are still talked about in revered tones by Blues fans today. Everton, top of the table, travelled to White Hart Lane on 3 April 1985 to face second-placed Tottenham in the game considered to be the title decider. The Londoners crushed the Toffees 4-1 the previous August and another victory would place them level with Everton, but a win for the Blues would strike a severe psychological blow to the aspirations of their closest rivals.
Everton raced to a commanding two-goal lead through Andy Gray and Trevor Steven but Tottenham, knowing their season was at stake, struck back on 73 minutes with a goal through Graham Roberts. Everton were under siege as Spurs launched a barrage of attacks to level the match. With three minutes remaining, forward Mark Falco bulleted a powerful header from the edge of the six-yard box towards the top corner of the net.
It looked a certain goal until Southall managed to twist in mid-air to tip the ball over the bar. The Spurs players slumped to the floor in despair as the Welsh custodian wrote his name into Everton folklore. The Daily Express described it as “the most astounding save since Gordon Banks left Pele dumbfounded in Mexico” and the Daily Mail waxed lyrical by claiming that “he twisted through the night air like a marlin”. In his unique, understated style, Neville opined afterwards: “Everyone went on about it, but it was straight at me.” Ironically his teammates joked afterwards that they were disappointed that he hadnt caught it.
Almost a month later, on 6 May, Everton travelled to face Sheffield Wednesday, whose strategy under the tutelage of Howard Wilkinson was designed to subject the opposition to a constant bombardment of aerial crosses. Many of the top sides in the league found it impossible to cope with this tactic and Wednesday had only lost one game at home all season. To make matters worse, it was a biting cold day with howling winds swirling around the stadium.
Everton took a fortunate lead through a Gray mishit before the Owls commenced their offensive. High cross after high cross was launched into the Everton area. Somehow, Southall pulled off a string of outstanding saves which prevented an equaliser. A shot from Imre Varadi appeared to be over the line when Southall flicked the ball away as a stunned BBC commentator Barry Davies exclaimed: “It must be … Varadi … oh what a brilliant save, how did he deflect that?”
The despondent forward could be heard to shout in frustration, “I fucking give up.” It was no surprise that Southall was the Football Writers choice for Player of the Year after displays like that. The result ensured that Everton could claim the title the following Saturday against Queens Park Rangers.
The effect of the Heysel ban and the subsequent lack of European football appeared to impact negatively on Evertons form, and they lay in seventh place at the start of the next season. During this period, Southall became only the second Everton goalkeeper to be sent off when he was dismissed at Chelsea. However, after a 6-1 demolition of Arsenal, the Blues only lost one of their next 17 games.
A convincing 2-0 win at their main title rivals, Liverpool, saw the champions top of the table at the start of March, with Southall in imperious form, claiming nine clean sheets in the process. The run came to an end with a 2-1 defeat at Luton on 22 March. It was the last game Big Nev would play that season – with catastrophic consequences for Everton.
Southall was proud of his Welsh heritage and, unlike some of his contemporaries, would make himself available for selection for apparently meaningless friendlies, turning out for Wales in an inconsequential fixture against the Republic of Ireland on 19 March 1986. The game took place at Landsdowne Road in Dublin, a stadium shared with the Rugby Union side. The pitch was an absolute quagmire and totally unfit for international football.
On 66 minutes, Southall claimed a routine cross but, as he landed, his foot crashed into a pothole and he was left in a heap, unable to move. At first, the medics feared he had broken his leg, but the injury was more complicated to treat. Southall suffered a dislocated ankle and severe ligament damage that put him out for the rest of the season and possibly longer.
It was the news that Everton fans dreaded. Bobby Mimms was a capable replacement but he wasnt Neville. Kendall even brought the legendary Pat Jennings in as cover. Everton finished as runners-up to Liverpool who also overcame them in the FA Cup final. The injury to Southall was blow from which the team never recovered.
An injury-hit Everton made a poor start to the season and were in sixth position when Southall made his long-anticipated return to the side in mid-October against Watford, playing every remaining game that campaign. One memorable highlight for Big Nev was scoring in the penalty shoot out in a pointless Full Members Cup Tie against Charlton in March.
Its a pity only 7,914 fans were there to witness his only ever goal for the club. Once again, Everton embarked on a brilliant run of form, losing just one of their last 13 league games to reclaim the title from Liverpool, Southall keeping eight clean sheets. Kendall left for Athletic Club in the summer and Everton were never to reach those heights again.
The core of the title-winning side was starting to break up and the replacements that new boss Colin Harvey brought in werent of the same standard. Southall himself believes that he was actually a better keeper during this period but rebuffed offers from Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United to join them.
Nevertheless, he was becoming increasingly frustrated by the decline in standards at the club and submitted a transfer request at the start of the 1990/91 campaign. The first game brought newly-promoted Leeds to Goodison, who were two up at half-time after an insipid performance by the Toffees. Before the second half started, fans were bemused to see the keeper emerging from the tunnel alone. Southall proceeded to sit down with his back to a goalpost, cutting a lonely and frustrated figure.
Harvey had not even noticed him leave the changing room and was only made aware of the occurrence when besieged with questions on the subject in the post-match interview. Many reporters interpreted it as a protest, but the Welshman was insistent that he just needed to clear his head. Harvey fined him two weeks wages but then changed his mind when Southall threatened to go holiday for that period. He was in goal by the next game but the whole affair was symbolic of the dramatic decline of Everton
Everton never again reached the dizzy heights of the mid 1980s. Kendall returned to no avail barring two appearances in the Full Members Cup final, which they lost in both 1989 and 1991. Neville was so contemptuous of the competition that he refused to collect his medal in ‘91, stating: “Who wants a Data Systems Cup runner up medal?” As was often the case with the blunt-talking Welshman, he had a point.
Countryman Mike Walker nearly relegated Everton in 1993/94 before Joe Royle was appointed to revive the clubs fortunes, which he did in dramatic style. He assumed control with Everton adrift at the bottom of the table in late November 1994. Once again, Southall turned in a series of match-saving performances as confidence flowed through the team. In an incredible reversal of fortunes, Everton finished 15th and reached the FA Cup final with Southall only conceding one goal on the way to Wembley.
The arrival of Royle seemed to inspire Southall as he and David Watson formed a cohesive defensive partnership with 11 clean sheets in 28 games in a side fighting relegation. In the final against Manchester United, Southall stood firm as the Red Devils searched for an equaliser, producing a breath-taking double save from Paul Scholes that convinced Evertonians it was going to be their day.
Southall had endured some pundits suggesting that his best days were behind him; he answered them in the most decisive manner possible. At 37, he secured yet another winners medal. He declined to join the post- match celebrations and drove back to north Wales, which drew querulous comments from certain sections. Few people knew that on his way home, he stopped on the motorway to pick up four United fans whose car had broken down. The twist was that he was a United fan as a youngster.
When Royle left the club in 1997, the chairman Peter Johnson was talking to press officer Alan Myers when he mentioned that Southall was one of two senior players being considered for the caretaker managers post until the end of the season. As their conversation concluded. Neville walked past and bellowed over, “Alright Alan, you fat c**t.” Johnson turned to Myers and said, “I think the shortlist is down to one”. An ill -chosen remark cost Big Nev the opportunity and Dave Watson was appointed instead.
Howard Kendall returned for a third time at the start of the 1997/98 season but after the first four games of the season, he chose Paul Gerrard to take Nevilles place. The Welshman appeared to be heading for the exit door, but a string of poor results led to his recall at Goodison against Liverpool, in a game they won 2-0.
Evertons form failed to improve and so, on 29 November 1997, in front of 36,670 fans, Southall made his last appearance before the Goodison faithful in a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham, with David Ginola being the last player to score against him in the Everton goal. Kendall brought in the unknown Norwegian keeper Thomas Myhre, who made his debut the following Saturday away at Leeds.
Kendall could be cold hearted and calculating when it came to moving players out of the club, regardless of their status. He called Big Nev into his office and terminated his 16 years of loyal service to the club. As the keeper recalled, “It wasnt personal, it was just how he dealt a knock-out blow to a players career. Id seen it with Rats, Sharpy and Sheeds. Now it was my turn.”
However, when Myhre made a catastrophic mistake in the final game of the season that almost cost Everton their Premier league status, most in the crowd were probably thinking, ‘Nev wouldnt have done that. It probably didnt help that Kendall was unaware that the Norwegian wore contact lenses when he signed him.
A month later, Southall was playing for Southend. The following season he appeared for Torquay and was voted their player of the year. At the age of 41, he played in the Premier League for one last time with Bradford City.
Southall acknowledges that at times he had too much to say. Of all the players from that outstanding Everton side of the mid-80s, he is still the most outspoken and critical about what he perceives as a lack of ambition from the hierarchy of the club. He has never been the type of person to tow the company line. He stands up for what he believes in and deserves respect for his impeccable integrity.
Southall is unquestionably one of the greatest goalkeepers that the game has ever produced – even if many outside of Everton dont know it. At his peak, he exuded skill and confidence and had few equals amongst his contemporaries. He exhibited a continual drive for self-improvement throughout his career and was the consummate professional and perfectionist.
At times he appeared unbeatable as he drove thwarted opposition forwards to distraction with a series of unbelievable saves. Even now, his modesty is overwhelming. Whilst keepers, full of their self-importance such as David Seaman bring out their biography and sign autographs with the title Safe Hands, Nevilles story is titled The Binman Chronicles, acknowledging his humble beginnings.
Since the early years of the 1960s, I have enjoyed the privilege and the pleasure of watching a pantheon of legendary keepers art Goodison Park, including Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin, Gordon West, Pat Jennings and Peter Schmeichel, but to my eyes, even in such elevated company, Neville Southall was the best. It was an honour to have witnessed such a goalkeeping deity in action.
This article was originally published at These Football Times and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
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