Football: Southall's passion to be No 1 still burning bright

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One of the enduring pleasures of watching Everton or Wales over the last 15 years has been the certainty that, at some stage, there will be a superlative save from Neville Southall. The title of his first book, `In Search of Perfection', summed up the goalkeeper's credo and, as Glenn Moore, our Football Correspondent, discovered, age has not dimmed his desire.

Neville Southall sat down, slightly nervously, and awaited the opening question. It was his first job interview for more than 15 years, the last had been for a hod-carrier, this was to manage the Welsh national team.

"So," asked a member of the interviewing panel, "what have you done in football?" Southall, then the possessor of 81 Welsh international caps, two championship medals, two FA Cup medals, a European medal and a Player of the Year trophy, blinked in disbelief.

Southall did not get the job nor, despite a number of applications, has he been granted another management interview. Chairmen, it seems, remain suspicious of goalkeeper-managers, especially outspoken ones like Southall.

But more of this later, the flip side, for Everton supporters at least, is that his lack of success in the job market means Southall continues to fill Everton's goal. He may be less dominating on crosses than of old but, as he showed against Coventry less than a month ago, he remains a formidable presence and agile shot-stopper. That game finished 0-0 and Match of the Day made Southall and his opposing number Steve Ogrizovic - at 40 a year older than Southall - their "men of the day". Did that make him proud?

"No," he said, "it annoys you. They are not looking at what you can do, they are looking at your age first, then what you can do. It's like saying `look, he's not senile, he can cross the road on his own'. I don't feel any different, it's other people's perception of you - that because you're 39 you should be in a home drinking tea through a straw. One bad game is proof `you've had it'."

We are talking in a Liverpool hotel where Southall is promoting his latest book, a diary of last season*. It is one of those books where the plot has run away from its author. A bright start - a year ago this weekend Everton won at Leicester to go sixth, ahead of Manchester United - turns sour. Everton get drawn into a relegation battle and Southall is dropped, twice, by Joe Royle.

"I didn't expect to get dropped, ever," he said. "If it happens it hurts, you are disappointed and you never think the manager is right."

A change of manager has not brought a change of fortune. Howard Kendall, the man who signed Southall for Everton from Bury in 1981, has also dropped him. Southall fought his way back again and, today, will play his 748th match for Everton at Aston Villa. But, with Kendall actively seeking another goalkeeper (he is currently negotiating for a Norwegian) his days must be numbered. "If the manager does not like [the way I'm playing] he'll get rid of me and I'll go somewhere else where they do," adds Southall matter-of-factly.

He nearly went to Wolves at the beginning of last season, but Everton matched their offer and, despite a feeling that Royle wanted him out, Southall stayed. Later, after he had been dropped, he would have gone to Chelsea, but this time Royle would not release him. With his contract up in the summer any reasonable player-manager's job will now tempt him away but, given Southall's status, and Everton's failure to build on the 1985-87 triumphs, it is surprising he has stayed so long.

"I don't regret not leaving as Everton is my club," he said. "Everton is one of the best things that ever happened to me and I want to repay them for what they've done for me. They've given me great times, I've no regrets at all.

"I can't see players staying 16 years at one club now, not with the amount of cash flying around and the Bosman ruling. Loyalty has gone out of the window. Managers move on so quick it is hardly conducive to keeping players happy. Sometimes you get pushed on even if you want to stay. Once you get to 28 you're on your way out.

"I'd go tomorrow if an offer came in and the club let me. You've got to remember that I have to the end of the season, that's it, that's my future. I'm not stupid, if something comes along I've got to consider it.

"People get the wrong impression, that you want to leave, but realistically I've got to when the right opportunity comes, if it comes. Otherwise I'll be one of those people out of work at the end of the season.

"There's nothing wrong with that, it happens to everybody at some stage unless you are very lucky. When I was at Bangor I was drawing the dole, pounds 5 a week. I'm now wealthy enough not to work, but I'm ambitious. I want control, I want to do things my own way which is probably more European than British.

"But it's very difficult to get on that merry-go-round. People say you need experience, but experience of what? I'd rather be experienced as a winner than a loser. I can't see the point of employing someone who was a loser at his last place.

"It's fantastic. It must be the only sport in the world where, if you flop, you can get another job next week. People have made a career out of being failures. They are millionaires.

"In business if you are a crap chairman and get sacked you would be struggling to get another job. In football you want to sign as long a deal as you can, flop in six months, then get another job. Clubs seem to want someone who'll `do a job', they'll be mid-table but they won't go down."

Some people, notably Bryan Robson and Kevin Keegan, have broken into the cartel but, adds Southall, "it helps if you have a load of international caps - not Wales ones, they don't seem to count."

It is not as if Southall has only applied to the big ones, the Sheffield Wednesday's, the Tottenhams, he has applied to Grimsby and Scunthorpe.

In the meantime he is trying to turn Everton's season around starting with a clean sheet at Villa Park today as they chase their first away win in more than 11 months.

"We won't get relegated, we are a good side. We have played some smashing football at times. Maybe we are missing some experience in midfield to steady us - look at Southampton since Carlton Palmer and Kevin Richardson came in. We also need a steady goalscorer. Sometimes you need a short- term buy. Peter Reid was written off when he came here, he changed Everton. It was the same with Andy Gray.

"We have some great kids, it is a case of buying time for them to come through. We could have as many as Manchester United. But Everton fans hate the word `patience' because that is what they are always being asked to do."

Part of this is because the chairman, Peter Johnson, promised to lavish millions on major new signings but, apart from Slaven Bilic, he has not done so for a year.

"If you make promises and don't deliver you are bound to get stick, but things change overnight," said Southall. "He's an easy target and has taken an awful lot of flak. He spent pounds 40m and, though he can get that back tomorrow, whenever I've spoken to him, face to face, he's seemed as ambitious as the players, with the club at heart.

"He needs to be honest with people, if there is no money say there is no money. It will help the players as the fans will get behind those we've got."

With 92 Welsh caps and 891 full appearances behind him Southall is closing on two major milestones. Will he make them? "I'd like to play as long as I can - though probably not as long as John Burridge. I need another two or three seasons to get to the 1,000 games." And Wales? "I don't want to start coming on for the last 10 minutes. I want to play on merit, or not at all. Coming on for the last five minutes is like stealing a cap."

A singular man to the last, he should not be lost to the game.

*Everton Blues: A Premier League Diary by Neville Southall with Ric George (B&W Publishing, pounds 6.99).