Football: Keeper of values slips on golden gloves: THE INTERVIEW NEVILLE SOUTHALL
The man safeguarding Torquay's FA Cup interests knows all about life at the top and bottom.
Sunday 21 November 1999
The players were being put through their training paces elsewhere, so the seagulls had the run of the place and the club shop cried out for custom. Glamorous it was not, yet it's to these far-flung parts that you go to make contact with one of football's true star names, a cup winner in both of the last two decades, a goalkeeping Footballer of the Year whose appearance record for his country is unlikely ever to be bettered. And as he thrusts out a huge paw for a handshake and exchanges pleasantries with what little staff Torquay need to man the bar on a slow Friday, it is clear Neville Southall feels very much at home in this environment.
Some will argue that to drop so far down, both geographically and in respect of footballing seniority is to apply a dull finish to a career that has always shone with the most potent lustre despite the occasional controversy. It is a concept with which Southall has not the slightest affinity. He began on the bottom rung with Winsford United on a princely part-time wage of pounds 14, moved on to Bury long before they discovered what it was like to be upwardly mobile and only takes offence with the view that he should be offended now that he has returned to the same run-down grounds and penny scrimping ways.
"People have got this idea that you have to play at a certain standard all your career. I started at the bottom and I'm finishing at the bottom. If you're lucky enough you'll always drive a Rolls Royce but some day you might have to go back to a Reliant Robin. I want to be a manager and nobody can accuse me of lacking experience, because I have played in all four divisions and for Doncaster in the Nationwide Conference as well. If someone gives me a manager's or coach's job in the Third Division then at least this way I will know what it takes to get a team out of the division and what it's like to operate on no money."
Initially he intended to stay only for two games while Torquay's regular keeper regained fitness but he enjoyed himself so much he decided to stay even though that entailed a weekly 500-mile round trip from his Chester home. "It's a smashing club and they work hard to give something back to the community. It's something the big clubs could do more of. On Saturdays we get groups of 50 school kids touring the ground, whereas a similar thing at Everton, say, would only pull in the adults because the sponsors would look after them. If you come down from the Premier League you might think the facilities here are shabby but you should see the look on the kids' faces when they step into our dressing-room. It's a magic place because it's their local team and they're at an age where we can make a difference as to how they think about the game."
Southall has never been one to underestimate the importance of the supporter and believes they should get a much better deal. He respects the game's traditions and worries about its future, which smacks hard against the reputation he earned, unfairly, at the start of his career as one of football's cerebrally challenged. Ludicrously, he still comes across the odd terrace comedian keen to remind him that he once emptied bins for a living but now it is water off a 41-year-old duck's back. "I worked on a rubbish cart, I was a hod carrier, I did a bit of demolition work and I don't understand why some see that as derogatory. I had to earn a living and I'm glad I went into the game the way I did. It's a great life being an apprentice these days, but you miss out on life or what life teaches you."
It's a far different world now to what it was 18 years ago when he joined Everton, where his courage, anticipation and command of his penalty area were vital to their championship success in 1985 and again two years later.
Of all the big games - and in 17 seasons at Goodison and with 93 caps for Wales there were a lot of those - he remembers the Cup Winners' Cup semi-final second leg with Bayern Munich most of all.
"We really needed the fans behind us that night, especially when we went behind at home having drawn over there, and they responded magnificently. It's very rare to have the people and the team as one as we were that night and it's why we pulled through."
A place in the European Cup was denied them the following season and again two years on because of Heysel. It remains a sore point with Evertonians, but Southall says: "It's not right to talk about what we missed out on when you consider the lives that were lost. If we lost anything it was our manager, because Howard Kendall decided he wanted more European competition and moved on."
Some of his team-mates also left but Southall stayed. It was, he insists, preordained that way. "I think I was always going to be an Everton player from the day I was born. There is a certain type of player who is an Everton player - Colin Harvey had it, as did Kendall and Alan Ball. They had skill but they could also graft and were proud to play for their club, whereas so many of today's players are here today and gone tomorrow.
"Some would still be world class if you paid them pounds 20 a week, but for others it's now all about how much they can earn. Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge them the big salaries, but how can you say that someone on pounds 30,000 a week does a better job than a nurse or a policeman who have to risk their lives for pounds 14,000 a year. I know a lot of players would settle for a more reasonable wage. Something needs to be done because otherwise clubs are going to go to the wall."
For the man from Llandudno it has always been about professional pride rather than material reward - "I only ever wanted to be the best I could possibly be" - and it is an ethos he tries to impart as the goalkeeping coach at Huddersfield and also with the Welsh Under-16s he now has under his wing. He desperately wanted to succeed Bobby Gould with the senior international team, but having stepped into the breach, with Mark Hughes assisting him for the Denmark game in June he found himself overlooked as the FAW decided Hughes was their man for the permanent post.
He thinks that opportunity may knock for him again and, having signalled his intention to hang up his gloves at the end of the season, he is actively looking for a managerial or coaching role. A host of applications have failed to produce one interview and the suspicion remains that people are wary of employing someone who has never been conventional. Having once forsaken the half-time team talk to go and sit by his goalposts he cannot really complain that some still consider him a touch wacky. "I had been crap in the first half and just needed to clear my head. It was just me being honest with myself but some can't handle that."
In a tiny Gloucestershire hamlet this lunchtime the Forest Green locals should go out and warm themselves on the sight of a 41-year-old still trying his hardest, still enjoying his role as the entertainer. He has more in common with them than they think.
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