'I played the game Saturday...48 hours later I was told I had cancer'
Blackpool's longest-serving player, Keith Southern, returns to his old club Everton today to do battle in the FA Cup. But win, lose or draw, he is winning his biggest fight. He talks to Simon Hart
Saturday 18 February 2012
The last time Keith Southern stepped out in a Blackpool shirt, he ended the afternoon with eight stitches inserted into what Ian Holloway, his manager, described as "a great big hole" in his right leg.
That happened last month, in the FA Cup fourth round against Sheffield Wednesday, and only this week – with today's fifth-round tie at his old club Everton looming – has Southern been able to return to training. The details of the gash and gushing blood are grisly but there is more than a brave face behind the midfielder's assertion that it was "quite minor in the grand scheme of things".
This, after all, is somebody who discovered he had a cancerous tumour in a testicle three months ago. Thirty may be an age when a footballer becomes acquainted with the ticking clock, but Southern, who passed that milestone last April, did not anticipate a brush with mortality. Little wonder the date of his diagnosis is lodged in his mind.
"It was 21 November. I played on the Saturday at Middlesbrough and we drew 2-2 and then I went to see the doctor on the Monday and he referred me for an ultrasound scan later that afternoon. I was feeling some swelling, some tenderness – I didn't have a lump ,technically. But the radiologist scanned me and said, 'You've got a tumour, 99 per cent cancerous, it's got to come out'.
"Within 48 hours of playing and being fit as a fiddle, I was told that. I was taken aback. I am only 30 and you think you're young, fit, healthy. I had the operation on 30 November and they removed the tumour and that was me housebound for about a month, really.
"The mental side has been the worst because physically I have felt no different," he adds. "I haven't felt at all sick. I spoke to the gaffer about it just after Christmas and he gave me and my family some time away. We went to Dubai. It has been tough but, hopefully, I am coming out of the other side now, I just have to have regular check-ups and scans over the next few years."
For Southern, the discovery of his problem coincided with Movember – the moustache-growing campaign to raise male cancer awareness – yet he admits it was prodding from his wife, Shellmar, that led him to visit the doctor. "Men tend to bury their head in the sand about things and put things off but if you feel anything, it is best to get it checked out just to rule things out."
To mark his return to action against Wednesday on 28 January, Holloway named Southern as captain and as he led the team out, Shellmar welled up with tears. There may be another sentimental return this afternoon on Merseyside, the Geordie's home for the first five years of his career and where he met Shellmar and acquired an "Everton-daft" father-in-law. "Hopefully, I will be in the squad, it would be nice," he says, with his warm, North-east lilt.
Southern had cause to reflect on his days in the same youthful crop as Tony Hibbert and Leon Osman, who remains a good friend, when driving past Everton's old Bellefield training ground this week, and seeing the housing estate now in its place. "It was surreal. Bellefield had a mystique about it. Everton is a homely club and not only do you get a real opportunity of getting in their first team, but if you're not quite good enough and don't make it they give you a really good schooling to make your name in the Football League."
Southern is appreciative of the education he received from Colin Harvey and Andy Holden and still returns "three or four times" a season. But when David Moyes told him of the then Blackpool manager Steve McMahon's interest in taking him to Bloomfield Road on loan in summer 2002, he jumped at the chance, despite the drop of two divisions. "I'd captained the reserves at Everton to the title but I was at the stage where I needed to play – I was 21 and had just come back from a cruciate knee ligament injury. Sometimes with young boys leaving Premier League clubs, they've had things easy all their lives, they've been pampered, it's a massive culture shock, but I just wanted to get out and play. I wanted to prove myself."
He has certainly done that. After 16 loan outings, the move became permanent and here he is 10 years later as Blackpool's longest-serving player, with 365 appearances. "I've had some really good times – a couple of promotions, played at Wembley twice," he says. And though he describes his role as "the donkey work", he was man of the match in the 2010 play-off final win over Cardiff.
Southern is speaking at Blackpool's training ground, which with its cabins and corrugated iron roof looks like it might have been assembled from holiday camp cast-offs. "What you see is what you get," he says with a smile, looking out across training pitches flanked by Blackpool airport on one side and sand dunes on the other.
It is easy to imagine this environment helped foster the "siege mentality" that Southern says served Blackpool so well in the Premier League last year; above all, though, it is a happy place. "I don't think the club has moved forward too much in terms of facilities – we have the same amount of staff we had 10 years ago, the pitches are the same quality – but what has moved forward is the quality of player, the quality of manager.
"I'm not being critical, but look at Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town – big stadiums, massive followings, great facilities but languishing near the bottom of the Championship. A football club is all about players and the result on a Saturday. We may not have the best facilities but we more than make up for it with team spirit, work rate and sheer quality on the pitch, and we fancy our chances this season."
Despite the summer sales of Charlie Adam, D J Campbell and David Vaughan, Blackpool are on an 11-match unbeaten run in 2012, which has put them "right in the mix" in fourth, just five points behind West Ham, who visit the Fylde Coast on Tuesday.
"It would be fantastic if we could get back up and have another stab at it," he says. "There is a vibe about the place. OK, we lost our three big hitters but the manager has bought astutely." He cites winger Matt Phillips, signed from Wycombe in 2010, who "has grown into a man. He has been on fire, he is going to be a star one day". He adds: "[The manager] has also signed experienced players like Kevin Phillips – one of the best goalscorers in the English game – and Barry Ferguson, great pros who know their way round this level, coupled with exciting prospects like Thomas Ince and John Fleck."
Above all, there is Holloway himself. "Everyone has a perception of the gaffer that he's mad and an entertainer, but deep down he's a real football person. He's passionate about what he does, he's highly intelligent and he knows everything he needs to know about football. He's a student of the game, he studies teams, tactics, formations and he never sends out a Blackpool team that is not 100 per cent fully prepared."
The team Holloway sends out today may be selected with West Ham in mind. With promotion the priority, he made seven changes for the fourth-round replay at Hillsborough, yet a run of nine goals in three away games gives hope of an upset whatever the line-up. "We are full of confidence and, hopefully, we can shock one or two people."
A late substitute in the 5-3 loss at Goodison last February, Southern is philosophical about his own involvement. "What will be, will be," he says, though this is less an invocation of the old Cup anthem than the reflection of a man who has learnt not to take anything for granted.
My Other Life
I love boxing and have the BoxNation channel at home. I also watch the UFC, which is Mixed Martial Arts. One of my heroes is Mike Tyson and I got to meet him after he did an after-dinner speaking night in Blackpool. There were a lot of old fighters there – Tony Tucker, Brian London, Tim Witherspoon – but Tyson was the main act. He said: "Are you a soccer player?" I said: "Aye, I play for the local team, Blackpool." He asked me what position I play and signed a couple of my Boxing Monthly magazines from the Eighties. That was brilliant.
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