Working-class outpost is fine for Southall

Former Everton keeper tells Jason Burt why he prefers life in the lower leagues to the 'saturated, boring' Premiership
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The back page announced "Wales and Everton legend Neville Southall MBE is the new manager of Hastings United," in the Hastings and St Leonard's Observer last Friday. Although the mention of the MBE is superfluous, it is important. For among Southall's services to football is an uncommon honesty.

The back page announced "Wales and Everton legend Neville Southall MBE is the new manager of Hastings United," in the Hastings and St Leonard's Observer last Friday. Although the mention of the MBE is superfluous, it is important. For among Southall's services to football is an uncommon honesty.

As the 46-year-old sits close by the changing-rooms of the non-League club - buried mid-table in the Ryman First Division - that he has just taken charge of, his desire to be honest runs through the conversation. Indeed, Southall's speech is punctuated by statements such as "I don't want to upset or annoy too many people but I just want to do it the way I want to do it". And that has always been his way.

Southall readily admits it is why he fell out with the Football Association of Wales - where he had been coaching until recently for five "frustrating" years - and why he is probably not working further up the leagues right now. "I don't play the political games," Southall states before taking his first training session at Hastings. "And football is a real closed shop, full of fear."

Not that he is afraid. Take his trenchant view on today's goalkeepers. "I look at them and know that I can change them, make them better. Because they don't think," says the man accepted - along with Peter Shilton - as the finest in the position that the British Isles has ever produced.

He laughs at the argument that the new, lighter balls are to blame for an increase in errors. "The new ball?" Southall says. "Do they only bring it out on a Saturday, then? What do they do the rest of the week? Do they have one of those old Mitre balls?

"Look, the balls are better. The only thing to worry about is the ball that is straight at you because you have to decide what to do with it. If it's bent the bend is usually true. Straight at you and it can move. But it's easier - you can clear it miles and the flight is truer.

"The difference is now that they [goalkeepers] just don't think. For example, they all boot it the same way. I watched Aston Villa the other night with [Darius] Vassell and [Juan Pablo] Angel against Everton and the goalkeeper was kicking it as far as he could and I was thinking, 'Alan Stubbs, 6ft whatever, and David Weir, the same. Umm - why are you doing that?' The only one who can pass it is [Edwin] van der Sar but he was brought up that way."

It is the same, he says, with crosses - "everyone's the same height so it comes in the same: before there were different challenges" - penalties, and one-on-ones. "Why do so many goalkeepers go to ground so easily?" Southall asks. "Because they are afraid not to." It takes bravery, he argues, to stand up and make the striker decide.

Not that he is enamoured by the forwards, either. "People look at [Thierry] Henry, [Wayne] Rooney and who else?" Southall says. "Van Nistelrooy? He's just power. He doesn't have a variation of finish, a special finish like Ian Wright did. So that's why everyone loved Joe Cole when he was at West Ham because he did something different. Whether [Jermain] Defoe will fall into that category, I don't know.

"Now teams play with just two quick players up front, two athletes, so where's the variation? They cancel each other out. I don't think Nigel Clough would have survived in the Premier League at the moment. Would John Robertson even play? I don't think so. There aren't the combinations such as [Ian] Rush and [Kenny] Dalglish, and we'll never see the likes of Duncan Ferguson again. Why? Because he's a big, strong, physical forward and that's not allowed any more."

It is why he is driven to say that, "I wouldn't like to be playing now because the players aren't as good". But what about the money? After all, his glory days at Goodison Park, with two League championships, two FA Cups, a European Cup-Winners' Cup and a record 92 caps, were largely before the Premiership millions? "Yes, but the enjoyment I would get would be less," Southall says. "It's not the same. The money isn't going to make me happy is it? You want to pit yourself against the best and, as a goalkeeper, I look at the Premier League and the variation in teams is nowhere near what it was before. Where is the Wimbledon nowadays? The Watford? There are none of those kind of teams.

"I really don't think it's a contact sport any more. There seems to be a lack of players who can take physical contact and give physical contact. Every time they get touched they fall over. What's all that about? I couldn't accept that. It would drive me crackers.

"What the biggest cheer you get in the ground? It's with a good tackle. It's quite primal really. People want to see it. Look at Robbie Savage. I like Sav, but 10 years ago he would be a journeyman who would struggle to be in the Premier League and now Blackburn are bidding £2.5m and that's been dismissed. He's a character. Just because he can tackle. The players are quick and they do have a good touch - but it's allowed. You are looking at an athletic game but a non-contact game. When I went to Bolton v Man City I'd never seen anything like it. It was grim."

He draws a sharp comparison. "I like watching the Championship down," Southall says. "I think the Premier League is boring. It's saturated. On Boxing Day do you really want to watch three Premiership games?"

There is something else. "I think that this," he says of his modest surroundings at Hastings' Pilot Field ground, "is the last outpost of working-class football. The Conference down to us. It's where the working class can come and see people really, really trying. Saturday afternoon is here. We haven't got the best team, the best crowd. But we're guaranteed to give everything we've got.

"The higher you go the more detached you become, the more you deal with people's egos. If you give the players more and more money they live in better houses, take better holidays and get further and further away from the people, the supporters."

It is his ethos. No one, Southall says, should be surprised to seem him working in non-League football not least because, he believes, his brand of honesty would not be allowed in the Premiership. He has 12 years of coaching experience and has managed here before - at Dover Athletic - and, it is, he states, "where I came from".

Southall's career started at Winsford Town before he arrived, via Bury, at Everton in 1981. He stayed until 1998, playing 750 games. The Merseyside club remains close to his heart and Southall is delighted at the team created by David Moyes. "No stars - just a good scouse team."

It was at Everton that, he says, he was encouraged to speak his mind. He did not need a second invitation. "I think it was Howard Kendall's fault," Southall says, by way of explaining the way he is. "Once I got into the team he would say, 'I think you should have done that' and I would say, 'No, that's rubbish'."

What impressed him most, he says, was his former manager's ability also to admit if he was at fault. "I just thought, 'If he can do that, then why can't everyone?'," Southall says. "The people I got on best with were the people who challenged me. Like Howard Kendall. The days he didn't say a word to me I was eight-foot tall because I had shut him up. But I trusted him and he trusted us That's what it's all about."

It is what he will communicate to the East Sussex part-timers. "You've nothing to hide here, have you?" Southall says. "You don't have to keep everyone happy and they might not like you but they can respect your ideas. If everyone is honest and you have an honest team then you will be half-decent."

Coaching has come naturally - "I'm a busybody and I always liked organising players" - but Southall has also drawn from his other job, teaching sport to disruptive children for Kent County Council. "I'm going to try and get inside their heads," he says of the players and it is what he also does with the kids.

Southall sees no difference between the Premier League and Hastings. "You might not be as good but you can work as hard," Southall says. "You just try to instil that team ethic. If you can't go the extra yard for the club, then what are you doing here? Once you start taking the money, whether it is £30 or whatever, you've made a commitment. All teams reflect their manager and this team will reflect me. So the one thing they will have to do is work hard or they will have to go."

Hastings, that most working-class of towns, may well be - in relative terms - a sleeping giant. The chairman, David Walters, and his new manager, both certainly think so. "It's going the right way," Southall says. "There are 90,000 people in the town and not enough of them are coming here because we're not successful enough - yet. Myself and the chairman will have to drive the club forward and some people don't like change. But that's tough."

His first game is on Monday, away to Ashford Town, who are managed by the former England international Terry Fenwick. Then it is Dorking, at home, on New Year's Day. "I could come here and make all sorts of promises but I'm not doing that," Southall says. "What I will do is do it my way." It was ever thus.

SAVING GRACE SOUTHALL'S VIEW OF THE CURRENT KEEPER CROP

DAVID JAMES

A fantastic athlete, but why does he lose concentration? Why don't they focus more on his mental ability? Why is he training his body? That's magnificent anyway. What he should be doing is training his mind more.

NIGEL MARTYN

He is what, 38? He doesn't make mistakes. He does all the right things, keeps it simple and doesn't mess up. He's a character as well. But even he can be improved and he's probably more receptive now than ever before.

PETR CECH

He is good. He's young but he does what he has to do and he's not over-fussy. He doesn't catch an awful lot, to be fair, but that's his way. He has been helped by the fact that Chelsea are defending so well.

PAUL ROBINSON

He does OK but he can still improve. He's going to have a period in the England side when he doesn't do so well. There will be a time when he gets nailed for his mistakes and people won't be saying "he's only young" then, will they?

ROBERT GREEN

I've not seen him enough and I'd like to see him playing for a good side where he has to make a lot fewer decisions. At times, it can be easier to impress as a goalkeeper when you are busier.

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