Everton FC Classics is finally back up and running after a unintentional hiatus (all my fault I admit) but what a way to announce a return then a look back at one of the – if not the – greatest Everton goalkeeper of all time. Mr Neville Southall.
I remember one my friends scoffing when I said that for a spell in the late 80s and early 90s Neville Southall was the best goalkeeper in the world. He thought it was a case of me once again refusing to remove those royal blue spectacles.
And while I admit my judgement is clouded by my love for Everton at times, I was not going to let this one go. Even though I was restricted to watching the relative twilight of his illustrious career there is no doubt in my – and most Evertonians minds – that he was the greatest. And a few clips of pundits, commentators and players alike saying the same thing finally made my mate come round.
His fairly low key arrival at the club, costing just £150,000 from Bury in 1981, gave no hint as to the glory that would come.
Everton had just emerged from a decade that had promised much but delivered little and then manager Howard Kendall was under pressure to restore Everton to where the fans thought they belonged.
Southall meanwhile had progressed from south Wales bin man to the Cheshire League with Winsford United, the football league with Bury and then to the top flight with the Toffees within three years. Something you rarely see nowadays thanks to Academies recruiting players when they are barely out of nappies.
The club would mirror his remarkable rise in the intervening seasons. After returning from a loan spell at Port Vale in 1983 Southall would become the club’s number one for the next 14 years, with the side rising to the very top and crashing back down again.
He was part of the side that won the FA Cup in 1984 before lifting the league and the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year. In 1985 he also joined the small group of goalkeepers to have won the English Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award. He also lifted the league title again in 1987, the last championship Everton won.
Southall was not the tallest goalkeeper you will ever see, and in his later career his, er, portly nature brought plenty of criticism. But ‘big Nev’ more than made up for that with sharp reflexes and a turn of pace that allowed him to dominate a crowded penalty area. He was also unorthodox in that he would not be afraid of saving the ball with his feet rather than his hands – perhaps stemming as his career as a centre back in amateur football. You would often see him diving at the feet of opposing strikers feet first, with his argument being as long as it was effective it didn’t matter – an unconventional style we don’t see as much nowadays given modern players are rigidly trained in Academies from a young age.
As the 80s turned into the 90s the fortunes of the Toffees declined, despite Southall remaining the mainstay in goal. He also become infamous for a half-time protest on the opening day of the season in 1991. With the club 3-0 at half-time to Leeds and Southall, unhappy with the club’s decline and allegedly seeking a transfer, sat by the goalposts in a sulk for the entire half-time break. It sort of worked, Everton pulled two goals back but still lost 3-2.
Thankfully for Everton he didn’t leave, though questions were raised as to his capabilities following a disastrous start to the 1994-95 season. With the club rock bottom of the league journalists across the land were having their say on what was going wrong. Southall, at 36, was targeted, not helped by the fact manager Mike Walker appeared quite happy to blame everyone else bar himself for the club’s decline.
Thankfully, Southall’s career was revived thanks to the arrival of Joe Royle, who breathed new life into the football club, culminating in the 1995 FA Cup final win over Manchester United, after which Southall was named man-of-the-match.
But in a move typical of a man who was unconventional both on and off the pitch Southall chose to shun the post-match celebrations, choosing instead to drive home to Wales and be with his wife.
It is a shame then that after a record 750 senior appearances for the club as well as 91 caps for Wales that his career at Goodison would end so abruptly.
With the club falling to the bottom of the league following a home defeat to Spurs in November 1998 Howard Kendall – the man who signed him back in 1981 – effectively ended his Toffees career by buying Norwegian goalkeeper Thomas Myhre. With Southall determined to keep on playing he rejected the offer of a coaching position and went on to Southend United on-loan before ending the season with Stoke, who were relegated to the Nationwide Division Three (League One) on the final day of the campaign.
He was given the chance to parade the Goodison Park pitch to say goodbye on the final day of the season. But with the supporters more worried about the very real prospect of relegation, it wasn’t really the send off he deserved.
There is no doubting, however, his place in Everton folklore and every goalkeeper since has been standing in his shadow.
Myhre, Paul Gerrard, Steve Simonsen and Richard Wright have all tried and failed to live up to the big man’s reputation, with the all too short Everton career of Nigel Martyn perhaps the first time a man with the gloves has been worthy of succeeding the Welshman. (The likes of Ian Turner and John Ruddy made fleeting appearances and therefore do not count!)
Tim Howard is the current custodian and arguably the best, or at least the most consistent goalkeeper we have had since Southall. The American will righty be remembered as one of our most reliable ‘keepers.
But, as I alluded to at the start of my piece, Southall set the bar incredibly high. Because for a long time he was the greatest there was and rightly sits alongside the best British goalkeepers of all time.