When the topic of Everton’s finest ever players arises, Neville Southall’s name is always mentioned. Along with greats such as Dixie Dean, Kevin Ratcliffe, and Alan Ball, amongst others, Southall is ever-present; a player that not only had a major impact on the pitch, but also off it. Unafraid to speak his mind and stand up for what’s right, his footballing qualities can only be eclipsed by his raw, supportive nature that made him such an outspoken character.
Southall came into the Nineties on the back of a successful period with Everton. Having started his senior career with the lowly Bury, in the Fourth Division, the goalkeeper caught the eye of those at Goodison Park and moved to the Toffees in 1981. After spending a season away on loan, he returned and established himself as the first choice for Merseyside’s blue team as they would go on to two league titles, an FA Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup in the upcoming years. He also racked up several individual honours, including the FWA Footballer of the Year award in 1985 – remarkably, the last time a goalkeeper won the prestigious prize.
But by the turn of the decade, there were two key factors that meant that this success could not be replicated in the future. One was the mismanagement of the club, which meant that it was stuck heading in the wrong direction – something Southall was keenly disappointed about. Secondly, the sale of key players meant that the championship-winning teams were quickly disbanded.
While the Eighties were known for Southall’s heavy influence in the influx of silverware at Everton, the Nineties were more popular for the Welshman’s voice of cause. As the club failed to build on a glorious period, Southall would often criticize decisions and make sure his voice was heard. He felt that his loyalty and commitment to the club – a phase wherein he rejected some significant offers from other clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United – wasn’t in line with that of the club and was left disappointed by the club’s transfer activity in the early Nineties.
The decade started under the management of Colin Harvey, the club’s former midfielder and underfire boss who had constantly underperformed. He only lasted a couple of months into the new season and was sacked and replaced by the legendary Howard Kendall. One situation that Harvey did come under immense pressure for was the so-called “disappearance” of Southall before the second half of the first game of the 1990/91 season.
Coming up against newly-promoted Leeds United, they were 2-0 down at half-time when both sets of players went in for their team-talk. Without anyone noticing, Southall sneaked out of the changing room and left everyone bemused when he cut a lonely figure and sat next to the goalpost at Goodison Park. Harvey later claimed that he had only found out about the act during the post-match interviews, but there were several questions about this behaviour. Some thought of it as a sign of protest, while others believe Southall’s claims that he just “needed to clear his head.” Nevertheless, it was bizarre and hardly aided the discomfort the club were in.
Soon after the scenes against Leeds, Southall was fined two weeks wages and the Welshman responded by threatening to go on holiday over that period. Such was the incompetence of the Everton board that when Kendall, a man revered in this part of the world, came in, he knew he had a mammoth task on his hands.
Upon his return, Kendall failed to bring back the glory days, as the club stumbled to a ninth-placed finish in the league, punctuated by early cup exits. They reached the final of the despised Zenith Data Systems’ Cup but lost to Crystal Palace – a fact Southall showed and continues to show great apathy towards, going as far as rejecting the runner-up medal.
Mid-table finishes and early cup exits became frequent during that time; even the added funds made available to the club by the creation of the Premier League weren’t used wisely. Slowly, that mid-table obscurity turned into relegation battles, compounded by the departure of Kendall midway through the 1993/94 season.
He was replaced by Mike Walker, who faced similar issues and only just beat the drop on the final day of the season. In another act of defiance, in the final league match against Wimbledon, he showed his leadership qualities. Having drawn level after being two goals down, the Toffees earned a penalty to put themselves ahead in the game. With the rest of his teammates unwilling to take on the pressure, Southall himself came from his goal, took the ball and readied himself to take the spot-kick. That was until he was stopped by Graham Stuart, who conjured up the courage and scored a crucial goal.
The following year brought a little more joy back to the Everton faithful. Having started the season poorly, Walker was sacked and was replaced by Joe Royle, who had done well in his time. He tightened up the defence, which led to a run of seven consecutive games without conceding a goal early in his tenure, while in the FA Cup they conceded just one goal en route to the final against Manchester United. At Wembley, Southall was important once again, producing a magnificent double save from Paul Scholes as Everton clawed to a 1-0 victory, thus adding a second FA Cup winners’ medal and making him the most decorated player in the club’s history.
He added to that with a win against league champions Blackburn Rovers in the Community Shield a few months later, but that was to be his last trophy for the club. As he was approaching 40 years of age, there was talk that he would be playing on a more rotational basis or be sold, as the club’s transfer activity suggested they were interested in replacing him. He stayed, but his and the club’s form was often scrutinized.
In 1997, with Everton struggling, Royle was sacked and the club’s chairman, Peter Johnson wanted to appoint a caretaker manager. He suggested one or two senior players were up for consideration, with Southall being one of them. However, a poor choice of words where he abused the club’s press officer led to Southall’s chance being cut and he would continue solely as a player.
The next season, Howard Kendall returned, but Southall was now going to be a bit-part player and, in November 1997, he made his final appearance for the club in a 2-0 home loss to Tottenham Hotspur. His career didn’t end there, though. After departing from Everton, Southall spent the next few years touring several clubs in short spells. The likes of Doncaster Rovers, Torquay United and Bradford City would all employ the big Welshman, albeit in a secondary role that would hardly see him get much time on the pitch.
His direct style has also been reflected off the pitch. Since his playing days and even until today, Southall uses platforms to speak on issues that need more discussion. Whether it’s on politics or the importance of talking about mental health issues, Southall is keen to provide support and help those in need. He uses his status as a professional footballer and inspiration well – as a professional should do – setting an example and only enhancing his legendary reputation.
Over time, his legacy as one of the club’s greats was cemented. Southall failed to win as much as he did in the 80s, but his influence was felt greatly in the 90s through his love and commitment for the club. His leadership and straightforward nature made him one of the most respected footballers to protect the Everton nets and is often regarded as one of the all-time greats.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26