The meteoric rise of Neville Southall

As the game approached injury time Manchester United’s Denis Irwin launched the ball into the Everton box in search of an equaliser. With The Toffees clinging onto a 1-0 lead, with the trophy in touching distance, goalkeeper Neville Southall nonchalantly caught the ball one-handed as a cheer went up from the fans decked out in blue behind his goal. A few seconds later the final whistle was blown, and Everton had won the 1995 FA Cup.

At the age of 35, Southall and his teammates had defied the odds, repelling a second-half onslaught from Alex Ferguson’s men with The Blues keeper putting in a man of the match display. As the post-match celebrations started at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, Southall was already on the motorway head home surrounded by jubilant Evertonians.

Growing up in the quiet seaside town of Llandudno, North Wales, Southall spent his youth like many other boys playing football day and night. Shoved in goal by his eldest brother, the Welshman became obsessed with the game, counting down the hours in school before the ball could come out in the back alleys near his family home.

Southall’s uncle managed a team called Llandudno Swifts which is where he began playing in men’s leagues at the age of 12. Despite being small in stature, the North Walian more than held his own and thrived on the experience this gave him.

After spells keeping goal for Bangor City and Conwy United, Southall impressed on trial at Winsford United which earned him a move to play at a higher standard of competition in the Cheshire League. Scouts started to take notice after a successful season where the young keeper’s performances belied his age but, typically, the shy and unassuming shot-stopper took the praise with a pinch of salt. One of Southall’s key attributes throughout his career was an inner-drive to succeed and be the best, which was evident from this period spending cold dark evenings on Llandudno beach doing extra training alone after working a full day on building sites as a hod-carrier.

The hard work paid dividends as Southall signed for Bury, who were in the fourth tier of English football at the time. In his one season at Gigg Lane Southall won the Player and Young Player of the Season awards. Local newspapers reported that the keeper’s performances had alerted Howard Kendall at Everton who was looking to overhaul his squad after a disappointing season. After some wrangling, due to a sell-on clause Bury owed to Winsford United, Southall eventually put pen to paper moving to Goodison Park for a fee of £150,000.

Southall and Jim Arnold contested the number one jersey, with the latter starting the 1981/82 season as first choice. An injury to Arnold before a home game against Ipswich Town gave the former Shakers man his opportunity as he made his First Division debut. The culmination of the season saw Southall also earn the first of his record 92 Wales caps, making his debut in a 3-0 win against Northern Ireland in the British Home Championship tournament.

In 18 months Southall had gone from playing semi-professional football and working full time on building sites to being between the posts for Everton and Wales. Despite his meteoric rise, the affable Welshman took it all in his stride. He had proved to himself that he could handle the pressure but took nothing for granted.

The following season, as Kendall’s first choice goalkeeper, Southall suffered his first real career setback after a 5-0 mauling at home to Liverpool; he was dropped and loaned out to Port Vale, leaving Arnold to regain his place. However, Southall came back a refreshed player after a successful loan spell and finished the 1982/83 campaign back as The Toffees number one.

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Southall won his first major silverware as Everton made two trips to Wembley the year after, as two domestic cup runs galvanised the Blues and turned their fortunes around. Defeated by Liverpool in the Milk Cup Final Replay, the Welshman finally got his hands on a winner’s medal after Everton beat Watford 2-0 to lift the FA Cup under the shadows of the twin towers.

The momentum and optimism from their first trophy for a generation carried over into the following season as Kendall’s men were crowned league champions for the first time since 1970. There are pivotal moments in a title-winning season that players and fans alike recount years after the final whistle has blown. In the title run-in of the 1984/85 season, Everton travelled to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur at the beginning of April. The Blues topped the table by three points with a game in hand over second-placed Spurs who had to take something from the clash to keep their title aspirations alive.

As the clock ticked into its final minute Glenn Hoddle delivered a cross that was met by the head of Mark Falco six yards out. As the Spurs fans screamed “goal” Southall twisted in the night sky to acrobatically tip the header over the crossbar from point-blank range, a save which even drew applause from Ray Clemence in the opposition goal.

When asked in an interview about Southall’s role in the club’s championship-winning season of 1985, Everton’s captain Kevin Ratcliffe said, “When you’ve got a keeper like that in your team you can gain an extra fourteen points”. Bearing in mind that The Toffees won the title by 13 points, you can see how highly Southall’s teammates rated him, the difference between Everton finishing first and second.

In his and the Goodison Park outfit’s most successful ever season, Southall also lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup but cruelly missed out on a historic treble as Manchester United’s Norman Whiteside scored an extra time FA Cup Final winner to defeat The Toffees. Southall’s sublime season was rewarded with the accolade of being voted The Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year becoming only the fourth goalkeeper to win the award, following in the footsteps of Bert Trautmann, Gordon Banks and Pat Jennings.

Two years later Everton beat Merseyside rivals Liverpool to claim their 9th First Division trophy but, after the Heysel disaster, UEFA imposed a ban on English clubs playing in Europe. With the prospect of no European football for the foreseeable future, Howard Kendall finally left Everton for Athletic Bilbao and the title-winning side gradually eroded.

Poor recruitment and mismanagement at board level meant the fortunes of the club swiftly declined over the next few years. However, Southall’s heroic performances were maintained throughout a dark period in the club’s history. For many Evertonians, he was worth the price of a match ticket alone. The late 80’s and early 90’s saw the Welshman at his peak and was genuinely considered world class by his peers.

Southall finally left Goodison Park in 1998 as the most decorated player in the club’s history, making a club record 578 league appearances in 17 years. He carried on playing and coaching at several lower league clubs before deciding to hang up his gloves. After a brief and unsuccessful spell in management, Southall left the game to pursue various initiatives, coaching and mentoring children who have dropped out of mainstream education.

At international level for his beloved Wales, Southall got so close to qualifying for several major tournaments, but The Dragons came up short each time. The world deserved to see Southall on a stage befitting his quality as one of the finest goalkeepers of his generation.

By Lee Wynne

Part of our Number Ones series

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