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Wales' Greatest Players: Neville Southall

‘Will you go to the team banquet this evening? Will you join in the celebrations?’ asked BBC’s Ray Stubbs to Neville Southall, after Everton’s 1995 FA cup final win over Manchester United.

‘No. I’ll go home.’ was his reply.

The Wales number 1 was in superb form, preventing a united equaliser after Paul Rideout’s 30th minute header. Two near post saves from Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were eclipsed by his denial of Gary Pallister’s effort. The centre-back’s glancing header was bound for the bottom corner, when Southall leapt downwards towards his far post and caught it.

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This was one of his most memorable performances in an Everton jersey, but he was quick to brush off any post-match praise, telling Stubbs that it was a team effort and that football is, after all, ‘…a squad game’. The exchange perfectly summarised Neville Southall as a footballer – modest yet assured, shy yet effortlessly cool.

It is the anarchic yet steadfast devotion to football and his teammates that makes Southall stand out as the king of Welsh stoppers. Jack Kelsey, Danny Ward and Wayne Hennessey have represented Wales at major tournaments, something he never achieved. But he makes up for this with longevity and tenacity, ever-present in the Wales goal for each agonisingly close or disastrous qualifying campaign. His 92 caps were only recently topped by Chris Gunter, and he was his country’s first choice for 15 years. He rarely made himself unavailable and would play most friendlies between qualifiers. In 17 years with Everton, he made 750 appearances.

He was also pretty good. He once went 385 minutes without conceding an international goal. He lost more games than he won with Wales but kept an impressive 34 clean sheets in those 92 attempts. A determined professional, he reportedly read books on boxing to improve his stance and balance. It is said he even wore cheap football boots on rainy days, as the poor stitching would allow more water to leak out and improve his goal-kicks.
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Neville Southall was born in Llandudno In 1958. He entered the professional game late, having failed to impress at Crewe and Wrexham. Things began to change at 22, when he was eventually taken on by Bury, then of division four. He kept 15 clean-sheets towards the end of the campaign and was named the club’s player of the season, as well as young player of the year.

Southall soon attracted attention from higher up the pyramid and signed for Howard Kendall’s Everton for £150,000. Following a loan spell to Port Vale, he eventually replaced Jim Arnold as the first choice keeper. Some of Everton’s most successful years soon followed. He won his first FA cup medal in 1984 but was rarely called into action in a 2-0 defeat of Watford. Although Everton lost the 1985 final to United, they won the league by an impressive 13 points ahead of Merseyside rivals Liverpool. ‘When you've got a keeper like that in your team,’ said Everton captain and compatriot Kevin Ratcliffe at the end of the campaign, ‘you can gain an extra 14 points’.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Southall eventually replaced Dai Davies as Wales’ first choice goalie. His time in the jersey went alongside the near misses associated with the international team. He played at Ninian park in 1985 when Wales, needing a win to qualify for Mexico 1986, drew against Scotland in a game overshadowed by the sad death of their manager Jock Stein. With Wales in the driving seat at the top of their 1988 European Championship qualification group, Southall was absent for the final two games, which Wales lost to Denmark and Czechoslovakia.

Wales’ final qualification game for the 1994 World Cup in America was against Romania, needing a win to clinch second place and a spot at the finals. In his own inimitable style Southall caused panic before the game, managing to lock himself out of his car near the team hotel after the rest of the squad had already set off for Cardiff Arms Park. A blue-lit police car was needed to speed him to the ground to make the match on time.
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Southall was arguably the world's best in the 1980s
The tie provided one his most agonising goalkeeping moments, letting a tame long-range effort from Georghi Hagi slip under his arms after 32 minutes. Dean Saunders equalised for Wales midway through the second half, but Southall was then cruelly nutmegged by Florin Raducioiu, 7 minutes from the end. He had found himself in the middle of another Welsh heartbreak once again.

The more memorable of performances was the Euro 1992 qualifier against Germany in Cardiff. The world-champions would go on to beat Wales 4-1 in the return fixture in Nurembourg, but here, Southall was outstanding. The quintessential shot-stopper, he used every part of his body to keep the ball from the Wales goal. The pick of the saves was another catch, diving to prevent a header from Matthias Sammer. Ian Rush’s break-away goal lives long in the memory, and sadly over-shadows what was a majestic goalkeeping performance.

True to his unconventionality, Southall didn’t take the easy route out of football. He left Everton in 1998, representing Southend, Doncaster, Stoke and Torquay. In 2000 he joined topflight Bradford City as a player coach. A run of goalkeeping injuries meant he became Premier League’s oldest ever player at 47.

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He has had a few stints coaching but was never been a serious contender for either the Wales job or a return to Goodison Park. Neither has he ventured into punditry, although his confidence in front of broadcasters suggests he could play the role of phone-in anti-hero just as well as Savage, Collymore or Sutton.

Southall has instead devoted much of his post-football life to helping others and supporting causes close to his heart. He works at a special needs school in Ebbw Vale, and fosters children with his partner. He has almost 150,000 followers on Twitter, where he often allows sex workers, people with mental health difficulties, and supporters from trans-gender community to take over his stream.

Southall is a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, a member of UNISON and a relentless critic of the Westminster government. He has also called Welsh independence ‘inevitable’, speaking at fringe meeting on the subject at the Welsh Labour conference last year. Perhaps a career in politics beckons, but for now Neville Southall will be remembered as a sportsman. For his unorthodox commitment to his craft, and his resolute loyalty to club and country, he was quite simply one of the greatest goalkeepers of his time.

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Rhodri Davies (@RhodriStCrannog) - Follow him on Twitter!

Check out more of our Wales' Greatest Players Series:
We discuss our Wales' Greatest series on Episode 1 of our #TFHBPodcast, please check it out!
The Football History Boys, 2019

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