In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme, Neville Southall talks about the ‘passion, drive and desire’ spurring him to try to improve the world for others, the all-consuming approach which led to him becoming the world’s best goalkeeper and supporters falling in love with the Club’s mid-1980s heroes all over again.
Neville Southall draws a clear distinction.
“Football is what I did,” says one of the world’s great goalkeepers.
“I don’t do it now.
“The kids I teach at school aren’t interested in whether I played football.
“They’re interested in whether I can get them home in 10 minutes on the minibus.
“I can’t change anything about the past but I have a chance to change things in the future.”
There is an awful lot Southall would like to change.
He is an advocate for more coherent and urgent provision of mental health services and ardent champion for the rights of the LGBT+ community.
His Twitter account – with more than 171,000 followers – is given over three nights a week to groups and charities raising awareness on issues including, but not limited to, addiction, suicide bereavement, homophobia, racism and blood stem cell and bone marrow donation.
Southall notes his current and former lives “intertwine” in the way “I still use football, I use my name and try to use my influence”.
The link doesn’t stop there.
Football, says Southall, compelled him to be a “solutions-based” person.
“If I am in goal, I want to stop every shot,” he explains.
“If I can’t, I have to work out a way of doing it.”
Southall adopts the same attitude today. Only the challenges are greater and more meaningful than stopping a football from getting past him.
“People keep telling me, ‘You can’t save everybody’,” says Southall.
“I don’t think you can.
“But you can try, can’t you?”
Southall holds strong and informed political opinions and views on subjects as disparate as shark and marine conservation, the impact of a post-Brexit trade deal on British fisheries and the scant coverage afforded to a suicide crisis engulfing the UK.
His wide lens represents a far cry from the blinkered figure who deliberately existed in a football “bubble” for 20-odd years.
His likely reaction had a teammate told him of mental health concerns?
“I don’t know is the honest answer to that,” begins Southall.
“Maybe, ‘Shut up, what is the matter with you?’
“But I’d like to think, I’d have asked, ‘What is it?’
“Beer and golf were the best two sports psychologists in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that’s how players got away.”
A teetotaller, Southall wound down on the two-and-a-half-hour round-trip between home in North Wales and work on Merseyside.
“If I made a mistake I wanted to run somebody over after the game – but by the time I was home, I’d started to settle,” he continues.
“I was lucky, because I was rubbish at everything else.
“I couldn’t wait to get to the training ground or stadium.
“And I liked my house, so couldn’t wait to get home.
“I had those places I really loved.
“There were sub-conscious ways of managing pressure but nothing structured.”
Southall was astonishingly good at his job – among a tiny number who can claim to have been the finest on the planet in their chosen profession – and the one member of Howard Kendall’s marvellous mid-1980s Everton side who was all-but irreplaceable.
Owner of the Club’s appearance record with an impregnable total of 751, the ankle he injured playing for Wales on a cabbage patch of a pitch at Republic of Ireland’s Lansdowne Road in March 1986 is blamed by many supporters for Everton finishing that season empty handed.
Footage of extraordinary saves, combined with a storytelling gift for which most comics would trade their right arm, make Southall one of the stars of Everton – Howard’s Way, a loving homage to the Club’s most successful team.
The film’s release in late 2019 feels serendipitously timed after the twin-forces of lockdown and optimism around Carlo Ancelotti’s current Everton inspired a renewed wave of affection for Kendall’s trophy-gathering side.
“A certain age group has [fallen in love with that team again], parents saying to kids, ‘I was there’,” says Southall.
“It’s something they’re proud of, because they were part of it.
“Any other city, any other time, any other people, we’d have lost the [European Cup Winners’ Cup] semi-final to Bayern Munich, for sure.
“Because it was there, at that time, with those people, we got through it.
“We got through it together.”
All proceeds from sales of Howard’s Way are being invested in Everton in the Community’s People’s Place.
The readily-accessible facility, situated close to Goodison Park, will promote positive mental health and provide support related to suicide awareness and prevention.
Southall is educating himself on the topic of suicide awareness, studying through the Open University and attending conferences, such as one this month [December 2020] following the release of the first national suicide bereavement report, the product of an exhaustive survey analysing the impact of suicide on the bereaved and their experiences of accessing and using support services.
Special thanks are afforded to Southall – “ex-professional football player and mental health campaigner” – in the paper’s acknowledgements.
Southall, though, shares the frustrations of the report’s authors – the study was led by Dr Sharon McDonnell from the University of Manchester – dismayed by a dearth of media coverage.
“The People’s Place is brand new and a different way of doing things,” says Southall.
“I am hoping it will be the centre of a spider’s web, with everything coming around it to support people.
“If you support Everton, Liverpool or Tranmere Rovers, it doesn’t matter, does it?
“It is just about helping people.
“Mental health is a massive issue and a lot of things aren’t working.
“I think we need better organisation, collaboration between universities and charities and councils and hospitals.
“How did the first national report on suicide not make the papers or TV?
“There is a mental health crisis all over the world, people die from suicide every day.”
Southall is off his long run now.
“Everton have said, ‘This issue is here to stay, we are going to do something about it’.
“It will be sustainable.
“I’ve not seen anything to touch Everton’s community programme.
“Everybody has mental health, you feel good, or bad, or okay.
“We need to be more positive about treatment, we tend to see mental health as long-term.
“Can we turn it around, like the attitude in football: ‘Can you get fit for the game on Saturday?’
“Sometimes, the treatment needs to be short and intense.
“Let’s try to get people fit as soon as possible.
“It’s cheaper for the NHS and better for the people.”
Southall envisages a society where mental health centres, specialising in specific conditions, are as visible as Tesco Express.
He has an idea for a 24-hour mental health radio station and wants charities regulated by the NHS and on call around the clock.
“Mental health doesn’t stop when you have your tea,” contends Southall, whose foster son waited six months for an educational psychologist appointment and three years for an autism diagnosis.
“You can distract yourself during the day,
“When you turn the lights out, your brain starts whirring.”
Southall works with children at the River Centre Learning Community in Ebbw Vale.
His ability to relate to 11-16-year olds with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties was honed playing in goal for Everton.
“In a football team, some people respond to a rollicking, others need encouragement,” says Southall.
“Building a relationship with the kids is no different from building a rapport with teammates.
“You find common ground, something they wear, or say, or the place they come from.
“Everyone does it, just not always consciously.
“People still baffle me at times, I have no idea what makes them tick.
“I have learned you can’t help everybody.
“People have to be ready to be helped and, sometimes, it is not your turn with them.
“You have to walk away.”
The experience of being directly messaged by individuals at desperately low ebbs convinced Southall to broaden his knowledge around suicide.
“I’ve had people DM me and say they are going to do this or that,” says Southall, who is investigating the possibility of being first responder on a suicide hotline.
“That’s the real side of it, where it gets quite scary for me.
“But that’s why I’ve thought, if I can help through writing, can I help by talking?”
Southall, at 62, remains a juggernaut of a man. He was renowned as a ferocious trainer – “What’s the point doing a job and not trying to be the best” – but knew when to apply the brakes.
The same is true today.
“If I need to take a break, I’ll take a break,” says Southall.
“It is never an instant thing, I can see it building, I look for signs, so I know a week in advance I’ll need a rest.
“You have to protect yourself, because it can be quite draining at times.
“It’s no good if I’m not there tomorrow, is it?
“It goes back to football.
“If I don’t feel great at 2pm, I have one hour to work with myself to get better.
“If I get there and feel fantastic, where do I go from there?
“It is about managing how good you feel.
“The best I ever felt was before a game at Chelsea (in October 1985).
“I was buzzing in the warm-up, I did too much and got sent off.
“I learned from that.
“You don’t want to burn all your nervous energy if you’re feeling good.”
Southall races off on various tangents in the course of a 90-minute conversation.
He has been reading about refugees in Liverpool surviving on £5 a day, he relates, before expressing bemusement at an ongoing need for foodbanks.
Southall is alarmed at the glacial pace of an enquiry into dementia in football and vehemently opposed to the idea of five substitutes.
Further globalisation of the Premier League, maintains Southall, is inevitable.
“The United States has a huge population but the NFL still felt it necessary to come to the UK for a bigger audience,” he offers.
Southall rebuffs the suggestion his voice could blow a wind of change through a boardroom or influential football organisation.
“Nah, I’m not that interested,” he says.
“What I’m doing is more important and that is where I want to be judged now.
“My attitude is, ‘This is what I do, and this is what I am going to do.
“’If you don’t like it, I don’t care’.”
Southall maintaining distance from football has done nothing to loosen a fixed attachment to Everton.
He is a rarity in that he had tangible success with two separate teams at the same Club.
Southall conceded only once in Everton’s Joe Royle-inspired triumphant 1995 FA Cup run, when he was the lone survivor from the side which claimed two league titles, one FA Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup between 1984-1987.
He was at the Goodison for 17 years after joining from Bury in 1981 – “I thought, ‘I will give it a go to see if I can survive, if I don’t do very well, I can go back to Bury’” – and is more bullish than at any point since Royle’s tenure.
“There is a clear philosophy and pathway and Carlo Ancelotti is a winner,” says Southall.
“The first job is to try to get to the new stadium established in the top six, hopefully top four.
“To get from A to B there will be bumps in the road. You might go five games without winning at times, that’s part of it.
“But it is a really exciting time.
“The manager is recruiting quality players to fit his idea.
“It is a hell of a squad and we always look like we can score a goal.
“It must be a good place to be right now.”
Southall doesn’t envy today’s footballers, though.
Not the interest in their private lives, nor the forensic analysis of performances.
Southall liked taking responsibility for his own destiny, too.
“Howard and Colin [Harvey] left me to do what I wanted,” says Southall.
“I believed the harder I trained, the better I became.
“That is best for the team – and the best way to look after your family.
“You have to make yourself the most valuable piece of merchandise for the club.
“I saw football as being like a cattle market, once you’ve got a ticket to slaughter, you’ve had it.
“Prolong it as much as you can.
“I only ever worried about pleasing myself, my club manager and my international manager.
“Why would I care what anyone else thinks?”
Southall was seeking marginal gains 25 years before the theory swept into fashion.
“I studied hockey goalies and looked at how wicketkeepers in cricket caught the ball,” he says.
“I watched how gymnasts fell, analysed weightlifters, because as a goalkeeper you have to be strong and move your body, and you have to punch, so I watched boxing.
“I read books by boxers because they needed controlled aggression, and golfers’ books to learn how they switched off between shots.”
It all went into making Southall the best of a generation and one of the most popular figures in Everton history.
“The Evertonians are always brilliant with me,” says Southall.
“What I love about them is, if you try your hardest, you don’t need be a great player, they’ll give you credit.
“If you’re a great player but don’t try a leg, they won’t like you.”
Southall ticked both boxes: a great player who gave his all.
Today, he is a great man giving his all.
Not so much has changed, then. But Neville Southall plans to do something about that.