Neville Southall did not know, when he reached a brutal and heartbreaking end of the road in football, that the sport would point him to a new one which would make him indispensable again.
It was 1997, he had been with his beloved Everton for 16 years and Howard Kendall, the manager with whom he’d enjoyed the best of times, tried to sugarcoat the fact that he was surplus to requirements.
‘You do know I love you?’ Kendall said in their last significant encounter, insisting in the same breath that the goalkeeper should stay away from the Bellefield training ground. Five lonely, nomadic years ensued, in which Southall washed up at 12 clubs, played barely at all and finally found himself managing Dover Athletic – bust, at the wrong end of the Conference – who quickly sacked him.
Legendary Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall now devotes his time to helping other people
‘So I had to find another job,’ he says from his home in west Wales. ‘I had to look at what I had in me.’
He stumbled into a community scheme which took on young people from dysfunctional or difficult backgrounds in Dover who had fallen out of mainstream education and, using football training as an incentive, got them into work.
‘No big deal, no massive initiative,’ Southall reflects, with the same modesty he is remembered for at Everton. ‘There were seven of them, all with their own battles and struggles and us just trying to find a way to get through to them.
‘I found that what had worked in the dressing room worked with them. Don’t get offended or hold grudges. You take the p***, build a rapport, treat them like adults, don’t preach. When there’s the mutual respect, the learning takes care of itself.’
Southall washed up at 12 clubs and played barely at all after his heartbreaking Everton exit
It’s fair to say that the austerity policies of the coalition and Conservative governments did not make Southall’s new path through what are known as NEETs (young people ‘not in education, employment or training’) a terribly easy one. He studied for an education qualification in Canterbury while managing Hastings United, an hour and a half’s drive away, yet repeatedly found funding cuts and a need to start again. But the jolts sent him into new places beyond the gilded world of football.
He worked with asylum seekers in Dover, teaching them football coaching concepts which they took into schools. ‘Incredibly polite kids and very good.’ He worked with young people whose struggle with basic maths was no fault of their own. One teenager could understand 7 x 2 but could not get his head around 2 x 7 and found that soul-destroying until Southall brought a dartboard in, spent a morning throwing darts at it with him and ‘suddenly the mist lifted’.
Southall’s educational work has now taken him to a role for a special needs school in Ebbw Vale.
All of which meant that when, more by chance than design, he began interacting with the wider world on Twitter 10 years ago, he had more than a little insight to impart. It began when an acquaintance with whom he collaborated on a project for Southall to host goalkeeping ‘boot camps’, set up his Twitter account.
The project did not take off and the Welshman found no use for @NevilleSouthall. But he then started tweeting some of his views and found they struck a chord, not least among those struggling with the kind of challenges he had been helping others navigate.
Southall’s educational work off the field has now taken him to a role for a special needs school
The humorous or ridiculous seemed to work quite well. He started tweeting random images of animals. People replied to say what a positive effect that could have. He posted a series of surreal tweets about two skeletons to make a point about social injustice. He found that he was learning more than he was imparting about those facing prejudice, ostracisation or low self-worth.
Then he began what are now well known to his 163,000 followers as ‘takeovers’ – giving up his Twitter account to groups, individuals or charities who would not usually have such a platform.
On Monday and Friday nights, the account is taken over by an individual known on Twitter as Secret Drug Addict. BAME issues are sometimes a Friday night theme. On any given night, people from the LGBT community, suicide bereavement or a sex workers’ collective might be engaged in intelligent discussion and offer explanations on the account.
‘The principle is simple,’ Southall writes in his new book, Mind Games, which explores his new worlds. ‘What’s the point of me using the account to talk about trans issues? What am I going to say? “Oh, I know a few people and they tell me this and that?” I consider myself more educated on these issues than I was before but I’m not an expert and I haven’t gone through those experiences myself. So it made complete sense to temporarily give the account to someone who really knows about them.’
Southall (pictured left) has been regularly giving up his Twitter account for special ‘takeovers’
There have been challenges. One person who took over the account ended up in a row with Lord Sugar, who called Southall a ‘has-been’. The entrepreneur was unapologetic when Southall explained the circumstances.
Southall’s support for trans people and sex workers has brought him the worst of the abuse that can make Twitter such a repository for hate. ‘That’s because of the small minds of those who don’t want to hear the testimonies and read the background,’ he says. ‘If you sit down and see what trans people go through, you understand the soul-searching behind it and – actually – the money that it requires. Would someone really go through all that and then pose a threat by using women’s toilets? That argument is madness.’
At 61, an age when some are inclined to shut their minds to change, Southall’s quest for knowledge has made him a huge force for causes with a fraction of his reach. He has also found himself in Twitter direct message (DM) contact with followers struggling so much psychologically that the exchanges have concerned him, despite the two suicide awareness courses he has completed.
‘When I first got people coming on it was incredibly scary,’ he says, on a Zoom call from the home he shares with his wife Emma and the two boys they foster. ‘All you try and do is keep them talking while you look at their account and look for things to say. I also have other people that I can pass them on to. After an hour, I’ve maybe saturated anything I can say to them. I’ll DM someone else saying, “I’ve gone as far as I can here now”.’
Southall’s quest for knowledge makes him a huge force for causes with a fraction of his reach
The numbers in need of help increased during the lockdown and for an hour a day, Southall would focus on those feeling isolation because of the pandemic. ‘Anyone could come on and say what they wanted. We had competitions, things that made people happy. We had a comedy night.’
Perhaps it helps that he was always something of an outsider in football: an individualist to some, a loner to others, who would never touch a drop of alcohol, would eschew team hotels and coaches and be at a midweek ground with the kitman by 5.30pm, preparing for the job in hand. He considers himself scatty, ‘not neat and tidy’; someone who ‘doesn’t like being enclosed by four walls’. When he started working with children who were struggling, he felt that he was ‘more like the kids than the kids themselves’.
His schooldays at Ysgol John Bright, a comprehensive in Llandudno, were not monumentally successful. His superb memoir, The Binman Chronicles, published in 2012, related how he managed to get hold of the answers to the streaming exams, copied them and spent his last two years out of his depth, deeply regretting it. The sheer volume of jobs he held down before making it in football reveals an incredible energy. He was a binman, hod-carrier, odd-jobber, floor cleaner: the only job Southall didn’t do – postman – was the one he actually wanted.
He has been withering about the hypocrisy of football, which has claimed to promote diversity
Through his playing years he would read at every opportunity. Books about nutrition, oils, vision – anything that just might give him a goalkeeping edge. Books about sports whose competitors he felt just might have a similar mindset to his own: weightlifting, boxing, gymnastics, golf.
His absorption in worlds beyond football’s narrow prism means that he certainly has opinions. He is withering about the hypocrisy of football, which has claimed to promote diversity and LGBT awareness while awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar. ‘If we are actually concerned about human rights and LGBT stuff, why are we going to those countries?’ he says. ‘I can’t understand why we keep giving people mixed messages. “Yeah, we’re right behind your LGBT cause. But by the way, we’re going to Qatar for the next World Cup”.’
The racial intolerance which was never far from the surface last season depresses him. Clubs are allowing it to happen with inadequate stewarding, he says. ‘The trouble is we pay stewards peanuts because we don’t want to pay the police. So when someone comes out with racist stuff and threatens stewards, the stewards have to find someone else to deal with it. If they’ve got cameras attached to themselves like police do, you can record them, catch them and ban them for life.’
The ex-stopper has always been reluctant to go back to Goodison Park and gets ’embarrassed’
He has always been reluctant to go back to Goodison. ‘I get embarrassed when they ask me to walk on the pitch,’ he said a few years ago. ‘It’s like walking into someone else’s home.’ But the club are ‘we’ when talk turns to them and he is emphatic about the potential that Jordan Pickford – the latest to stand between the posts which were once his – can exploit if he puts his mind to it.
‘It’s up to him,’ he says of a goalkeeper who has yet to reach Southall’s levels of consistency. ‘Has he improved in the last few seasons? I don’t think so. Last season, he’s probably cost Everton six or nine points and yet he earned them three or six.
‘But the potential is there and he’s young. He’s got time to work on things – to ask himself, “Can I take a more advanced position on crosses? Am I going to ground too early in the one-to-one positions? Can I build play better?” People keep going on about coaches and statistics and technology but it comes down to him and how good he wants to be. I never had anyone tell me to come in off the training ground. Part of today’s problem is they don’t practise enough.’
Southall believes Jordan Pickford, Everton’s No 1, cost the club six or nine points last season
Everton under Carlo Ancelotti these days have riches beyond Howard Kendall’s wildest dreams
Funded by Farhad Moshiri, Everton under Carlo Ancelotti have riches beyond Kendall’s wildest dreams, though it’s been no guarantee of success. ‘Our recruitment hasn’t been the greatest and every team’s success is built on that,’ Southall says. ‘We’ve had too many managers. Every time one leaves another inherits the jigsaw and wants to create an entirely new jigsaw. Too many jigsaws. Every manager should be given three years. That’s how long Ancelotti will need to turn it around.’
If the past six months has taught us anything, he says, it is that all of these considerations should be kept in perspective. ‘We’d lost our way a bit before the pandemic happened,’ he says. ‘People walked past with their heads down. No one said “hello”. People were in their trenches, suspicious. The lockdown made people see the value of simply being out there with other people, however different from them those other people might be. That’s an incredible thing. We can’t lose sight of that.’
Mind Games: The Ups And Downs of Life And Football by Neville Southall is published on September 17 by HarperCollins Publishers at £20. To order a copy for £16 (offer valid to September 10; p&p free), go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
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