Southall on Everton's glory years and LGBT issues in football

Think about the great Everton teams of the 1980s and you automatically think of Neville Southall. The goalkeeper made 750 appearances for The Toffees in all competitions, including a club record 578 league starts. He won two league championships, two FA Cups, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and 92 caps for Wales, and was voted Footballer of the Year in 1985.

By Nick Szczepanik • 09 January 2020

By REX/Shutterstock
Neville Southall in action for Everton.

Everton, Albion’s opponents at Goodison Park this weekend, were indisputably a giant of the English game in those days, one of a big five that did not include the pre-Abramovich Chelsea or an inconsistent Manchester City. Things have changed for Merseyside’s blue half since then, but Southall hopes that the good times may be on the way back and that they will soon be thought of once again as a big club.

“I think that everybody inside Everton knows the history, but people outside the club don’t take them seriously because they haven’t won a trophy for so long,” he said. “It’s only by winning trophies that people get to respect you, and by that gauge it isn’t a big club anymore.”

The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti last month as manager of the People’s Club was, to many, the first sign of a serious intention to alter that perception. But others had been paying closer attention, noting the plans for a stunning new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock next to the Mersey and the takeover of the club in 2016 by Monaco-based British-Iranian businessman and investor Farhad Moshiri.

“I always thought they were on track to change it anyway,” Southall says. “They have got a new ground coming and the new owner hasn’t put all that money in just to come tenth. He has spent a lot so logic dictates that he will never be satisfied until he has won something.

“It didn’t work out with Marco Silva as manager for whatever reason so the owner has brought in a proven winner, who has lifted trophies wherever he has been. It’s a good project for Ancelotti and they have a manager with a high profile and a track record. When he walks into the dressing room, nobody can accuse him of not knowing how to win something.”

By Paul Hazlewood
Goodison Park

Leaving historic but outdated Goodison Park will be a wrench for Southall and the club’s fans, although visiting supporters, including those of the Albion, will not miss the cramped accommodation in one corner of the 94-year-old Bullens Road stand.

Southall understands both points of view. “Commercially we couldn’t compete if we stayed. We have sold out Goodison on many occasions but we haven’t got the corporate facilities that others have. These days your commercial manager is as important as anyone in the club.

“From a nostalgia and atmosphere point of view I don’t think you can beat Goodison, but to compete, we have to move on. Everybody has to have a super stadium and a super team to get into the super league that I believe will come.

“They have work to do to get up there but they are making the right move at the right time. We need to go into the new stadium with a settled squad. We haven’t got a bad team, but we need a catalyst. Ancellotti could be the first part of that. A couple of major signings will also send a signal to the rest of the league that we are serious.

“Of course, the new ground will have a capacity approaching 60,000 and at the moment we’re averaging 40,000, so we’ve got to find another 20,000 new fans. For the new ground to be viable we have to have a better product on the pitch. After the FA Cup tie against Liverpool things look gloomy but I think it will come.”

By Paul Hazlewood
New Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti.

He believes the partnership of Ancelotti and former Blues striker Duncan Ferguson, his assistant, who filled in as caretaker before the Italian’s arrival, holds promise. “We have had managers who have not really said they intended to win games. They talked about trying this or that, but Duncan gave the fans what they wanted.

“His team gave it a go and they put a shift in. Everton teams should reflect the city. It is a hard-working city with nothing given to you for nothing. If players don’t do their best, the fans see straight through you. Duncan told them to do it for the fans and the fans would be with them, and they were.

“Ancelotti also keeps things simple and trusts players to do what they do best. You only get things done by building relationships and knowing how to manage players, not by telling people what to do every five seconds. Players can be over-coached until they are drained of ability. Let people be what they are.”

Southall’s own coaching career included a year in charge of Hastings United in Isthmian League division one in 2005. He adds: “Some coaches feel they always have to be justifying their jobs rather than being good judges of what different players need – who needs a kick up the arse and who needs telling they’re doing great even if they’re playing crap.

“Footballers reflect society: some will do what they have to do every day, some don’t and a good manager weeds out the second sort over time. Champions play well every game. There are other teams who can smash you on their day but their day doesn’t come round very often. The gaps between the Brightons and Evertons and the Man Citys and Liverpools are astronomical.”

By Rex/Shutterstock
Neville Southall with Howard Kendall in the background.

The Everton team he played for under Howard Kendal were arguably in the latter category, and, he says, “they were also built upon simplicity. Howard Kendall came in and said ‘This is how we are going to play’ and we almost never changed. Maybe twice. Once we played Liverpool and were a bit short of bodies so we sat back a bit and once at Bayern Munich we had to be a bit more defensive. But otherwise, everywhere we went we tried to win.

“He told us what he thought we were good at and asked us to do it and not complicate things. He trusted our judgement to be able to sort things out on the pitch. If we were wrong we learned from it – and got a b******ing – but there was a pat on the back if our decisions came off. You were trusted to be you.

“We were like a jigsaw that Howard put together and we had two or three spare bits like Alan Harper who could do a little of everything, slot in if there was an injury or a suspension after not playing for two or three weeks and perform at the same level as anybody else.

“There was less fear among managers then and players didn’t have the power they have now. They can down tools and get away with it. But players are scared too. When they are interviewed they don’t want to express an opinion.”

Southall, in contrast, has never been afraid to speak his mind or seem out of step with a prevailing mood. A teetotaller in hard-drinking dressing rooms, he was a vociferous supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in the last two elections, and he has allowed his Twitter platform with its 157,000 followers to be used by mental health charities, a sex workers’ collective and LGBT groups.

His understanding of the issues involved has increased as a result. “I have been lucky in talking to really good people about what was going on, including all the acronyms that I can’t get my head around.

“People I would normally never speak to have brought me knowledge of different fields. And if I don’t know much about something, then maybe others don’t either and I can pass on a little knowledge.”

By Rex/Shutterstock
Neville Southall

More knowledge and understanding, he believes, is the key to progress in every part of life. And education can be two-way. “Some people in the LGBT community assume footballers are 100 percent homophobic, but in reality all they want is for someone to be a good player and a good teammate. When a teammate is going through a crisis, everyone closes ranks around that person. Yes, we’ll take the micky but we will protect him with everything. That is the right way to do it.”

He believes that football has not made as much progress in some areas as society as a whole – the unwillingness of any gay current player to come out being an example. “I asked on Twitter if fans would be bothered if Everton had a gay player. What came back was ‘Not if he can score 30 goals.’

“I think society has moved on, but not every part of football has. Many clubs do good work, but maybe could also do more to promote inclusivity and make gay players feel more comfortable – have we got a gay chef for example, have we got a gay tea lady? Try something else. Make homophobia as unacceptable as racism.

“What sex workers and trans people are going through now will help the people coming along behind them. The first gay player to come out will do the same for gay footballers of the future. Black players when I was playing became stepping stones for all the black players who are in the league now.”

And he applauds Albion’s zero-tolerance approach to homophobic abuse, which resulted in two spectators being ejected from the recent home game against Chelsea. And he would like other clubs to do more to identify those who shout unacceptable abuse of any kind.

“[Crowd abuse] It has probably put the coming out of a gay footballer back two or three years,” he says. “But I think Brighton as a place and as a community is different from everywhere else. It is associated with the LGBT scene and I think that is something to be proud of. It means that there is equality, that people are tolerant, that everyone gets along. What more can you ask?”

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