Steve Harris discusses the one and only Neville Southall
Steve Harris – @steveharris84
In his 2012 autobiography ‘The Binman Chronicles’ Neville Southall stated that there were just three results that he listened out for on Saturday at 5 o’clock, ‘Everton, Bury and The Gulls’.
His association with Torquay United began in 1998 when he was drafted in by the then United manager Wes Saunders following an injury to Kenny Veysey. At the time Southall was working as a goalkeeper coach at Huddersfield Town and Tranmere Rovers, and it was his connection with Huddersfield, who were then managed by Saunders’ former Newcastle United team-mate Peter Jackson that alerted the Gulls to his availability.
Southall had experienced a nomadic career since leaving Goodison Park in 1998 after 17 years, following spells with Southend United, Stoke City and Doncaster Rovers. During his lengthy spell with the Toffees he became Everton’s most decorated player ever, winning two league titles (1985 & 1987), two FA Cups (1984 & 1995) and a European Cup Winners’ Cup (1985). He was also voted as Footballer of the Year in 1985 and won 92 caps for Wales – which was a record until it was surpassed by Chris Gunter in November 2018 – and for a time in the 1980s he was regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world.
He made his debut for United on December 12, 1998 against Hull City in a relegation ‘six-pointer’ that pitted 23rd (United) and 24th (the Tigers) against each other. The stakes could hardly have been higher for the Gulls in this encounter, as defeat would have placed them level on points with the Tigers on 18 points.
There were plenty of signs of encouragement for the Plainmoor faithful in the opening ten minutes when Southall’s fellow debutant Alan Lee – a Republic of Ireland Under-21 international on loan from Aston Villa – narrowly missed the target after being set up by Robbie Herrera.
Southall was then called into action as he punched a corner away and saved a shot from Tigers defender Bob Dewhurst at the second attempt.
Torquay made the breakthrough in the 15th minute as Chris Leadbitter picked up a loose ball, and looked to pick out Kevin Hill with a cross. However, the wind caught it and carried the ball over Hull keeper Steve Wilson and into the back of the net off the far post to give the Gulls the lead.
As well as competing against Hull, the Gulls were also battling against the elements and they earned themselves an important two-goal cushion six minutes before the half-time break. Steve Tully won the ball in midfield and played a one-two with leading scorer Scott Partridge before leaving Tigers left-back Mike Edwards for dead. He then produced an inviting low centre, which found Partridge who slotted home to score his tenth goal of the season.
In the second half, the Gulls were denied a third with nine minutes to go when Wilson made a diving save at the feet of Hill, as United ended Southall’s debut with a clean sheet and a win that moved them up one place in the league table. Intriguingly, Southall left the game without his gloves – as he had made a bet with a group of Hull fans behind the Babbacombe End goal that he would get booked in the second half.
Southall then remained with United for the rest of the 1998-99 season, with other notable performances including a penalty save in a 2-1 win over Rochdale at Plainmoor in January 1999 and another creditable display in a goalless draw in a Devon derby with Plymouth Argyle at Home Park in March. His performances ensured that he became a big favourite with the Plainmoor faithful and he later won the club’s player of the year award for the 1998-99 campaign.
Southall then agreed to return to the Gulls for the 1999-00 season and after a strong finish to the previous campaign there was a genuine belief that United could mount a challenge for promotion. Two of his former Goodison Park colleagues Adrian Heath and Derek Mountfield had both won promotions from Division Two and Three with Burnley and Carlisle United in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 campaigns respectively after leaving Everton – and it seemed like there might be a genuine possibility of Southall emulating them with the Gulls.
During the 1999-00 season, Southall wasn’t the only connection that the Gulls had with Everton. Alex Watson brother of his former team-mate Dave Watson was the club captain and player-coach, Southall’s former Toffees team-mate Paul Holmes re-joined United seven years after he left for Birmingham City at the end of the 1991-92 season and midfielder Mick O’Brien, an FA Youth Cup winner in a young Everton side that included Francis Jeffers, Michael Ball and Richard Dunne, signed for the Gulls following a successful trial spell.
For the first half of the campaign United remained firmly in contention for promotion, which was coupled with a fine run in the FA Cup as they reached the hallowed 3rd round for the first time in ten years. After beating Southend United and Forest Green Rovers in the first and second rounds respectively, United were then drawn away to Queens Park Rangers.
The R’s had been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 1995-96 campaign and were looking to make a return to the top-flight at the time of the tie; Gerry Francis – who had led the R’s to a fifth place finish in the inaugural Premier League season in 1992-93 – was back as manager for a second spell and their squad included players with plenty of top level experience including Chris Kiwomya and Iain Dowie.
In the match-day programme, former QPR striker Stan Bowles predicted in his ‘Fancy a Flutter’ column that the R’s would win 4-1 (incidentally the odds for this outcome was 12-1!). Despite this prediction United got off to a promising start as Wayne Thomas had a headed effort disallowed early on. Moments later future Gulls’ midfielder Stuart Wardley gave the hosts the lead in the 9th minute as it looked like the prophecy of the maverick striker may be about to come true. However, Bowles hadn’t counted on the form of Southall as he rolled back the years to make a string of breathtaking saves to keep QPR at bay.
Torquay adopted a more attacking approach in the second half as they switched from a 3-5-2 formation to 3-4-3, which paid dividends as the Gulls began to create more chances. At the other end of the pitch Southall was still playing out of his skin, as he made arguably his most impressive save of the match when he denied the R’s Norwegian striker Rob Steiner with his foot. United finally managed to find an equaliser in their 81st minute through a free-kick from O’Brien (which David Beckham would have been proud of) to force a replay. Despite a valiant effort at Plainmoor in the second meeting United went down 3-2.
Southall’s spell with the Gulls came to an end in January 2000 following a 2-1 defeat away to Chester City, in which he sustained concussion. However, there would be a happy end to the 1999-00 season for Southall as he enjoyed a Premier League swansong in a one-off game for Bradford City against Leeds United in March 2000.
These days Southall works as a teaching assistant for a pupil referral unit in Ebbw Vale and is very active on social media supporting a number of charitable causes – including suicide prevention and LGBT rights. He often collaborates with a number of charities through ‘twitter takeovers’ which see a number of different organisations use his twitter account to hold regular question and answer sessions.
TWITTER – @TORQUAYTALK – @torquaytalkpod