Keepers don’t often get the attention they deserve. Maybe this is because when we’re young, few of us aspire to play in goal. Growing up round ours, lads dreamed of becoming the next Graeme Sharp or Gary Lineker if they were Everton fans or the next Ian Rush or Kenny Dalglish if they were evil.
It was all about scoring goals and getting the glory, not stopping the goals and spending most of the game doing very little. Goalkeeping seemed intrinsically duller compared to outfield positions. An image probably not helped by the fact that when playing football down the park or in school, it was always the lads who could barely kick a ball that were placed in between the sticks.
This prejudice towards keepers never really fully left us. Ask most people to name the best ten players in the league today, or the best ten players they’ve ever seen and it’s unlikely that a goalkeeper will feature in the lists.
But this shouldn’t really be the case. Any fan whose team has possessed a goalkeeper unable to perform his duties competently knows what an Achilles heel this can be. What’s more, sides that have been blessed by a true great in goal, like the Utd sides that had Schmeichel or the Liverpool sides that had Ray Clemence, know just how important these figures were to the team’s success.
The Everton sides of the mid-eighties were arguably the best that the club has ever produced. They won the trophies, played some magnificent football and gave our neighbours a reminder that there are two great clubs in the city. But although filled with some of the best players Everton have ever had, and some of the best players I have ever seen, none were as great as our goalkeeper of the time, Neville Southall.
When you think of the sums that top-flight teams spend on keepers today, it almost seems laughable that Southall came to Everton from Bury for the paltry price of £150,000. It’s hard to believe that something like that could happen in modern football, that a leading Premiership side could, or would, obtain a world-class keeper from the lower-regions of the football league for next-to-nothing.
Although he vied initially with Jim Arnold for the No. 1 spot, from the end of 1983 Southall began to prove his worth, remaining Everton’s keeper for the next fourteen years.
His permanent introduction into the side coincided with an upturn in Everton’s fortunes. The club was about to enter a golden period, an era of unparalleled success at Goodison. And it was around this time that Evertonians began to see what a gem we had in Big Nev.
There’s a quote from that era, provided by Everton’s captain, Kevin Ratcliffe, referring to Southall’s role in the club’s championship winning season of 1985.
"When you've got a keeper like that in your team you can gain an extra fourteen points."
Bearing in mind that Everton won the title by thirteen points, you can see how highly Southall’s fellow professionals rated him. He was, in their eyes, the difference between Everton finishing first and second.
It was a view shared by the fans too. Evertonians’ loved Big Nev, more than we loved the likes of Peter Reid, Kevin Ratcliffe and Kevin Sheedy. And perhaps this was because we recognised that Southall was something special, the kind of ‘great’ that most clubs only see once a generation.
Amongst the cavalcade of truly great saves that I saw him perform, the one that stands out occurred against Spurs during that 85 championship winning season. At very close range Southall denied Mark Falco what would, with most keepers facing him, be a certain goal. It was a stop that The Guardian’s sports writer, David Lacey described as being one ‘to rank with Gordon Banks's memorable moment in the 1970 World Cup’; a save widely regarded as goalkeeping at its finest.
Although Everton went off the boil as the eighties bled into the nineties, Southall’s consistency didn’t. In a time when the club was becoming mired in mediocrity, Big Nev was our link with greatness, a reminder that things hadn’t always been so disappointing.
He got one last opportunity to shine for Everton, when we reached the FA Cup final in 1995, a few years before he left the club. I was at that game and remember feeling an enormous sense of relief that Southall was still our keeper. Although Paul Rideout scored the goal that won us the trophy, it was a win underwritten by Southall’s exemplary performance. Had he not been able to stop everything that Man Utd threw at the Everton goal, I doubt any silverware would have made it back to Goodison that day. Once again, he was the difference between us coming first rather than second.
If he was English, Big Nev would probably be lauded as the greatest goalkeeper to ever grace our domestic league. But he’s Welsh, so his prowess between the sticks is often overlooked, praise heaped instead upon the likes of Peter Shilton and David Seaman. As good as they were, none of these could hold a candle to Southall. Everton’s legendary No. 1 remains not just the greatest keeper the modern game has ever seen but also the greatest player I have ever seen too.