One of Britain's best-ever goalkeepers is now a striker for a pub side. Mark Winter relates the latest unlikely chapter in the Neville Southall story
If a pin could make a noise when it drops on mud, you would have heard it. Even the pied wagtail that was hopping up and down the touchline seemed to stop to watch the penalty being taken. The score was 1-1 midway through the second half and the outcome of the Second Division championship race could have depended on a successful conversion.
Our hardened pro stepped up to take it and showed not the remotest sign of nerves. When you have won the FA Cup at Wembley and the Cup-Winners Cup in Rotterdam, the Second Division title must seem like small potatoes indeed. It was another medal for the collection, however, and our hero took his time. He stood with his back to goal and casually wiped his right boot down the back of his sock. He opted for power and the keeper didn’t bother to move. A shot of quite awesome velocity found the bottom right-hand corner. The goal proved to be a turning point in a tight game and another penalty, in injury time, secured a 3-1 win that moved the Lilywhites eight points clear at the top of the table.
There were no scenes of wild celebration at the end of the game, however. There seldom are in the Dover & District Sunday League. The Bull Fossils team celebrated victory over Norfolk Line by trooping off to a pub until chuck-out time, while our teetotal two-goal hero, Nev “The Strike” Southall, went home.
You’ll appreciate that watching and playing Sunday football with Neville Southall is rather a bizarre experience. I suppose it’s something akin to popping down to your local for a quiet night to find Elton John playing a set in front of ten people. Southall came to the south-east just before Christmas 2001 to take on the monumental task of saving Conference club Dover Athletic from relegation. In truth, the task was similar to turning a local pantomime into a successful West End musical. But Southall couldn’t have made a better start to his fledgling managerial career, as his first signing, centre-back Jimmy Aggrey, scored the goal that gave Athletic a 1-0 win away at bitter rivals Margate.
If results didn’t improve dramatically, performances did for a while. But in a season that only lacked Brian Rix running around the boardroom wearing the bishop’s trousers to compound the sense of high farce, Southall was sacked after just nine games in charge, after failing to build a fortress out of straw and fresh air.
Southall’s career with the Fossils has been much more successful, however, and started in unlikely circumstances. Knowing that Nev, having passed his 40th birthday, was now qualified to represent the side, Fossils’ manager Kelvin Bell made a somewhat ale-induced approach as to whether he might fancy a game. Having added a proviso that he wouldn’t play in goal due to a long-standing shoulder injury, Southall duly signed on the dotted line. The Fossils went through 2002 unbeaten in league competition, and against much younger opposition.
The debut of arguably the best goalkeeper these islands have produced wasn’t without incident. Against the might of the Prince Albert, Southall scored from a late penalty to earn his side a victory.
Since his sacking from Dover Athletic, Southall hasn’t gone short of work as he seeks another managerial opportunity. Having recently started up a European Union-backed NVQ coaching course with good friend and former Athletic chairman and town mayor Gordon Cowan, Nev continues to be involved in the semi-pro game as goalkeeping coach to Ryman League Canvey Island. Appalling rail services apart, Dover is handy for London, which has so far ensured plenty of TV and radio work. That and doing up his new home don’t leave too many spare hours in the day.
Having been brought up in Llandudno, Southall professes to like living by the sea, but seems likely to end up wherever work takes him. For the time being, however, there’s a championship to be won. And word has it that the legend of the Fossils is starting to spread. Accordingly, we don’t rule out more famous signings in the form of Ian Rush and Dean Saunders, if only to make a brief cameo appearance.
I’ve already rehearsed my post-match comments for the world’s media: “Rushie wasn’t doing a great deal, so I replaced him for the last 20 minutes to give us more options up front.” As I am a 47-year-old who puts weight on during a game, I’m sure you’ll appreciate why I would find that so appealing.
From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month