The era of unathletic footballers is over. Variety is dead, homogeneity rules. Now almost all professional footballers – the successful ones, anyway – resemble Men’s Health cover models (ickle Lionel Messi is anomalous). We now live in the age of the gym-hardened superman: harder, better, faster, stronger.
There is room for talent in modern football, but not enough room. At Stoke City, for example, Tony Pulis would happily pick a destructive team comprised entirely of 6ft 4in Universal Soldiers, then bring on Tuncay to try and sneak something in the final 15 minutes. How is that football?
All of which brings me, in a meandering, digressive fashion, to my favourite footballer: Neville Southall, a legend for both Everton and Wales. Or ‘Big Nev’, as we must call him.
Even at his peak, Big Nev – he of the jaunty moustache and lank hair – looked gloriously unathletic, like a long-distance lorry driver who has somehow survived on a diet of fried food, roll-ups and top-shelf magazines. As such, I imagine Southall would not stand a chance of making it in the game today, and there’s still a part of me that wonders how the hell he made it to the top even back then.
Many goalkeepers end up between the sticks simply because they’re taller than the other kids. Southall was not one of those keepers. He ended up there because he was a natural. After Gordon Banks, he’s the most naturally talented No.1 Britain has produced. I’m sure many Welshmen would put him ahead of Banks.
Why was Big Nev so good? Er, he just was. I can’t really explain why – you had to see him live to fully appreciate his brilliance. His reflexes were freakishly good, and despite my jibes about his Eddie Stobart appearance, he was surprisingly nimble. He was a master at tipping the ball around the post, or over the crossbar. In one-on-one situations, he was the best goalkeeper I’ve ever seen – he could read an opponent’s intentions in an instant and react even quicker. ‘How the hell did he save that?’ they all wondered. Then Big Nev got up and did it again. He gave strikers nightmares, literally.
But Big Nev was no mercurial artist, turning up for games 15 minutes before kick-off, cigarette in mouth. He jacked up his considerable talent with raw hard work. Everyone who played with Southall mentions his ferocious work ethic. He indulged in extra training sessions, often on the morning of a match. How they paid off. With Big Nev between the sticks, confidence flowed through the great Everton side of the mid-Eighties, from back to front.
For a couple of years, Big Nev wasn’t only the best keeper in the UK, but also the best in the world. He doesn’t get anything like the credit he deserves for that (and it’s not like Britain produces many truly world-class footballers), which is a shame but I imagine he doesn’t mind a bit. Big Nev wasn’t in it for the fame, the WAGs or the sports cars. He changed into his kit, he made a string of brilliant saves, he changed out of his kit, he went straight home. Next weekend, he did exactly the same. How could you not love him?
One final reason to cherish Big Nev:
He’s the good guy too.