Many thanks to James Corbett for setting up this interview with Everton legend and genuinely decent fella Neville Southall. The book they wrote together, The Binman Chronicles, is in the shops now.
How did you find writing the book?
In some ways it was really easy, and in some times it was really hard. Sometimes it was really funny and other times it was actually quite sad. Over all it was good, but I have to admit that I wasn’t great at remembering when things happened, because it all goes by so quick. I’d say something happened at a certain time and it would turn out that it was actually three years before, so James had to check a lot of things out. In fact we’ve still got a bit of an argument going on, because I’m sure Jeff Hopkins came on against Brazil, but he keeps telling me it was Iceland.
You say early on that you did the book to show there’s more to your personality than perhaps the caricature – do you think you succeeded in that?
I think so, because a lot of people who know me who have read it say ‘That is you, that’s how you speak’ and they can picture me saying the stuff in the book, and that’s what I wanted. As a fan you only see the fella standing there in goal, sometimes doing a lot, other times not so much, but I like to think there’s more to me than just a footballer. I wanted people to know that I worked for a living before football and I work for a living now.
I also wanted to show how it wasn’t easy to progress through the ranks to the first team – it rarely is for anyone.
A lot of people perceive a sort of gravy train for ex-players now, in coaching and media, but you took another route, working in education.
I couldn’t live on the money that I had when I finished playing for the rest of my life and I also need to be doing something all the time. I thought about it recently when I had a week off – I couldn’t just do nothing, even if I won the lottery, I’ve got to have something to do that I believe in.
Reading the book, it’s clear that as a brilliant player you get a certain amount of latitude in terms of doing your own thing – you have something that the club wants – but to make the transition into coaching and management that relationship changes and perhaps you struggled a bit with that.
You have to get involved with the politics, and I really don’t do politics. Even working in schools I see a lot of it, and although I’m getting better at dealing with it I just think people should use their common sense instead of spending too long playing games.
The way I look at it, if you employ me then you want to hear my opinion – I think that’s healthy – otherwise why bother having me there? In footballing though that’s often not really the case. I remember arguing with Steve Bruce in front of all the players because he said the keeper should stand in the middle of the goal for free-kicks, and I said ‘No, I don’t think so’. He disagreed, said the lad was at fault for the goal on the Saturday, and I insisted he wasn’t. I didn’t think it was a problem but he didn’t like it.
If you are that afraid of hearing someone else’s opinion then firstly why have him there, and secondly, you’re probably not that good at your job.
Football’s got worse and worse for this. You look at certain people and you wonder: what does he give you exactly? And often I think they are just there to protect the manager. Again, if you need protecting then you are probably not that good at your job.
When I did a bit of managing with the Wales team I would tell all the coaches what I wanted and ask them for their opinions and whether they agreed. I’d listen, and based on what they said I might change my mind or I might not, but we would have an open discussion, because if they were just ‘yes men’ they were no good to me.
I try to do the same with the kids I work with now – you listen to everyone because they might help you look at things in a different way.
There are definitely fellas in the game now though who have got jobs because they are good at watching the manager’s back, not because they are decent coaches, and that’s not for me.
I always remember a book you did when you were playing, a diary of a season, and in it you said that the older players who a manager is loyal to can often be the ones who end up getting him sacked. Do you still believe that?
Yes, I think you definitely have to be ruthless. I learned that much from Howard. I think there is a right way of doing things though. You should go in from day one, be blatantly honest and say ‘You are not my cup of tea and I’m not going to play you much, so if you want to move on, that’s fine.’
Whenever I’ve managed at club level I go in the changing room, leave the door open and say to everyone, ‘If you don’t want to play for me then no problem, there’s the door, see you later.’
No one ever walks out, but you quickly find out the ones who should have, as they start to try and play politics.
Sometimes the older players can be great, if you can get them to share your frame of mind and especially if they are prepared to help the younger lads. If they are not willing to do that then I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want them at my club. You can’t have someone who is sulking if he has to play a couple of games in the reserves – they have to get in there and be role models. I learnt that from seeing how Howard would play for the reserves, he took it really seriously, and then I’ve seen other fellas more or less just mess about.
It seems increasingly fashionable nowadays for players to say that they don’t even like football, that it’s just a job. Was that the case when you were playing?
No, not really, not until the Premier League started and Sky got involved anyway, you started to notice some attitudes changing a bit then. Some players maybe do have a bit of plan of where they want to be, and football is a means to an end, but fellas like me and Rushy never really thought beyond football.
Players are different now, and I think that’s one of the reasons why fans get a bit fed up with it. Even when I played, we weren’t much different from the sorts of lads who were supporters, but they seem so far removed now, a lot of them.
Things have been watered down to an extent in English football, because of the number of foreign players chiefly. I have no problem with them, especially the good ones, but I hate it, for instance, when they come over and then complain about the weather. What did they expect? Or when they start rubbishing different parts of the country – they only want to live in London being a favourite one.
Loads of them are good lads but the ones who come over and start moaning I find disrespectful. We were always lucky at Everton, they were all decent lads we signed from abroad. Stefan Rehn was a great lad, so was Preki – it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t play eleven-a-side. I actually didn’t realise how big a star he was in the States until I read Pete Cormack’s book – he said that Preki was the big outstanding talent over there. He really struggled to adapt here though, although I think maybe if he had gone to West Ham or Norwich, somewhere where he could get away with the occasional bit of magic, he might have done alright. Not at Everton though, the fans are ruthless, and rightly so.
Obviously you loved it when Everton were great, going out expecting to batter teams every week, and you were flattered by the interest of, say, Manchester United, so weren’t you ever tempted to leave instead of playing for some terrible Everton teams?
When I went to Bury I liked it straight away, it way my sort of environment, I liked it at Winsford as well, and then Everton. Torquay was alright as well.
When I left Everton for Stoke though I walked in and I didn’t like it at all. It just felt wrong. Southend was no good either.
So it was important to me that I felt happy and comfortable in the environment at Everton, so I never really thought about leaving. I was in a good position where I could do whatever I wanted to do and they would just live with me. I also thought that if you sign a contract then you have a duty to honour that, even though it might be easier in some ways to just jump ship.
When it comes to the quality of the team as well, I really didn’t mind as long as the lads were giving everything, and they did. I always had a good comparison with Wales as well. They were nowhere near as good as Everton in the 80s, and the facilities and the kit weren’t as good, but the lads were all grafters, there was a good atmosphere.
So for me, there was never any real reason to leave Everton.
Do you feel that you played in teams who didn’t really try?
No, not really. It’s very rare that players don’t. Sometimes when they are lacking in confidence they might try and hide a bit, and not make runs to help each other like they should. Another one you see is keepers who stay rooted to their lines, or nowadays at corners you see some of them actually behind the line instead of being out there commanding the area.
You see players slowing down going into tackles as well, making sure that they come second, and that shows that maybe they lack confidence – it might be because they know that the manager doesn’t really believe in them and doesn’t really want to pick them. So there are all sorts of little things that go on that add up to their performance. It’s rare that they are not really physically trying though.
Take Peter Beardsley when he came to us, he was playing balls that he expected people to run onto because they were on his wavelength. But often they weren’t and it was making him look bad and he ended up getting a bit of stick when he was easily our best player.
In the book you say that the League Cup Final against Liverpool when you matched them at Wembley was the point where you started to believe in what the team was capable of. Was there a similar point when you thought ‘it’s over for this side’?
To be honest, when you are playing it just sort of creeps up on you. Colin came in and started changing personnel and we did alright at first, but it’s difficult when you have been in a team as good as we had not to just judge all new players against the great ones they are replacing. You have to adjust how you are playing ever-so-slightly for every new player, and that has a knock-on effect, but you see that they are trying and running their bollocks off and so you get on with it, but over two or three years there were so many new faces that things had changed an awful lot without you really realising.
I don’t know whether Colin would have done anything different with hindsight, I’ve never asked him, but I think he wanted it to be his team from the start and I can understand that.
Similarly I spoke to Sparky a while ago, about QPR buying so many new players, and he just said that they had to because the ones they had just weren’t good enough. It’s a matter of them gelling now, but I think we saw against Everton last week that when they do they should be a decent side. I think they need another forward though, because you have to score a lot of goals in the Premier League now, the way the game is. That’s why I think Jelavic has been so important for Everton – you can see the team has a belief that he will score if they make the chances. He’s not quite as good as Rushy in some ways, but he still reminds me of him in terms of the ratio of goals he gets compared to the chances. They are very similar in that.
Did you really enjoy playing against Rush?
He scored a lot of goals against me, and gave me the most injuries, but I always wanted to play against the best players, and he was certainly one of them. That’s what you get into the game for, to compete against the best and test how good you are.
I always enjoyed playing against the biggest teams too, the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. In Europe though we never really played the very top sides, so that’s why the Bayern Munich game meant so much. I can certainly see why the Champions League is so big and so special now, playing those big games all the time. It takes some doing to go and win it.
With hindsight we all know the damaging effect that the European ban had on Everton – as a player, did it feel like that at the time though?
I’m just one of them fellas who thinks ‘Well, we can’t play in Europe so there’s no point in worrying about it.’ I did feel we were cheated, but we had to keep going, there were other things to be getting on with.
I think these days we would put up a challenge, but we didn’t at the time because the British government were happy for the clubs to be banned. Could you imagine them trying to do it now though, with all the money at stake and all the lawyers involved? They would struggle.
What do you think of the recent racial incidents and the refusal by some black players to wear the Kick It Out t-shirts?
I can understand the players’ frustrations to be honest. Racism was terrible in football when you go back to the 1970s, so there has been at least 40 years for rules to have been put in place to deal with this sort of thing, but these recent events have shown that the FA are totally unprepared.
It shouldn’t take the black players to highlight it now to get some proper rules in place, it’s ridiculous. The best thing that could happen would be for the FA to put a rule in place that just says that anyone found using racist language, be it a player or supporter, is banned for life, simple as that. As it stands, it looks as if the punishment depends on who you play for and how you are perceived, when it should just be the same for everyone. You hear people defend themselves by saying it’s said in the heat of the moment, but you don’t use that sort of language in any circumstance unless it’s the way you think. It’s no excuse.
All the books by players from your era at Everton always say, ‘Howard, great man manager’ and that’s it. Your relationship with him seems to have been a bit more complicated than that though.
I don’t know about complicated so much. I didn’t actually have that much to do with him, to be fair. He was an authority figure and I don’t deal with them that well, so Colin was always my link; he was the one I dealt with most because he was more like one of us where there was always that distance with Howard. When I did deal with him though it was always pretty straightforward.
Where you disappointed with how it all ended though? It’s one of the saddest and yet funniest parts of the book when you go into his hotel before the Leeds game and his bollocks are hanging out of his dressing gown.
One of the reasons why it took me so long to do the book is because if I had written it immediately after leaving Everton I probably would have called him all the names under the sun, and that wouldn’t have been right. I was upset, and looking back I think it was a really hard one for him, but one he believed to be right, so that’s fine. Without time to reflect though I would have probably slaughtered him and spoiled everything, and there would be no point in that, because I had far more good times than bad times under him, and overall he treated me with respect. I would have handled the situation at the end a bit differently, but we are two different people, and I think he is a bit more ruthless than me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though.
I actually think it affected him more than it did me. I had no control over it where he had to take the decision and live with it.
I get on alright with him now when I meet him, but I still find it really difficult to separate the man from the position as boss. He’s still an authority figure and I don’t think I’ll ever get past that.
Your respect for Colin Harvey comes over really clearly in the book.
He’s a great fella. A proper Scouser. Whenever I think of Scousers and the city of Liverpool I just think of him because he has all the things that you associate with the place: the determination, he won’t back down and he’s got a great sense of humour.
Your obsession with training is also a major part of the book. Do you think you had to train with that level of dedication to be as good as you where, or could you not have got by on natural talent to an extent?
It’s simple – if you don’t put the effort in you won’t get anything out of the game. I’ve seen so many players waste their careers because they weren’t prepared to go the extra mile.
It’s a bit like a boxer who gets up and trains hard because he knows that the other fella will be. If you want to get in the first team at a top club and stay there, not just be around for one or two seasons and then go and play for Walsall or someone, you have to train as hard or harder than all those lads who are dying to take your place.
You have to keep pushing and get as much out of yourself as you can. There’s plenty of time to rest once you stop playing.
You talk about Duncan Ferguson as someone who perhaps never achieved all he could because of his attitude to training.
He just never became as good as he could have been and I think he will realise that even more now he’s training the kids at Everton. He will see how it’s important to produce, week in, week out, not just when you feel like it.
He wasn’t a good self-motivator and that’s why he only seemed to do it in the big games.
I think he suffered from quite a few knocks off other people in some ways too, because he is actually a really shy fella. Going to prison could have affected him and having his own FA turn their back on him. If it was me I would have had their picture on my wall and thought ‘Fuck you, I’m going to show you by being the best player in the world and you will have to come and beg me to come and play for you’.
I actually used to tell him he should have carried on playing for Scotland because it was him who was suffering. I think he will regret not being able to have a real international career to reflect on with his kids. I do understand his decision though.
I also think he will end up being a top class coach, because he’s been through so many things that most other player’s haven’t, and he will be able to draw on all that. He’s a clever fella, not this sort of fearsome lad who doesn’t care about anything that a lot people think. He’s another where the perception is all wrong. The only problem I see for him is that he’s like me and won’t put up with the politics, so he will need to be somewhere where he is comfortable, which is why he’s so happy with the rest of the Jock clan at Everton at the moment.
Being a down to earth fella yourself, have you ever got used to being recognised by people?
It’s good sometimes and it’s crap sometimes.
I did a five-a-side thing at the London School of Economics and I came out at midnight and I didn’t have a clue where I was going. An Indian taxi driver pulled up out of nowhere, recognised me and asked me where I was going. I told him the M4 and he said no problem, follow me, and led me the right way – things like that are great.
On the other hand, I was on the train at Chelsea and someone just walks past the window and gives me the wanker sign. I’ve also been at Euston and had all sorts of pissed Jocks telling me that they remember me playing for Scotland. I get all sorts, but mostly people are great with me.