Remembering the Greats: The Distinguished Calling of Neville Southall


I recently helped out at a fundraising event for the proposed Liverpool Cancer Hospital. Accompanied by my Godson, I went along to Everton Football Club and spent an enjoyable afternoon fundraising with fans of the ` Peoples Club`.

It was a happy day with all fans, thoughtful, generous and humorous while making their donations and in generally a good spirited mood. I called on my relatively limited knowledge of Everton FC so as to engage with fans and spoke about current and previous players.

One name dominated – Neville Southall!

A long-standing Everton fan informed me that each week, he and other fans would list the team and various concerns they might have regarding a player’s form. However, he revealed, `never, Neville! ` He could always be relied upon to give his best!

Alliteration aside `never, Neville, ` it occurred to me later, probably best summed up the enigmatic goalkeeper’s approach to life and his personality more generally. Outsider, consistent performer on the football field, most capped Welsh international and observer of life, author and more recently campaigner for human rights, and mental health activist, Neville’s career has been anything but uneventful and in many ways contradictory.

To illustrate, in 1992 he was awarded and accepted an MBE, which seems in contrast to his current views on society and human rights. However, this may have been a milestone in his development as a voice for the disenfranchised.

Neville Southall, Albert Camus and philosophical thinking

I have previously written in Fox Sports Stories about the existential novelist and philosopher Albert Camus. My intention was not to self-aggrandise but rather to illustrate ways in which football is linked closely with a philosophy for living.

While Camus did not play in goal to the level many believe, and certainly not to the heights achieved by Neville Southall, he is alleged to have commented:

`What little I know on morality, I learned it on football pitches and theatre stages. Those were my true universities. `

Albert Camus` philosophy of living

Albert Camus played in goal with the university football team – Racing Universitaire Algerios and proved a courageous player. Physical illness caused his failure to progress in football. Nonetheless, it did not prevent Camus from likening his experience of goalkeeping and football more generally to an applied philosophy for living, subsequently achieving the Nobel Prize for literature. Albert Camus fervently believed in human dignity, social connection, looking out for others, and integrity as fundamentals to living a meaningful life.

Football and an emergent altruism

Recent and poignant media accounts, illustrate ways in which premiership footballer, Jermain Defoe reached out to a young fan, Bradley Lowrey, who was struggling with serious illness before his recent death. This along with his humanitarian work with The Jermaine Defoe Charitable Foundation, perhaps reflects Albert Camus’ understanding of the power of football and of a hope for a better understanding of human existence and more generally suffering, outside of wealth, fame and fortune so often associated with elite football.

Neville Southall and applied philosophy

Neville Southall embraces similar values and a philosophy for living. Throughout his life and career as a gifted footballer, Neville Southall has never, it appears, courted or seemingly enjoyed publicity. His view about life was shaped by his father’s wartime experiences and growing up on a council estate in his lifelong home of Llandudno in north Wales and so it is perhaps natural that he would develop collectivist leanings.

He has also experienced a working life as refuse collector, (more popularly known as binman), waiter and hod-carrier along with the ups and downs of life as a world class goalkeeper. More recently, he is enjoying success as an acclaimed author and insightful documenter of life through the lens of his wide-ranging football experience.

In a recent newspaper article, Neville Southall referred to current work as a youth activist and mental health advocate, stating that his current concerns were with social inclusion for people who are isolated from society and mainstream norms. I read also that Neville reports unflattering name-calling by some young people receiving his help and guidance.

Perhaps typical of his stoicism, his response was to say:

`I have been called much worse when playing football. Sometimes by 40,000 people`

Comfortable as an outsider, Neville Southall might be, even eccentric and occasionally wayward, as he has sometimes described himself. Whatever life and new acclaim has in store, it seems, that he will engage with, and follow his beliefs as he has done throughout his life and it is appropriate he played the best of his career at the famous `Peoples’ Club.’

Much like the notable guardian of the goal before him, experiences of personal hardship and professional seclusion as a goalkeeper may have offered much wisdom to Neville Southall. He is applying his illustrious knowledge gained from football to living in much the way Albert Camus proposed for life.

One cannot help but wonder where this different and perhaps more distinguished calling might take him! Whatever challenges or applause his existing work might bring, it is likely he will continue to follow his personal values and, as such, it seems from media statements, he will not relinquish his, morally influenced, world-view or of what he considers decent and fair in society.