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Sep 29, 2012

Southall: Give kids a chance

Not so long ago, Neville Southall was watching a youth match with a scout. As soon became apparent, though, the former Everton goalkeeper was watching it in a very different way.

Southall turned to the scout and started an exchange that went as follows.

"What should a 12-year-old be able to do [as a footballer]?" he asked. "Be the best player on the pitch," came the reply. "But what should he actually be able to do?" Southall pressed again. "Well I don't f*****g know, do I?" was the scout's final remark.

"I have a real problem with that," Southall says now. "Where's your benchmark? Loads of teams have academies but they don't know what they should be able to do so they just coach them as they think is best. There's no national standard.

"At eight, if you can work the ball comfortably then, at 10, we can work on balance and control, then each bit should be built up so, within that session you go, 'he can do that now, so we can push him on a bit and work a bit harder.' So you can stretch the good ones and give more time to the ones that are struggling."

Not unlike school then? "Exactly," Southall says. "But we don't have it for football." Given that little exchange, it is perhaps no surprise that Southall is now a trained teacher himself, but also one that has seen the inside of the education system and realised its inefficiency for any student that doesn't fall within a very narrow 'norm'.

Instead, the 54-year-old has set up his own foundation, specialising in nurturing disadvantaged or disenfranchised kids who have fallen out of mainstream education, with his qualifications recognised as a BTEC equivalent. As Southall puts it, every one of them has "some sort of unrealised potential and it was up to us to release it".

At times, particularly when talking about education, he genuinely doesn't sound far off one of the more socially conscious characters in David Simon's The Wire.

Throughout his career, though, Southall did often look way off what was the norm for a professional footballer. Notoriously, he became known as an eccentric. It isn't something that sits comfortably with him and, aside from raising money for his noble non-profit foundation, was one of the main reasons behind his new autobiography, The Binman Chronicles.

"I think everyone's got a perception of you and sometime it's not what you thought it was," he says. "Most people thought I was stupid or just mad. Hopefully I've changed that." Certainly, he seems to have succeeded. When you either skip through the book or speak to Southall, you realise it wasn't that he looked different, but that he just looked at things differently. He wasn't just deeper than most footballers, he is deeper than most people.

Take his perspective on playing as a goalkeeper. Because of some of his behaviour, Southall was seen as an archetypical member of a 'mad' profession. No. 1s were seen as apart, with the intense isolation of the position supposedly encapsulated by Peter Handke's book, The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty. Southall, though, never had that. His major fascination was with a more complex situation: the one-on-ones.

"If you're in a 50-50 with a forward, there are all sorts of questions," Southall says. "Is he going to pull out because he's weak? Is he not going to pull out and be late to do you? So you've to weigh everybody up. A penalty is easier. You know when the kick is coming.

"The thicker ones [in a one-on-one], they just smash it. The ones that are clever, the Ian Wrights, the Dennis Bergkamps, they'll look at different variations. What I try is to stand up as long as I could to force them to make a decision. I didn't want to make a decision for them. If I go early, it's easy for him, so I'll try to make it as hard as I possibly could. It's a mental battle because the hardest skill in football is to stand still.

"Don't forget, the longer he delays, the more it's loaded in my favour because there's pressure on him, both to score and in people coming back. So you try and load more pressure on him. Sometimes, if you're really clever, I'd try and dummy the forwards. It's all about trying to get them to do exactly what you want to do. It's like chess. The good ones think. The bad ones just react."

Thinking is certainly the key word. Because, when it's put like this, it's easy to forget that all of these pieces of information and potential outcomes are distilled and assimilated in a matter of seconds. As instinctive as Southall often made those situations look, though, that wasn't the case. He only added to all that information with hours of reading, particularly biographies from individual sports.

"I think it was Johnny Nelson's book, he said he was s**t scared as a fighter, that he was a coward and hated boxing," he explains. "And, yet, he changed as he went along and became a world champion. So how do you go from thinking you're a coward to a world champion?

"That's like a goalkeeper, there's that mental approach. Golfers are the same. I read as much as I could, how they trained. Because you look at a goalkeeper, they've got to be part-gymnast, part weight-lifter, part-boxer, part-psychologist... you've got to be a chameleon."

That should have always suited Southall fine given the amount of jobs he famously had before becoming a footballer - giving rise to the title of his autobiography. Not that Southall necessarily sees goalkeepers as 'individual sportsmen' like golfers or boxers, as many do.

"You're trying to control everybody, to get everybody into position. All the best goalies don't dive because the idea is to get them ten idiots in front of you to run about a lot so you don't have to do anything."

Again, the mental side. And, to a certain degree, Southall laments the lack of thinking in the modern British game: "When I first got into the team and you'd be on the bus, you'd have the radio, that's it. No mobile phones, no laptops, no DVDs. Some lads used to sit and talk about the game. Now they get the bus, put their earphones in... and I think that bit has gone a bit, where they don't sit and talk about the game."

Southall, however, believe it's borne of bigger problems.

"Take Theo Walcott. He runs down the wing and he can't cross. So, all that coaching staff, all that technology... and he's dragged wide. I look at him especially. Now he wants to play down the middle and I'm thinking 'if you can't cross the ball...' Can we develop these players? Surely that's what coaching is about, improving."

Which, of course, brings us back to the issue at the beginning. What can be done?

"We don't do enough for [the young players]," he says. "If there was a national standard, the coaching would be far easier wouldn't it? If you're in my academy and I want you in my first team in seven years, I want you to learn about systems, control. I don't want to have any problems when it comes to my first team. That's the whole point isn't it? When he gets to the first team, he knows what's going on. It's about getting to that point."

At the moment, Southall is more preoccupied with getting similar-aged kids to another point: a fighting chance in education. He feels that chance has been diminished, however, by a similarly unthinking attitude from David Cameron's government as that displayed in football coaching.

"What he's done in one stroke is killed our kids because he's taken away all the vocational stuff. It's great being academic but what happens if you're not? Don't you deserve the same opportunity?" In the same way that people don't appreciate the different type of intelligence that is involved in a young striker weighing up his opportunity and outfoxing a goalkeeper, Southall feels people don't appreciate that some children just have a different way of learning too.

"If you like a vocation, you come in here [the Neville Southall Foundation] for two days a week and your maths, literacy and numeracy could be embedded in that so, without knowing it, they learn," he insists. "You have to build a relationship with a kid and find out what makes them tick. If you don't know what makes them tick, how can you get them to work?

"They're cutting everything. With five classes a day, how are teachers going to get to know the kids? It's like football. If you do your academies right, you'll have less problems in the first team. If you do your primary schools right, and hammer it with resources and things like that so it's all broken down and people are given everything they need, nobody wasted, I think you have half a chance."

Neville Southall: The Binman Chronicles is out now. £10 from each book goes to the Neville Southall Foundation, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting community sport in Wales.

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