He only meant to stay for a week or two but the 14 months that Neville Southall spent as Torquay United’s goalkeeper have long gone down in Plainmoor folklore.
After losing the 1998 play-off final, the post-Rodney Jack Gulls were suffering a ‘hangover’, and they found themselves on a long winless run with trainee Ryan Northmore as their only fit goalie.
New manager Wes Saunders was told he could do worse than approach Southall, who was coaching Huddersfield Town’s keepers.
Southall revealed: “I had no real thoughts of playing again but Torquay’s centre-half was Alex Watson, the brother of my old Everton teammate Dave Watson. It was Dave who persuaded me to go down there.”
United chairman Bateson dug a little deeper into his pocket for the ex-Everton and Wales legend. Southall was, after all, laden with every honour in the game, to say nothing of an MBE.
He arrived at Plainmoor before a six-pointer against Hull City on December 12, 1998. He was 40 years and 98 days old.
He saved a penalty on that debut, inspired United to a 2-0 win and lifted them to a run of one defeat in nine games, including a brilliant display in a 0-0 draw at Plymouth.
United stayed up by five points and Southall was voted Player Of The Year, after 27 appearances. “I was so chuffed to win the award,” he said. “I’d really enjoyed the games and the people.”
He stayed for a second season. Saunders’ United improved markedly. Nev was never better than in the FA Cup.
Southall had not missed a league game before a January match at Chester, where he sustained a head-knock and was eventually persuaded to go off. The club announced the following week that he was leaving by ‘mutual consent’ after 61 matches. “I never asked to leave,” he said. “Wes was the manager and he wanted to move things on. Fair enough.”
Now 61, he works at a special-needs school in South Wales and champions many underprivileged causes via social media.
“Considering that I only planned to stay a few weeks, I absolutely loved my time at Torquay,” he said. “It was the closest I ever got to Everton in how I felt about a club. I still follow them all these years later.”
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