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Jack the Lad: Welcoming a legend

Enhancing the matchday experience has become a fashionable phrase in football over recent years.

For me, there is normally only one thing that really attracts my attention on matchday, and that's the match itself.

Added attractions are all well and good, but no matter what you throw into the mix, it's the actual 90 minutes between the first and last whistles that will always be the most important element for me.

However, this Saturday, I have to admit there is an ingredient to the ‘matchday experience’ that really interests me.

The Swans have invited one of the most fascinating characters in Welsh football to come along and entertain hospitality guests in the 1912 Heritage Lounge.

Neville Southall was one of the game's most enigmatic and intriguing characters during a brilliant career, which saw him widely recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in the world – if not the best.

Goalkeepers are notoriously different to outfield players in character, but Southall was more different than most.

Unlike most top-class footballers, Southall wasn't scouted at a young age or developed through the academy system.

Before he made it as a pro footballer, he had several jobs including waiter, hod-carrier and working on the bins, a fact acknowledged in the title of his autobiography – The Binman Chronicles.

In a spectacular career with Everton, Southall won two FA Cups, two league titles and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In 1984-85, he became only the fourth goalkeeper ever to win the Footballer of the Year award as Everton triumphed at home and abroad.

It was reward for a magnificent season topped off by a remarkable point-blank save from Tottenham's Mark Falco late in a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane that effectively clinched the title.

After the match, Southall said of the save: "He put it straight at me."

If you haven't seen this save, it's well worth a Google search to see if you agree with his assessment.

If the save was a classic moment in his 751-game Everton career, probably the most iconic image is that of Southall sitting with his back leant up against a goal post during the half-time interval of a Goodison Park match against Leeds United.

So annoyed was perfectionist Southall by his first-half performance, he sat alone on the pitch to contemplate what had gone wrong and "clear his head".

That was a very public incident, but there was plenty about Southall that went under the radar, such as anonymously donating the fees for his weekly column in the Liverpool Echo to a local children's hospice, a fact only revealed by the newspaper recently.

But it was with Wales that Southall really caught my eye. Until Chris Gunter surpassed him recently, the goalkeeper was his country's most capped player with 92 appearances.

Most will remember Ian Rush's winner for Wales against world champions Germany at the old Cardiff Arms Park in 1991.

But Southall pulled off several saves every bit as important as the Liverpool striker's goal in the 1-0 win, including a remarkable stop from a Jurgen Klinsmann header.

To this day I'm still trying to work out how he made a twisting, leaping save from Holland's Pierre van Hooijdonk in a Cardiff World Cup qualifier in 1996. I was there, I saw it, but I still don't believe he made it.

Yes, there was the Gheorghe Hagi goal in the fateful World Cup qualifying defeat against Romania in 1993, which Southall himself admits he should have saved, but that was a rare blemish on an outstanding career.

However, if anything, Southall is even more interesting and entertaining now than he was as a player.

Having left school with no qualifications, he turned to education after his playing career and he is now working in Ebbw Vale offering education for children excluded from mainstream schools.

And in a further twist to the Southall story, he has become something of a social media sensation.

In order to expand his own knowledge and further educate those youngsters he teaches, he started asking questions on Twitter on subjects he didn't understand.

This has developed into him raising general awareness on subjects such as gender, LGBT issues, sex workers rights, mental health, suicide bereavement and drug addiction.

He regularly hands over his Twitter feed, which has 145,000 followers, in order to give a voice to people who would not normally be heard on such a scale.

If you loved him as a player, it's likely you like him even more now – especially if you're Welsh.

Not long after the untimely death of Wales team-mate Gary Speed, Southall went to put his own affairs in order with his solicitor.

Southall said: "It was easy really, because I only had one great wish. When I go, wherever I am in the world, I want my body brought back and buried in Welsh soil. That's all that matters to me."

Hopefully, the Swans will provide an entertaining win over Sheffield Wednesday at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, but those of you lucky enough to have a seat in the 1912 Heritage Lounge should be in for an entertaining afternoon whatever happens on the pitch.

C'mon you Swans!

 

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Jack the Lad

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