Issue That Neville Southall feeling

As told by Michael Wood

John McLaughlin’s injury – he will miss the game that should have have been his debut away at Barnet at the weekend after he and Darren Byfield clashed in a closed doors friendly with Doncaster Rovers and the keeper was knocked out – leaves City looking for an emergency keeper and sends fans minds racing back to a Sunday Sky TV day in 2000 when Bradford City were left scrabbling for a keeper and ended up with Neville Southall in goal.

The history of City’s need then differs to now. Stuart McCall the manager decided to have three keepers at the club: Rhys Evans, McLaughlin and youngster Matthew Convey; for financial reasons more than footballing ones – an extra goalkeeper costs, unsettles and is not often used while when McCall the player reteamed with his former Goodison Park team mate Southall in 2000 for the home game with Leeds United it was because of a set of circumstance that while common place in the madness of that Premiership season were curious to say the least.

Gary Walsh had lost his place to Matt Clarke who had in turn been injured – both those custodians having been impressive to say the least – and Aidan Davison had taken on the gloves superbly but with Clarke heading back to fitness – or so we were told – in the week before the home game with Leeds which represented a first top flight Valley Parade clash with our rivals in many lifetimes and a chance for an in form City to snatch some bragging rights.

That week saw the transfer deadline pass on Thursday and at the time Clarke was expected to be fit although Paul Jewell had seen the need to go looking for another keeper alighting at Elland Road. Recollections become rumours here and this story lacks hard confirmation but it is said that Jewell asked Chairman Geoffrey Richmond for money to spend on a promising keeper he had seen and Richmond gave him £200,000. Jewell made a bid – £180,000 – for the second string keeper at Elland Road and had it accepted on the proviso that the player – Paul Robinson – did not play on Sunday.

If that is true then one can only assume it was brinksmanship that saw City walk away from the deal. Perhaps – three months before the club’s meltdown began – it is an indication that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Nevertheless Clarke was – it was said – fit to play until Sunday morning when it was announced to supporters, Sky and all that he had fallen down the stairs at home and was not fit.

Rumour became fact – “Clarke lives in a bungalow”, “he was never fit” – but on that Sunday morning a young keeper named Danny Taylor prepared to glove up to make his Premiership debut in the West Yorkshire derby.

Apologies to Danny if this is incorrect but the description that followed is as simple as it is brutal. Taylor bricked it.

Jewell watched as his youthful keeper quivered in the dressing room in the hours leading up to the game and knew that he had no chance to putting the player – who now runs a barber’s shop in Bradford – into a Premiership game. His only other option was 41 year old goalkeeping coach Southall.

I heard a story about Southall once that broke a man’s heart. The Everton keeper played before obscene wealth in football but still must have made a few quid but whatever he made he had squandered forcing him to – as the story I heard goes – beg his agent for public relations work to pay the bills. Before playing that game for City Southall had been in goal for Torquay a month or so before because in the frankest terms he needed the money.

So Southall took to the field and the rest is a history cruelly told. My recollection is that Southall had three saves to make all game and only got to one of them – his mobility was limited to say the least and it seemed that he could not dive – leaving Leeds to score twice with the reply of a stunning, Match of the Day title making Peter Beagrie goal. The Guardian noted after the game that City had the spirit to suggest that they might be up for a relegation fight that they eventually won. Leeds went on to the Champions League and – as a result of ridiculous investment based on that – to where they are now.

Southall – perhaps the greatest goalkeeper Great Britain had produced – became a laughing stock. It was an unfair end to the career of a legend of the game.

Unfair too on City. Leeds fans would argue the point but I believe that on that day the Bantams were the better side and that with a keeper able to perform would have been left celebrating a win over them from Elland Road. Fate is fickle but adversity bred a spirit in that side that saw Liverpool and the last day of the season escape.

Fast forward nine years and the Bantams are looking for an new keeper in the days leading up to a game that could not be further from a Premiership derby – away at Barnet – but is perhaps no less important as Stuart McCall’s side mount a promotion push and look to maintain momentum. Evans’s strain and Convey returning from loan at Salford City injured along with McLaughlin’s enforced absence after being knocked out are things that few could cater for.

Perhaps though – if there is a moral to the Southall story – it is that success in football is often subject to the arrows or outrageous fortune.