Picture the scene: A packed pub just yards from Goodison Park. A legend of the game, Neville Southall, holding court in front of a transfixed group of Evertonians intently hanging to his every word during an honest and open Q+A session. Then suddenly a raised hand, a familiar face. Southall’s former title winning team mate John Bailey, a paying member of the audience has a question! “D’ya think we should be playin with wingers Nev?” he enquiries of the big Welshman. Neville, with not a hint of irony or surprise towards the questioner answers: “Well we need something different” the obedient followers roundly agree with a cheer!
Two league titles, two FA Cups, a European Cup Winners cCup between them, Southall and Bailey still had all the passion, empathy and insight for the game they displayed during their successful playing days in the Royal Blue shirt. This was player and fan interacting as only football can; a togetherness and identity which is sadly becoming increasingly rare in the modern game.
The distance between the players and the fans has never been greater in my opinion, the ability to genuinely share what the game means to both supporters and those they watch and worship is becoming more difficult for both parties. However, for me it’s not the personalities to blame, but the increasingly sanitised nature of the business and those who administer it.
The overzealous controlling of both player and club is strangling the relationship between the most important sections of the game by arguably the least important. The characters, such as Southall and Bailey, are still around in today’s game but they’re just not allowed to cross that bridge enough to enjoy that warmth and understanding we all enjoyed in the past. It’s a big concern for me, the game needs to pull back and reclaim that ground if it is to remain the nations biggest love and sport.
Where will these players come from within the current incumbents of the beautiful game? Can we honestly name the stars of today who will be sitting with fans as former players in the pubs and clubs around the country sharing their stories of times gone by? I’m struggling to be honest.
Everton though, a club who have always cared for and enjoyed a fantastic relationship with their former stars, have a fantastic opportunity to ensure that those bonds and that respect and relationship between fan and player stays strong when they move to their new stadium. How? By making sure the features of a new home on the banks of the River Mersey allows that relationship to flourish. i’m sure there will be many suggestions of how they can do that and they seem to have an architect involved who embraces such detail.
But I dearly hope that those in power in the game can take a step back and recognise that the sport we love needs to remain one in which we can relate to with those who play it. They are every youngster’s hero, they are the memories to those of us who enjoy to reminisce and they are the future for those yet to taste the explosion of the senses of that first match experience!
Big Nev suggested that team sheets should bear the name of a fan alongside that of the superstar playing – a way of personally reminding that player of exactly who they are playing for. It may be an ambitious and somewhat romantic idea, but one I think both supporters and players will identify with.
As for that moment the two former stars shared in the pub on the night, I say thanks Bails and thanks Nev!