When trying to think of a player to fill this column, one name sprung immediately to mind - a versatile utility player, whose name became almost synonymous with Gillingham over his 3 spells with the club, and who was given a brief shot at the big time by Big Sam. To be honest that's where I stopped giving it any more thought - feel free to get in touch if you can think of anyone else who has played for both clubs!
Two things immediately surprised me about Our Nicky's wikipedia page. One was that he's actually called Les. The other was that a man I'd always assumed must have been a Southerner, given that the majority of his career has been based Down South, was actually a Smoggie. He never really looked like a bloke called Les who may be partial to the odd Chicken Parmo. You live and learn.
Leslie Nicholas Southall was indeed born in Middlesbrough, on the 28th of January 1972. After a trial at Newcastle United and a spell in Darlington's youth team, young Nicky got his break as a professional with Hartlepool United in 1991 and went on to play 138 games for them, scoring an impressive 24 goals.
Proving the rather bizarre slogan "Born a Poolie, Live a Poolie, Die a Poolie" that is painted on the main stand at Hartlepool's Victoria Stadium wrong, Nicky's career was "born" there but he managed to escape before they hung him like the famous monkey. He moved on to Grimsby Town in 1995, and had to play in goals in his first match as the Grimsby 'keeper had been sent off. Rumour has it that his team-mates hoped he may be as good a goalkeeper as his more famous name-sake Neville. Clearly he wasn't, as he didn't play in goal again. He did, however, undergo a more longstanding change in position while at Grimsby. He had started his career playing on the left wing for Hartlepool, but at Grimsby he often found himself playing in the centre of midfield. It sounds like this change initially didn't suit him, as he found himself on the bench after a spell of poor form, and was allowed to leave for Gillingham on a free transfer in 1997.
Southall seems to have found his spiritual home at Gillingham, settling into the team as a regular first-team player and displaying his versatility - able to play on either side of the midfield, at wing-back, and in the centre. He made over 300 league appearances in 3 spells at the club as a player, and even returned a fourth time in 2010 as player/coach (but didn't play). He became something of a cult figure with the club in his first spell, making over 150 league appearances and scoring a wonder-goal to knock then-premier league (and Biggest Club In Sheffield) Sheffield Wednesday out of the FA cup. He talks about it in this charming video:
I think I also remember Southall scoring a decent goal against the Wanderers while still a Gillingham player, although I may be wrong and don't have the stats to prove it. Either way, his form for The Gills impressed Big Sam enough to sign him for an undisclosed fee in 2001, and gave Nicky his chance to go "Toe-to-toe with the best" in the Barclays Premier League. This move made Southall one of only a handful of players to have played in all 4 professional divisions in English football.
I don't think Southall was ever signed to be a first-team regular, but was signed with his versatility in mind. Despite this, he went on to make 18 starts and 8 substitute appearances in the 2001-02 season. He displayed his natural athleticism, work-rate, and tidy passing game. He also weighed in with a cracker of a goal away from home against Newcastle United, the club he had been on trial with as a schoolboy. Have a look at it here, in an admittedly poor-quality clip:
Lovely stuff. That game has always stood out in my mind as a huge injustice, and an example of just how favourably Alan Shearer was treated by the officials throughout his career, despite having been one of the dirtiest players I've ever seen play. Surely many of you remember him screaming at the referee for a free kick as Jussi Jaaskelainen held the ball for over the allowed 6 seconds before kicking it out. To this day that is the only time in my life I've ever seen that rule enforced. Shearer inevitably smashed in the indirect free kick from inside the box and The Toon went on to win 3-2.
I digress. Despite Southall's admirable contribution that season, and his versatility, he was deemed surplus to requirements and went out on loan to Norwich. He then ended up back at Gillingham, still in the Championship, until they were relegated in 2005 and his contract expired. Nottingham Forest were also relegated to League One that season, and snapped up the then 33-year-old Southall. He went on to make 67 league appearances for them, and by all accounts was popular with the club's fans, before leaving to re-join Gillingham for a third time in 2007. Southall's career then gradually wound down with a spell at non-league Dover Athletic before making one final FA cup appearance for his beloved Gills as player-coach.
Nicky Southall retired from his role as player-manager of Whitstable Town in 2014, at the age of 42, having made 688 senior league appearances. I always quite liked him - he was a versatile, solid, Championship player who worked hard and was tidy on the ball.