PETER JONES LOOKS BACK AT ONE OF THE MOST DECORATED PLAYERS IN ENGLISH FOOTBALL WHO STARTED OUT AT SIXFIELDS.
There is no other British player who has experienced more European success than former Cobbler Phil Neal. Only Bobby Lennox, Paul Scholes, Kenny Dalglish and Ryan Giggs have won more trophies than him in British football history. Despite not picking up any honours at Sixfields, Irchester born Neal owes a lot of his success to the six years he spent learning his trade at Northampton Town.
Neal's youth career was spent with Wellingborough Town until he was transferred to The Cobblers in 1968. His time at the club was spent primarily in the Fourth Division after he saw the club relegated in his first season. Utility players are always useful in football and Neal could certainly consider himself one at Northampton. Throughout his time at the club he played in virtually every position on the pitch - including in goal. Unfortunately for Bob Paisley, the game he chose to come and watch Neal was that very game that he ended up in goal!
Fortunately for Neal, Paisley had already seen enough to render him his first signing and the new right-back for his all-conquering side. Across his six years with The Cobblers he played 187 times and scored 28 goals. Liverpool managed to secure his signature for just £66,000 in October 1974 - a bargain even for that time when compared to the signing of Terry McDermott the following month for £175,000.
Aged just 23, Neal already had a lot of experience under his belt in league football. Spending only one month in the reserves before his debut certainly exemplifies this. The opposition was none other than Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park. A steady performance meant it was not long before Neal was a mainstay of the team and was awarded the nickname of 'Mr. Consistency'. By the December of 1974, he was a permanent fixture in the Liverpool side and he went on to make a club record 365 consecutive league appearances from December 1974 to September 1983. An awe-inspiring feat that is made only more impressive as it commenced just two months into his Anfield career.
His transition from Fourth Division football to the very top of the game was seamless. Neal was a tough defender that was hard to beat who also possessed a keen eye for goal. He scored 59 goals during his time with Liverpool, his ability from the penalty spot was unerring as he scored 38 and only missed 13. This meant that 21 of his goals came from open play which displays his obvious attacking ability from a defensive position. He also has two European Cup Final goals on his illustrious CV. He scored the third goal from the spot against Borussia Mönchengladbach in Liverpool's first European Cup Final victory in 1977. He also scored in the penalty shoot-out in the 1984 European Cup Final where Liverpool defeated Roma.
When Graeme Souness left Anfield for Sampdoria in 1984, Neal was selected to succeed him as Club Captain. It was a role he only held for eighteen months as he soon left for Bolton Wanderers after 11 years and 650 appearances for Liverpool. Neal became Player-Manager at Bolton and his four years playing for the club meant that he played over 700 league games during his remarkable career.
After seven years with Bolton Wanderers, Phil had a brief spell with Premier League side Coventry City in 1993 where he guided the club to their highest league finish in four seasons. He was sacked in the following season as Coventry were sat narrowly above the relegation zone. A seven-month spell as Cardiff City Manager and a month as Caretaker Manager of Manchester City marked the end of his club managerial career.
Phil will always be synonymous with the success of Liverpool during the 1970s and 1980s. However, his footballing story began with Northampton Town.
Without spending his time in the lower divisions with The Cobblers he would not have had the experience necessary to walk straight into the Liverpool side he became a mainstay of. He may not have accomplished a lot with Northampton Town, but any supporter could only be proud to see what he went on to achieve in the game.