MODERN footballers tend to get tarred with the same ugly brush. Big egos, too much money, badly behaved.
But really, a few big-name players aside, that isn’t the case at all.
There are countless examples of fine, upstanding individuals inside the dressing room at Blackpool FC for starters, and none more so than Keith Southern.
This year will be Southern’s 10th at the club. He is 31, approachable off-the-field, modest and unassuming, the very antidote to the flash-harry football star.
Which is why so many within the game were left devastated when it was revealed late last year that Southern had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his testicle.
Less than 48 hours earlier, he had played the full 90 minutes in a hard-fought draw at Middlesbrough.
The news knocked his world upside down. His wife, who had given birth to the couple’s first child, Ryan, a year before, was distraught. Suddenly, football didn’t matter.
“I was in a really dark place at Christmas time. My wife was worried about my health, my mental health,” admitted Southern, displaying a candour rare among professional sports people.
“She wanted me to go and speak to some professional people, but I didn’t feel as though there was a need to do that.
“To be told you have something like that is such a huge shock, because you feel invincible at 30 years of age. You are never ill, you never miss a day’s training, you come back from bad injuries – you feel like there is nothing that can knock or dent you.
“But we are all human, and there are things out there that – if they are not treated – can basically kill you.
“I’ve been to a very dark place, but so have a lot of people in this world, and there are a hell of a lot of people worse off than me, no one more so than Gary Parkinson.
“I went and saw him last week, and what I have been through pales into insignificance compared to what he and his family have experienced.”
Typical Southern. Even when discussing his own problems, he is thinking of someone else.
Parkinson, of course, was working as Blackpool FC’s youth coach when, in 2009, he suffered a life-changing stroke. It has left the 44-year-old with locked-in syndrome, unable to move or speak, and requiring around-the-clock care in hospital.
Southern’s issue was very different. He had cancer to deal with, a destructive disease that has touched nearly all of us in one way or another, but is never any less shocking for those diagnosed with it.
Thankfully for Southern, his story has a happy ending. Surgery was successful, he started playing football again just two months later – in January of this year – and then, a few weeks ago, news which reduced him to tears... this time for the right reasons.
“After having the tumour removed, and without going too much into it, I was told the chances of me fathering another child were very remote,” he said.
“We took certain measures to help us in the future with fertility and what not, but fortunately they weren’t needed.
“A few weeks ago I arrived home to find my wife crying. I thought ‘what’s going on? Something awful must have happened’.
“Then she told me she was pregnant. She has conceived naturally. I would go as far as saying it was the best day of my life when I found out.”
Proof, if ever it were needed, that it is the simple things in life which matter, not money or fame.
Southern agrees. “As you get older. and without sounding like I’m preaching, you have children and you do appreciate that there is much more to life than doing what we do – which at the end of the day is just chasing a bag of air around on a Saturday.
“Don’t get me wrong. We are very passionate about what we do, and no one more so than me.
“But deep down, is it really that important?
“I don’t think it is. Your family and your friends and the people around you matter much more.”
Southern will rest this summer, spend time with those closest to him, and return next season determined to do the business on the pitch for Blackpool.
To those who aren’t football fans, and haven’t seen him in action, he is the type of player every manager craves.
He gives every last ounce of effort and covers every blade of grass. He is brave too, regularly putting his head where others wouldn’t.
He is the consummate pro, someone who has done his profession proud, which is why even he can’t understand the so-called superstars of the game, the likes of Carlos Tevez and John Terry, who hog the front rather than back pages, and give everyone else a bad name.
“I sometimes wonder what it is all about,” Southern says, shaking his head.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve never had the fame and fortune of the obvious Premier League players. Maybe it is because I’m not a household name.
“But even if I earned millions of pounds a week, I just couldn’t imagine myself changing. I come from a working class family, have married into a working class family, and I just try to keep my head down and go about each day as best I can.
“You are who you are, and I think the majority of the boys at Blackpool Football Club are the same.
“I tend to surround myself with people who are similar to me.
“I don’t like the flash, big-time Charlie attitude. It is not me, it is not something I stand for.
“Good luck to them if they are like that, but it is not something I try to be, or want to be.”
You would have to travel a long way to find a footballer like Keith Southern. Honest, dignified, brave, and a fine player to boot.
Blackpool, and the sport in general, are lucky to have him.