Neville Southall, the league-winning former Wales and Everton goalkeeper, has been described as one of his era’s greatest players. He’s also an educator, community worker and advocate for sex workers’ rights, LGBTQ equality and mental health awareness – among other social justice issues. Southall joined Red Pepper editor Jake Woodier to discuss football, politics and the power of ‘Twitter takeovers’
Jake Woodier: You’ve become well known for supporting causes on Twitter, including handing over your account to give others a platform. What made you start doing that and what impact do you think it has?
Neville Southall: I think you give me too much credit. I never set out to ‘do’ anything. I look through the charities that follow me and try and give my platform for them to have a voice really.
Some of the [homophobia and transphobia] that I’ve found on Twitter has upset me greatly. They don’t get fair treatment from anybody. We’ve got a situation where there’s people who can’t play football, or can’t do sport, because of who they are. When you speak to transgender people, they can’t find jobs because nobody seems to want to have them.
We’ve got a government that doesn’t give a shit about anyone. If we’re going to have a society that cares for everybody, then surely transgender people deserve the same rights and opportunities that everybody has?
So, I think that that’s one of the causes. And because we’ve had Black Lives Matter, and all the racism stuff which has come back into football. I think there’s three people to blame – that’s Tommy Robinson, [Nigel] Farage and Boris Johnson – who’ve tried to divide the country to get what they need.
I don’t see the difference between homophobia and racism. They’re both equally as bad, but we seem to have set homophobia on one side. And if it’s anything like the track record we see with racism in football, then we’re going to struggle to get [the issue] anywhere near the table.
If it’s your kid, wife, brother, sister, or whoever it is, and they want a career in sport but can’t have it because somebody up top can’t be arsed, doesn’t want the ‘bad publicity’, then we’re never going to get anywhere. We need to challenge it. And if I give my platforms as a small part of that, then great, they can have it.
JW: How are football fans reacting to and engaging with your Twitter activity?
NS: The world doesn’t care – the world is quite happy. You know, nobody wants racism. Nobody wants homophobia. But you can get rid of it. Unfortunately, we have a situation where the people [in football] who are supposed to be at the coalface are just counting the profit.
You’ve seen it with the European Super League. It’s all about greed – and I know football has been greedy for a long, long time. But you’re not telling me we won’t be going to Qatar, or we never went to Russia [countries with anti-LGBTQ laws], because financially it was a good option for both FIFA and UEFA. Money has always ruled the game in some form or other.
JW: Some people are calling for more social media regulation and action from the footballing authorities to tackle racism and bigotry. Do you think that will make much of a difference?
NS: It’s probably outside of social media, right? Twitter’s full of people who can write what they want. That ain’t gonna change. If you look at society in general – look at what our best television stuff is: Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor, The Voice. It’s all about making instant judgments on people. It’s not about caring about people.
If you really want to [make a difference], then the next time England or whoever goes and plays abroad, or somebody comes here, and there’s racist chants, well, kick that country out of the World Cup. And say: ‘You can’t come back to the World Cup, not until you go back and you sort it out.’
If you want to stop something, you make a statement. And you make a statement by saying: ‘So you’re Man Utd, so you’re Juventus or Real Madrid? Who cares? Is this right, or is this wrong?’ It can’t be a bit wrong, and a bit right. But when teams go abroad, and you hear all that monkey chanting, they should close that ground down and throw that team out. It’s simple.
And I think stewards [in stadiums] should have cameras on them. The problem is, we’re asking people on £8, £10 an hour to stop that stuff when really it’s not their job. Their job is to report it. But if they’ve got the camera and they’ve got it on film? Ban the [people chanting] for life. Don’t let that come back in the ground again, same as the homophobic stuff.
Start throwing them out properly – and tell people beforehand: ‘If there’s any racist chanting, your section’s going out.’ Let’s see what people power can do with racism, because I’m sure 99.9 per cent of the people [in stadiums] don’t want to see it either.
JW: Do you think clubs could be engaging in anti-racism and wider political education – through their community organisations for example?
NS: It’d be great if they could do that. Also, Show Racism the Red Card – why isn’t it government-backed and funded? Why aren’t they properly funded by the FA, full time, so they get into every school? That’s where you want to go, education’s the key.
When somebody gets thrown out the ground for being homophobic or racist, they go, ‘Yeah, well, so is Boris Johnson. He’s in charge of the country, so if it’s alright for him, it must be alright for me.’ He gets away with it time after time after time. And that’s a real problem, when your leader is homophobic, racist and tells lies. People think it’s acceptable.
I’m convinced that football coaching badges should be split into two, so you learn about racism, bullying, sexism and all of them things before you even start coaching. So you’re aware of everything.
But it comes back to again, education. You’ve got an education system where you don’t teach coping strategies to people, and then you throw them in the wild world at 16. But if we started teaching coping strategies in school everybody would have a box of tools that they could draw on.
JW: Some players have been speaking out on homophobia and racism. Do you think that that’s happening enough, and will it make a difference?
NS: The players could do everything right. Look what’s happened with Black Lives Matter: they all take the knee. Then where do the footballers go? They’ve made their point and everybody gets it. You need somebody else to take it on then, don’t you, and that should be the people in charge. Has anybody come out said: ‘We’re gonna really look at this and from next season, any homophobic stuff by a player, your team will lose three points, anything racist, your team will lose three points’? We need to know that the people at the top are willing to make a change.
I think there’s a disconnection still between football and the LGBT community. Why couldn’t Liverpool Pride – the march – end up at Anfield or Goodison and have a little concert in there, and start trying to bring things together rather than keep it pushed apart? Let’s take homophobia: rainbow laces day – do all the players have to wear the laces? No. I’d be saying, ‘Okay, which one of the players don’t want to wear them? Why not?’ Let’s try and educate them why it’s so important.
[As a professional footballer] you’re carrying the hopes of every fan onto that pitch with you. But it means everybody – it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, you’re gay? We can’t play for you.’ And I’d like to see some gay commentators – people in the studio who are gay. I think it would make a difference.
JW: We’ve also seen more politically outspoken players recently, talking about these issues but also mental health, society, the government…
NS: Marcus Rashford has done brilliant and all the other players are doing brilliant with what they’re talking on. Unfortunately, it takes Marcus Rushford to get through to an idiot in No 10 – it should never get to that stage. But there’s thousands of people doing unbelievable work through the charities who never have that opportunity. So my issue is not with Rashford. My issue is: why isn’t Boris Johnson listening to any of these charities?
Needing free school meals for kids is just unbelievably sad. It means that the government and the governments before have all failed our society. And basically, Rashford shamed him into [extending the voucher scheme]. He didn’t want to do it.
Why is our society so top heavy? The same old thing is reflected in the European Super League as in our society: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The Super League will get there in the end, because it will squash everybody else. Governments do the same thing; they squash little people. Eventually it will turn, and people will try and create society for everybody rather than just the people who’ve got loads of cash.
But, let’s be honest, Covid didn’t touch half of them up there, did it? Because they can do whatever; they can isolate because they’ve got the funds to isolate. The normal person in the street, that’s been a real struggle. That just sums up the society.
JW: Do you think there should be any punishment for the six English European Super League breakaway clubs?
NS: Why should you do that? [The club executives] sit in their boardroom and say, ‘Right, how do we make even more money? Should we put a league together of all the best teams and we’ll be the strongest league, and we’ll cream up all our money? Yes.’ Not morally right, is it? But as a pure business plan.
But how many people in the Premier League helped Bury out, helped Bognor out, helped Wigan out financially [when they were going into administration]? None of them. It’s a cutthroat business where you need to make money, that’s what it is.
Gone are the days where you go down [to the ground] early, have a Bovril and a pie, and it costs you two quid. Now, they try and fleece you for every penny you’ve got. But that’s no difference to Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer or any shop is it? They try to get all your cash off you. We’re bombarded every day with people trying to get cash off you, so there’s no real shock that these six decided to do that.
I’m just wondering whether all them Man Utd fans would say, ‘Right, I tell you what, we’ve gone into this Super League, but I’m going to turn the telly off now and never watch Man Utd again. I’m never gonna buy a shirt. I’m never gonna buy a ticket.’ How many supporters would they lose?
JW: Looking at politics more broadly, we are over a year into Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, which you publicly endorsed in 2017 and 2019. How do you think it’s going?
NS: Unfortunately, whoever rules the media and is good with business normally gets in. Keir Starmer looks more corporate than Jeremy Corbyn – he’s got less stick for his clothes, which I find quite strange. They obviously slaughtered Corbyn because he was a real threat. With Starmer, I think he’s one that will appeal to businesses, that is good in the media, in general.
The only thing that I worry about is that we’ve got a homophobic, racist liar, probably sexist in No 10, and we still can’t make any inroads on to gaining people’s trust. Because Boris Johnson seems to be able to do exactly what he wants, he can say the most outrageous things and then laugh and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, that’s old Boris, innit.’
I think Labour, if anything, have been too honest in the past. As we’ve seen the past few weeks, there’s no real issue with telling lies in government, is there? There’s no real issue to just lie your bollocks off and go, ‘Well, it don’t really matter, because what are you gonna do to me?’
Neville Southall is a former Everton FC and Wales goalkeeper, and supports sex workers, trans people & mental health issues.
This interview first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.
#232: Rue Britannia ● The legacy of the British Empire ● An interview with Priyamvada Gopal ● The People’s Olympics ● An interview with Neville Southall ● Agribusiness in India ● Deliveroo’s disastrous IPO ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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Radical workers’ sporting organisations and the 1936 People’s Olympiad illustrate the role of sport in fighting oppression, writes Uma Arruga i López.
Olympic ‘legacy’ has greased the path for enormous, upward transfer of wealth to the global propertied classes, writes Jules Boykoff
Behind the fanfare, numerous political, social and economic debates will play out during this years sporting events, argues Siobhán McGuirk
Betting firms have infiltrated football culture and destroyed lives. James Grimes argues its time to reclaim the sport
Marcus Rashford is challenging neoliberal framings of poverty. We should call him a hero, argues Siobhan McGuirk – without letting his sponsors off the hook
Without active protection from the state, the rejected Project Big Picture is a taste of things to come for English football, argues Alex Maguire
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