“I want Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Donald Trump and the geezer from North Korea to be put on a boat that gets sent around the world for the next 25 years,” Neville Southall says as he sinks back into his chair. “That would do me,” he adds, with an endearingly sombre gaze after I’ve asked him how he would like to change the world for the better after a terrible year. It’s dark outside and Southall, the former Everton and Wales goalkeeper who is now one of the most outspoken supporters of people marginalised by mainstream society, briefly looks weary.
Southall has not stopped talking passionately for 70 minutes but he has had a long day. He left home at 5.45am so he could get to work early and, after a taxing day at his special‑needs school in Swansea, he still has to join an online LGBQT+ panel once we complete our interview. But Southall soon rolls on.
“We need a government for all of the people, not just the wealthy, and I’d love to see a proper debate about racism, immigration, gender and sex workers. We’re far too immature in this country to put our fingers on anything without having a massive argument. A government should be able to discuss a wide range of subjects, like we’re talking now, and it shouldn’t be about point-scoring. It should be about what’s best for everybody.”
Southall turns 62 on Wednesday but he is far from resigned to the way the world is reeling. He is driven in his quest to help other people. Southall, in short, remains the most original, compassionate and politicised former footballer in Britain as he uses his striking presence on Twitter to offer a platform to communities that are usually ignored or derided. He allows his account to be taken over some nights by experts in mental health, addiction, transgender issues, sex work, disability, knife crime and suicide bereavement, while encouraging debate to combat racism and homophobia.
There was a time when, during his long career at Everton from 1981-98, Southall was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. He still cares about the game and his beloved Everton but Southall is less interested in the impact of James Rodríguez at the start of a new season than in addressing the state of the world. “I’m scared for this country,” he says. “We’ve got two of the most dangerous leaders in the world causing havoc. Johnson and Trump are loose cannons. In the past we used to think the loose cannons belonged to North Korea or fellas like Saddam Hussein. You don’t expect loose cannons to take over your own country.”
Southall shifts from disquiet to ridicule. “Boris Johnson is a chancer. He’s an Arthur Daley,” he says, before comparing him next to the cackling comedy actor who led the chaos of the Carry On films. “He is Sid James – except that’s disrespectful to Sid. At least Sid James was acting. This fella thinks he can say whatever he wants. What does it say about our society to have the leader of the country being a liar, a racist, a sexist and homophobic? Surely people will eventually say: ‘We can’t have this fella in charge because he’s ruining our country.’”
Southall and I talk on an evening when the news is grim. Coronavirus infections are rocketing and we are lurching back towards a muddled lockdown. Southall shrugs when I say he must be disillusioned with the government’s handling of the pandemic. “They haven’t handled it at all, have they? We’ve had mixed messages all the time. Dominic Cummings can go to Durham but the rest of us can’t. The scientists say one thing in the room and Johnson says the exact opposite. The leadership has been horrendously poor – while people are dying.
“Johnson will look for some excuse, and he’ll take it. Just like Trump, he doesn’t concentrate for any length of time. Look what he’s also doing with Europe at the moment [where Johnson has suggested he would break international law by unilaterally redrafting part of the Brexit deal with the EU]. If you’re a certain type of politician, it’s acceptable to lie. You can say whatever you want, and people will say: ‘Oh, it’s only him. Hasn’t Boris done well otherwise?’ What has he done well? I can’t think of one thing.
“Instead he has tried to use asylum seekers as the enemy to take everybody’s mind off Covid. Every time he has a crisis, he seems to say it’s somebody else’s fault. He always seems to be a victim rather than doing anything helpful. Look what Covid’s done to society in the lockdown. Sex workers, for example, have had no help whatsoever. Yet they’re an industry that’s been around longer than anyone else. They pay their taxes and they have families to feed but no one in government will do anything to help them.”
Southall is serious rather than sensationalist. In his timely new book, Mind Games, which is more about mental health than football, the one-word chapter titles are stark: Fear, Abuse, Failure, Improvement, Racism, Homophobia, Motivation or, more expansively, Helping Others and Getting Older. Southall moves between fleeting reflections of his own extraordinary career and suggestions on how those lessons might be applied to ordinary people.
He also has a humility that deepens his empathy. Southall compares his reactions after winning the FA Cup in 1984 and in 1995 – when he was outstanding and the main reason why Everton beat Manchester United 1-0. In 1984, still being relatively new to the team, he felt compelled to attend the post-match celebrations despite feeling “overcome by a wave of embarrassment” after collecting his winner’s medal.
Eleven years later, Southall was secure in his own character and so, rather than attend the party in London, he drove straight back to Merseyside. He was halfway home when he saw that a car, carrying United supporters, had broken down. Southall pulled over, told them to jump in and then drove to the closest garage.
Were the United fans shocked to be rescued by the man who had cost them the FA Cup? “I don’t think they even knew who I was. We didn’t have much of a conversation. It was just: ‘Where do you wanna go? OK. I’ll drop you off there. See ya later.’ That was it. They probably wouldn’t expect a player from the opposition to stop, would they?”
Southall veers away from football stories to his enduring concern for people in the transgender community. “Lots of people think it’s a sin to be trans,” he says. “I looked at JK Rowling’s reaction to transgender women. She above everybody knows what fantasy is. So she must be able to imagine that some people are born in the wrong bodies. We never question a child that is born as a cojoined twin. But we question that somebody can be born in the wrong body. That happens because we can’t see in somebody’s brain, or soul, to understand how they feel.
“I don’t know everything there is to know about trans people, which is why I am always trying to learn more. But I know people should be allowed to live the lives they want within reason. If you’re born into a male body but you feel so strongly that you’re a female, why should I stop you? Your body is just a shell. You have a right to discover your real self.
“If somebody wants to do the whole transition it’s a big operation. Mentally it takes incredible courage. So what JK Rowling said doesn’t help. She’s sold loads of books and she’s obviously got talent but maybe she’s of an age where she doesn’t have knowledge about trans issues and maybe she’s scared of it. If you don’t understand something and you start talking out loud against it that’s dangerous.”
What does Southall feel about Caster Semenya? “They’re making her take drugs to dilute her testosterone. It’s an absolute disgrace to give her tablets so she can’t be who she is. They’re basically saying: ‘You’re too good so you’ve got to take these tablets to slow you down.’ That’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to Usain Bolt. We need some massively serious debates about gender because nobody seems to be able to come up with a definitive answer.”
His commitment to causes he never thought about as a footballer is laudable and Southall admits he has little time for himself. “My life Monday to Friday is me up at half-five. Go to work. Back here around five. Do what I’ve got to do [in supporting other communities online] and then I get to bed around 10 o’clock. I’m driving 600 miles a week, minimum, and you get into that routine. All of a sudden you think: ‘Wow, another six months gone.’”
Yet in his book Southall writes that, even when he is exhausted, whether at night or on the weekends, he will engage in direct messages online with people who sometimes feel seriously depressed. He takes time with each person to try and help them find stability and hope. He shakes his head when I ask if his wife is sometimes concerned because Southall gives so much of himself to others. “No, because a lot of the time I don’t tell her.”
He also admits he has begun to think a lot about death. “Yeah,” he exclaims. “How can I not? But, if I die tomorrow, I’ve had a good life. I’m quite happy. I’m quite peaceful. I don’t want to die but I’ve worked out now that as long as you’re comfortable within yourself, death is not really a fear, is it?”
Southall has decided how he wants to spend the best years of his remaining life. “I want to do some sort of counselling,” he says earnestly. “I’d like to work myself up into a position where I’m a first responder at a suicide hotline. I think I’d be quite good at it. I’ve met counsellors and they often hide their personality. I don’t want to do that. I want to keep my personality and not use all the fancy words of counselling. I think people want plain, simple stuff. I want to say: ‘Look, this what we can do to help you.’
“I want to concentrate not so much what you’ve got but how we can move forward. I’ve done a lot of Open University courses this summer. I’m finding out what else I need to do to get to a first responder stage.
“We all have our dreams. But what we’re trying to do in this country is stop everybody dreaming. That’s the worst thing we can do because that’s where we find hope. We should all have loads of dreams and ambitions and live our lives to the full. It’s simple really.”
Mind Games by Neville Southall is published by Harper Collins. • In the UK the The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.