In many ways, Neville Southall’s Twitter bio tells you everything you need to know about the somewhat unlikely hero of social media.
“Ex-Everton and Wales goalkeeper supports sex workers, trans people and anyone else I want,” it reads, with more than a slight air of defiance, before concluding with: “Interested in mental health issues.”
As someone whose playing days came to an end in 2002, when the concept of mass communication across the internet on smartphones was still at an early stage, the now 62-year-old Southall is a surprising stand-out among the smattering of ex-pros who have become prominent social media figures.
His success story, however, is a highly encouraging and positive one. Southall has more than 171,000 followers on Twitter, where he regularly highlights good causes and the work of those supporting others in need, including the protection of the NHS, LGBT rights, and suicide awareness. This week, he handed his account over to The Sleep Charity, “to create awareness around sleep and the impact it has on mental health”.
His interactions on the site have also helped Southall learn about the world outside of the football bubble in which he has spent the vast majority of his life, an empowering and educating experience he wants everyone to feel is accessible to them instead of the negative connotations which have attached themselves to social media.
What is clear from his account – and when he speaks about the book he has written, Mind Games, which addresses how football can help with mental health awareness – is that he firmly believes social media can be a force for good.
“It’s taught me there’s a lot I don’t know about,” said Southall, who won two first division titles, two FA Cups, and a European Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton, alongside 92 international caps for Wales.
“I lived in a bubble for 30 years nearly, playing football. I didn’t take much notice of the world outside that bubble but I’ve learned about lots of different things.
“I listen to people and learn about the things I’m interested in. Twitter has been great for me because the bubble outside of my house is Everton. Whenever I’ve left my house and needed help with anything, there’s always been an Evertonian there. I’m grateful to the club and the fans because they’ve made my life easier.
“I’ve basically had thousands and thousands of people who have given me a support network. I’m in a very lucky position and not everybody is that fortunate.
“I can tweet something and within five seconds, I get an answer – I want that support network to be available to everybody. With the cuts that we’ve had in the NHS, it’s getting worse, it’s not getting better.
“So I think it’s time we look to the social media now – it doesn’t have to be a negative thing now, it can be a really positive thing.”
Such negativity is never far away on social media. The hate and abuse posted on Twitter and other platforms has led to Sky Sports launching a campaign to help stop it.
Southall himself admits he is not fazed in any way by what he reads in response to his tweets – “people who give you stick on Twitter are rubbish at it. I’ve heard the Kop and places like that – these people are amateurs compared to that” – but he knows for others, dialogue like this can be more dangerous.
“You can do a lot of damage to people with the wrong communication,” he said. “Football seems to be full of incredibly positive stuff about people and then they absolutely hammer them.
“A lot of is great but a lot of it is really, really bad too. Lots of times it goes too far and it can make a massive difference to people’s lives. We need to hold back a bit.
“Marcus Rashford has done great work with the free school meals and other initiatives and he gets stick on Twitter for talking about Manchester United. We need to look at it.”
For a long period of his career, there was little doubt Southall was the best goalkeeper in the world. Everton were a dominant force in English football in the 1980s and he was a key component of that.
However, he admits he did have moments of anxiety when he was on the field and that others did too. Back then, coping techniques tended to begin and end with group visits to the nearest pub.
Southall said: “I used to walk into a ground with an Everton shirt on and there’d be 40,000 people there that wanted to be me – so what did I have to worry about? They are the best people in the world and they were envious of me.
“But the fear of failure is in everyone. When you step on the pitch, you’re worried you won’t be good enough or you might make a mistake and you learn to manage that.
“If you’re sensible, you will try to get around it using different techniques. It’s like when people talk about the drinking culture in football – the drinking culture was a version of a psychiatrist now because most of the lads didn’t have anywhere to turn to. They’d have a drink and get it all off their chests.
“We’ve all had situations that we’ve gone into and we’ve not been 100 per cent sure of,” he said. “If you’re a footballer, you don’t know what’s going to happen – you can half-predict it but you never know.
“It’s about hoping it’s the right decision and the right thing to do but there’s always that little bit of fear. As footballers you’re expected to be perfect for 90 minutes but it’s not always like that.
“Humans make mistakes. We’re not robots.”
World Mental Health Day is marked globally on October 10.
Sky offers support for our viewers on a broad range of topics, including mental health. Find out more here.