Opinion

Why Big Neville Southall and his Twitter account are an example to us all

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Tristan Cross
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The world is a strange and confounding place. Establishment politics is crumbling like a Nazi exposed to the Ark of the Covenant - only, alarmingly, far-right ideology is attempting to assume its place. Every childhood hero finds a new and uniquely unforgivable way to disgrace themselves, every Silicon Valley keynote merrily announces a fresh advance in tech that will soon render all of humanity redundant, and every BBC push notification gives you an update on our impending extinction. We should keep an eye on the sun, in case someone tries to replace it with one of those laser pointer keyrings kids used to shine in people’s faces at school. But, amidst this chaos, there is a constant. When I am left feeling bewildered and lost by the fickle disatisfaction of living, I go on Neville Southall’s Twitter, and I feel alright again. I do this two or three times a day now. Sometimes more.

There are different ways you might be uninitiated to the specific and myriad joys of Southall.

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You might know him as his cult caricature ‘Big Nev’: a goalkeeper who paid - what could be generously described as - ‘lax attention to his weight’ in the latter stages of his career, and who was once memorably forced into Premier League action aged 41 after Bradford suffered a farcical injury crisis of keepers, despite having all the mobility of a shed. He is a fondly-remembered figure synonymous with the vibrantly hued ‘80s and ‘90s Match of the Days before football swapped pints for protein powder and upscaled itself to become the hyper-slick, ultra-athletic flagship product of the Sky Sports era.

Or you might know him as the Big Nev of his prime: a genuinely astounding keeper, pivotal in Everton’s halcyon ‘80s side where he kept clean sheets like beloved pets (269 in 751 games), saved his best performances for the Merseyside derby and collected two league winners’ medals, two FA Cups, a European Cup Winners Cup, the 1985 FWA Football of the Year award and an MBE.

Or you might know his backstory: a lad from Llandudno who - in between carrying hods and collecting bins (his excellent autobiography is titled The Binman Chronicles) - turned out for part-time pub sides until he was 22, and then somehow went on to become Wales’ most-capped player of all time. He retains a national record for having gone 385 minutes without conceding, which you’ll recognise as a truly herculean effort if you, like me, grew up watching the level of dreck Welsh sides are forced to pad their teams out with.

You may even know Big Nev from his infamous defender-of-the-downtrodden appearance as a mentor on Michael Owen’s Soccer Skills that has become a viral sleeper-hit since resurfacing online years later. In the clip, Southall desperately tries to teach his tiny 13-year-old charge ‘Jamie’ the ins-and-outs of goalkeeping, while Owen - a then-England international considered to be the world’s best strikers - inexplicably and gleefully gives Jamie no chance with any of his efforts. Noticing the boy’s increasing crushing humiliation on national television, Southall valiantly comes to his aid. “Geeeet in theeeere!” Owen yelps, wheeling away in celebration, having beaten Jamie at his far post yet again. “Well done, he’s 13.” Nev replies, in a magnificently-piercing jibe the show’s editors thankfully decided to save from the cutting room floor - a real measure of the man.

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Or - finally - you might know Big Nev from his Twitter presence. And if you don’t, you need to get familiar with the artist known as @NevilleSouthall.

The typical ex-pro’s Twitter output is usually a potent mix of blandly remembered back-in-my-day platitudes, contractually-obligated betting tips, badly-framed golf-course selfie-gurns and stilted, often-questionable and morally dubious banter. They wouldn’t jeopardise the sweet BetDaddy deniro by venturing anything resembling a political stance. Furthermore, given the demographic of their followers is predominantly an amorphous entity of ‘football fans’, they’d be letting themselves in for gruelling afternoons spent receiving furious replies and being told to “stick to the football, mate.” Even furthermore, the typical ex-pro doesn’t give a fuck. Why waste their time getting involved in politics when they could spend all day practicing their swing and popping up on Soccer AM?

The same is true of the vast majority of celebrity tweeters. They might have a nominal interest in ‘the issues’, but this rarely extends beyond self-aggrandising ‘philanthropy’ - amounting to turning up at lavish charity galas, retweeting TED talks and occasionally opining that peace and love are nice. @NevilleSouthall is different.

I first became aware of Big Nev’s online presence earlier this year, where he cut-through by dint of being - remarkably - one of the few celebrities of any renown espousing not just anti-Tory sentiment, but vocal support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. At the start of 2017, this flavour of Labour was party-non-grata not just among the famous, but the received-wisdom pundit class. An unswayed Big Nev recognised their appeal, and would doggedly post about the evils of austerity and cuts to public services, urging critical-support until the wee hours - with even more ferocity when the election campaign was called.

Since then, he’s flourished. A particular highlight: the development of his own homegrown high-grade meme about skeletons. Having idly mused on repurposing the bones of the dead for civic duties - as street-signs, lampposts and motorbikes - Nev converted his obsession into a means to attack Tory policy.

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The remarkable thing about Nev’s skeleton tweets is: every single one is funny. The bit hasn’t worn off. His laissez-faire attitude to spelling, grammar and the correct use of paragraph breaks gives the tweets an impeccable rhythm and delivery that infinite comedy writers on infinite contrived ‘Weird Twitter’ accounts couldn’t replicate. And that’s not to say they’re unintentionally funny - each new punchline consistently outdoes the last. Nev knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a master of the craft and a virtuoso of the form. He wields the 140 characters like a baseball bat and can’t help but hit home-run after home-run.

A cult keeper proving themselves to have left-wing politics and decent comedy chops would be pleasantly surprising enough, but there’s another aspect of his account that elevates it to ‘must-follow’ status: it’s just so wholesome. Beyond his political missives, he dedicates an enormous amount of time to making his small corner of the internet a truly affirming presence. If there’s a rescue dog in need of a home, Big Nev seeks it out and gives it a retweet. If there’s a follower raising money for a worthy cause - from homelessness, to food banks, to health complications - he gives it the full weight of his support. If someone has sent him something, he makes sure to reply regardless of who they are, and with a candour and gentleness that can’t help but warm your heart. It’s almost worrying to wonder how much of his free time is spent performing these tiny acts of e-kindness, but it’s a rare and uplifting thing that he does. He’s just an honestly and earnestly nice guy.

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Even rarer; Southall gives a genuine shit about Welsh issues and local activism. This is so uncommon that - outside of Welsh politicians - I’d find it almost impossibly difficult to name a single other public figure who devoted any amount of their platform to highlighting the deprivation of Wales and the fundamental lack of investment in its industry, its transport, its schools or its people. 

Of course, it’s one thing to merely tweet about these issues, and quite another to involve yourself in them actively and try to effect change. Once again, Big Nev doesn’t disappoint. Towards the end of his career but determined to keep playing, Southall found himself managing then-Conference side Dover Athetic, but more importantly, mentoring children from disadvantaged backgrounds who had left - or been forced out of - education. His time with these kids, and his determined desire to help those with unrealised potential, resulted in Southall working in special needs schools across the country and starting a consultancy that aimed to help unemployed young people outside the education system. 

As he notes in his autobiography, this experience was fraught with frustration. To Southall, these services were essential. The government didn’t agree. Austerity measures imposed by then-Education Secretary Michael Gove resulted in swingeing cuts to - and in some cases the complete removal of funding for - these schemes, and almost certainly played a significant part in solidifying Southall’s left-leanings. He now works in schools in west Wales, attempting to find children work and seeking investment from businesses. Outside of this, he’s regularly involved in - whether by simply promoting his attendance or by speaking at - activist rallies and charity events. For all the exalting of his tweets, his commitment extends beyond his @.

That being said, it’s his recent Twitter activity that has both earned him legions of new Big Nev converts, and which is deserving of special praise.

As a player, Southall would rapaciously devour books about boxing and golf to improve his own technique, his poise, his balance, his movement and his reflexes. He’d experiment with wearing black kits to seem more imposing, he’d wear cheap plastic boots in the rain because they wouldn’t retain water, and he’d put Vaseline over his eyebrows to stop sweat dripping into his line of sight. “If I changed 100 things and got 1% better because of one of them, then it was worth it,” he explained in an interview with the BBC. He’s carried that same hunger for self-improvement beyond his playing days. Finding himself less versed in gender and trans-rights issues and terms than he’d like, Southall sought out the knowledge of activists, campaigners and writers, as well as asking members of the trans community if they’d be willing to share their experiences with him.

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I worry it seems patronising to praise a famous 59-year-old man for doing as little as managing not to be a politically incorrect arsehole (again, a sadly surprising rarity), but I feel there’s something more than that with Big Nev, something genuinely quite affecting and inspiring.

For starters, he puts pay to the convenient, lazy and inadequate excuse that those ‘of a generation’ are unable to comprehend relatively new social concepts, and shouldn’t be expected to. Nobody expected Neville Southall to have an innate understanding of trans issues, but it speaks volumes of his character that, on encountering them, his natural impulse is to be inquisitive and compassionate, to recognise that the gap is in his own knowledge and to do all he can to amend this. How many others react incredulously to basic advances in political correctness, as if concepts of tolerance they weren’t previously aware of are an affront to them, contrived specifically to catch them out and frame them as bigots? It shouldn’t be the case, but Southall’s endeavours to rectify his ignorances set him streets ahead of his peers. A predictable backlash among his incensed here-for-football-chat-not-this-SJW-rubbish followers ensued, and he stood firm, informing them that he could make his own mind up, thanks, that they should simply block him if they didn’t like it, and expertly dispatching the trans-exclusionary as “obsessed with toilets”.

The manner which Southall went about his inquiries and his willingness to listen have made me reconsider my own inadequacies in this regard. It’s even easier than excusing behaviour as inherent ‘of a time’ to point at offensive middle-to-old-aged men and feel that, just by virtue of Not Being Them, you’re doing enough. I’m only in my mid-twenties, and already I find that there are social concepts that are completely alien and confusing to me. Whenever I come across these things, I don’t think I have Neville’s appetite for curiosity - or openness to risk looking ‘a tit’ - as a default. I think I often read around these things, if only to spare myself the embarrassment of saying something that could be deemed offensive. In fact, that’s probably the main way I imbibe this stuff - witnessing others being called out, and being thankful it wasn’t me. That’s not really the point though, is it? Managing to prevent yourself being insensitive as self-protectionism isn’t the same as a sincere effort to understand and empathise with an experience you’d never considered before. As Nev shows, people aren’t trying to catch you out, and are more than happy to help if you demonstrate a good-faith readiness to learn. 

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Finally, the Big Nev tweets which gave me most pause for reflection was this series, expressing a sentiment simply, yet strangely beautifully: 

Understanding the often complicated and myriad nuances around marginalised issues isn’t about you. It’s not about ensuring some peace of mind that you’re still ‘woke’ and probably not a bigot. It’s about recognising, as Big Neville Southall does, that there are generations of kids whose identities are treated as a political football by everyone - from the comment writer to the pub philosopher - and who could really do with invaluable support at a critical stage in their life. It’s about realising there are consequences to your ignorances, however inadvertent and accidental. It’s about understanding we have a duty to attempt to become familiar with and accommodate the experiences of others as best we can, so that they might be able live life as they’d like. 

It’s about being able to accept that, in the end, we are all just skeletons.