The former Everton and Wales goalkeeper's online comments have showed that football can break away from a culture of toxic masculinity
18 April ~ If you’re a football fan of a faintly progressive outlook, Twitter can be a disenchanting place. Especially at the unglamorous levels where the use of social media tends to pass beneath the scrutiny of the mainstream media, it’s easy to come into contact with the unfiltered outpourings of a favourite player which make you considerably less inclined to want to celebrate their goals. Supporting your club can become a matter of holding your nose, trying to keep out the digital wafts of bad opinion.
Of course, it’s unfair to suggest that footballers are generally given to casual sexism, blinkered homophobia or petty nationalism. It’s just that when players express these sentiments there’s often a lack of a prominent countervailing voice. Consequently, more liberal-minded, or even left-wing statements coming from the football world are seized upon by some fans. It’s not only that they offer evidence to defend the sport against the accusation that it’s intrinsically reactionary, they help to silence one’s own lingering suspicions that this may be the case. Whatever I might think about the social value of football more generally, I’ve heard far too much on the terraces in my lifetime to be able to honestly deny that the sport is capable of perpetuating some of the grimmest prejudices from time to time.
This hard-to-shake guilt helps to explain the response to the recent reinvention of the former Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall as a hero of the left. There are a handful of points of comparison here.
In the past there was Bill Shankly and his football-as-socialism analogy and Chris Hughton writing a column for the Trotskyist daily News Line; more recently Southall’s one-time Goodison team-mate Gary Lineker offered Europhile moderation at the height of Brexit mania. There’s also been a variety of overseas players, such as Livorno’s Cristiano Lucarelli and Inter stalwart Javier Zanetti, who have identified in some form or other as belonging to the left.
Southall, however, seems to be the first meaningfully “woke”– as committed to feminism, anti-racism and LGBT rights as to workers’ equality – figure in the British game. His tweets, which came to wider attention during the general election, have taken the Tories to task for austerity and the under-the-counter NHS sell-off, but they’ve also offered support to campaigns such as trans rights with a forthrightness a number of well-known British liberals have been reluctant to offer. Often combining his political observations with Gothic flights of fancy about skeletons, and organised poetically with line-breaks, Southall’s tweets show a football figure in a different way to what we’re used to, not least because they’re often written in the rough-house vocabulary of the old-school dressing room.
A defence offered all too frequently of misogyny, homophobia and racism is that such attitudes are an unalterable aspect of working-class masculinity. Think of the way some pundits tried to defend Donald Trump’s “pussy grabbing” comments on the grounds that this was simply the earthy realism of the “locker room” or, in the standard, depressing British parlance, “banter”. Neville Southall comes from a chapter of the UK’s footballing history in which dressing room culture was often toxically macho, as the autobiographies of some of his contemporaries might show (these are routinely sold as fun-filled volumes of “hair-raising” tales, when in truth they’re usually bleak beyond redemption). The mid-to-late 1980s, when Southall was at his brilliant peak, were notoriously an era of post-training pub binges, drink driving, racecourse punch-ups and sexual misdemeanours, a grotesque galaxy which collapsed into post-career black holes of alcoholism and shattered relationships.
By appearance and tone of voice, Southall can come across as an archetype of this environment, so when he says on Twitter that he “doesn’t give a fuck” about someone’s sexuality or gender identity, that everyone deserves equivalent respect, it offers no hideaway for would-be tough-guys who try to claim that hateful repartee is “just what blokes do”. Big Nev can offer an answer to any right-wing newspaper columnists who might try to insist that British working-class masculinity is somehow repressed by political correctness.
The almost joyful response to Southall can additionally be understood as emanating from leftists who have spent the last two years being told that rights-focused socialism can’t be sold “on the doorsteps of Mansfield” or some other northern town used as press shorthand for no-nonsense grittiness. Southall has always had a truculent side – as anyone who recalls a famous “sulk” against Leeds in the 1990-91 season, when he sat out half time on the Goodison Park pitch, will testify – but now that obstinacy appears to have found a more mature, socially generous expression.
A final aspect of why his Twitter presence seems to have captured the imagination so much, of course, is that it’s another moment in which football’s fourth wall seems to be broken by a player having something to say for themselves which is nothing to do with the game they’re paid to play. From Eric Cantona painting and citing Rimbaud as his hero to Juan Mata blogging about Manchester’s art galleries and setting aside some of his income to charity, such stories humanise players for an audience accustomed to seeing them as sport-bots. Nevertheless, it’s the politics of Southall’s interests beyond football which stick. Joe Kennedy