During his playing days, Neville Southall made over 750 appearances for Everton, winning both the First Division and the FA Cup twice apiece. However, Mind Games, Southall’s second book, mentions very little of his stellar career. Instead, the focus is on mental health, both in football and wider society. As he is well known for doing on social media, Southall uses his platform as a former elite footballer to shine a light on the important issues of the day.
The first half of Mind Games tackles issues that face every professional footballer throughout their career. Southall draws upon his own experiences to discuss challenges such as overcoming fear and coping with failure. The extreme highs and lows that come with the pressure cooker of professional football make it a unique industry and one that requires unique coping strategies as a result. As well as sharing his own best practice in each situation, Southall also looks to make policy suggestions for football’s decision-makers. More support in the form of counselling is required in the academy system in particular, he argues – predominantly for those that do not make it to the top level. Facing this perceived failure at such a young age has the potential to be crushing for the system’s cast-offs, and it is important to catch them as they fall.
From Chapter 8 onwards, Southall sets aside his own experiences and looks to act as an ally for other groups in society. He addresses hate crimes such as racism and homophobia, as well as the blight of addiction and social inequality. The former Wales goalkeeper does not seek to hide his political views and is a vocal critic of the Conservative government, especially the haphazard way they dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Southall’s chapter on social media is particularly interesting. He acknowledges the abuse-related pitfalls of it, and admits he is glad it wasn’t around when he was playing, but tries to focus on the positives too. Southall is known for opening up his Twitter account to marginalised groups to take questions from the public and boost awareness. Past beneficiaries have included suicide prevention charities, a drugs helpline and a spokesperson for sex workers. With a Twitter account that currently boasts more than 190 thousand followers, opening up his account for these groups helps provide the internet with an important bit of education on important topics from the real world.
It is admirable that Southall has used his platform to promote mental health awareness with Mind Games, and the book was a big inspiration for my own writing in Match Fit. Similar to that of Southall, my aim is to use football through my writing as a means to stimulate conversation around mental health, normalising the topic and helping people to better understand their own mental state. We all have mental health, be it good or bad, and help is out there if we need it. Men stereotypically find it hard to talk about their feelings, but football is the backbone of thousands of casual chats every single day. If we can use football to leverage the deeper talk that might otherwise go neglected, then countless people will benefit from it.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.