“I think the best thing you can ever do is be a union rep … you fight for the person who hasn’t got a voice. You fight for the ‘little’ people – and all the ‘little’ people make the country great.”
It’s Sunday afternoon at UNISON’s local government conference, taking place at the Liverpool Arena.
At the rostrum as guest speaker is Neville Southall, the former Welsh international footballer, who became a legend less than four miles away at Goodison Park, playing for Everton.
It’s a very different stage, but the goalkeeping giant seems every bit as comfortable as he was in front of the Everton faithful in the Gwladys Street End.
Since leaving professional football, Neville has forged a second career working with troubled children and youngsters at the Canolfan yr Afon Pupil Referral Unit, in Ebbw Vale, Wales.
After quipping dryly that his appearance was “a good time to get your head down for a doze,” he talked to delegates about the children he works with.
Quietly, calmly and without notes, he spoke of an education system where pupils are judged entirely on results and GCSEs, leaving some to struggle.
Like himself as a child, some can barely stand to be inside. The system, though, is “not putting the pupils first, but the academic [tables]”. That doesn’t mean they don’t have skills – he mentions children who are excellent drivers – “though it’s not always good when they do it!” – who are let down by a system that only concentrates on one type of education.
He has specific praise for teaching assistants, but wondered why they, rather than teachers, who’ve had university training and get paid more, are the ones expected to deal with pupils with the most challenging behavioural problems.
As always, funding rears its head – even if it’s short-termist thinking.
“We want a psychologist in our school … and counsellors,” Neville continued, before observing that the irony is that, with proper care and help at the right time, the outcomes will be far less costly for society in the long term, on both financial and human levels.
On a wider level, he explains his intense dislike for the Conservative Party on the basis that “I think they’ve killed more people than I ever met.
He’s appalled by the homelessness and poverty that is blighting communities.
“We need to get the Tories out and we need to get them out quick and get our country back.
“It’s a fantastic country – but we need to treat everyone equally.
“I don’t care whether you live in a castle or a tent – equality means for everybody.”
Neville also raises the struggle of LGBT people – he’s become a passionate supporter of LGBT people – particularly in terms of the FA, citing the reluctance of clubs and the FA to put LGBT on the pitch.
Explaining that he’s spoken to Everton about this, suggesting the club send an LGBT team onto the pitch during the now annual Rainbow Laces Day, he says the fear of “an adverse reaction” is too great.
The problem with that, though, is that the first gay professional, male footballer is increasingly likely to revealed by the Scum (the Sun, still reviled and boycotted in Liverpool over Hillsborough) or “someone will catch them out”.
Neville has a big presence on Twitter and tells delegates that he regularly gets people “who message me that they want to kill themselves.
“One had just pennies in their pocket; one was using foodbanks; there was a trans girl saying she was lying in her bath and had cut her wrists.
“Where is the support? Where is the compassion?”
His practical suggestions include having the Samaritans app pre-installed on every mobile phone.
On the same subject, he talks too of “isolated” farmers becoming an increasing suicide risk. “It’ll be worse after Brexit,” he adds. “And if Johnson gets in, it’ll be worse again: he’s a racist, sexist and dangerous.”
But the union is crucial in tackling all this.
Declaring that “UNISON is the best thing in the world,” Neville says of reps like himself: “You go in and speak up for somebody – you make a difference. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you try.”
He mentions becoming a rep and learning to ‘play the bosses’ game’, but ultimately, “if we speak with one voice, we’re powerful.” When you’re a UNISON rep and you’re trying to help a member, you can be “the only thing that stands between them and poverty … the only people that stand up for them.”
It’s not the first time that this legend has received a standing ovation.