Neil Robinson - the UK’s first vegan footballer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 May 2014
The UK’s first vegan footballer is back in front of the crowds, speaking about his diet and lifestyle
Professional footballers these days are among the most mollycoddled people on the planet with coaches, masseuses, physios and other club staff often looking after almost every aspect of their lives. But former player Neil Robinson reckons there’s one area that has been consistently overlooked and he hopes to be able to tour the region’s clubs to explain what’s missing.
Neil, who played in a time before multi-million pound contracts, hung up his boots in 1990 after a career which started with his boyhood heroes Everton and also included spells with Swansea, Grimsby and Darlington. During his career he stood out – not only for his ginger hair and fearless defending, but also because of his diet. For the first ten years of his professional career Neil was a vegetarian and at the age of 23 he was the country’s first vegan pro footballer.
Now 57, he still follows a low-fat vegan diet and is keen to encourage more people – and more sportspeople – to take up a plant-exclusive eating regime.
‘Most sports have embraced a plant-based diet and have understood the benefits but football is way behind. I would like to go round football clubs and speak to players. Football is big business these days and it often comes down to fine margins so anything that can give your team the edge has got to be a good thing. ‘I want to emphasise the health benefits. Throughout my career I was one of the fittest people at each of the clubs I played for.
‘The problem is that I’m just Mr No-one really – what’s needed for people to start getting interested is a big name to start talking about being a vegan. We need David Beckham or someone like that and then it will become massive. Some actors have adopted vegan diets but it’s just a fad for them, they haven’t full embraced the lifestyle.’
That’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Neil, who was born in Walton in the shadow of Everton’s Goodison Park ground and now lives in Widnes.
He was the youngest of seven children and when he was just two his father was badly injured in an accident at work – his neck was broken and he was given just hours to live, but although he was paralysed from the neck down, he lived for 18 years after the accident.
That wasn’t the only adversity the family faced – Neil’s brother Ken was struck down by polio when he was just four. He too defied the odds and is now a world-renowned expert on creativity and education who was knighted in 2003 and appeared on Desert Island Discs last November.
‘Dad had big plans for Ken to play football,’ Neil added. ‘But overnight his life was changed and he concentrated on his education.
‘After dad’s accident he was given compensation money and we moved to Widnes – just round the corner from where I live now funnily enough. We got a bungalow and it came with about one and half acres of land with apples trees and pear trees and a kitchen garden, but we turned it into a football pitch.’
Despite interest from Liverpool, Neil signed for Everton on his 16th birthday and went on to make 23 appearances for the club before he was sold to Swansea.
As a 13-year-old he became a vegetarian after watching a television documentary which showed an Amazonian tribe sacrifice a cow. ‘That programme was the catalyst,’ he said. ‘I had never eaten much meat anyway but watching that made me realise it was wrong. I had never really thought about where meat came from and what that meant for the animals.
‘I hadn’t made the connection previously and I was shocked by the realisation that meat was actually the flesh of a once living animal. I thought it just was not right for humans to do this to another species and I decided that I no longer wanted eat any meat.
‘Ten years later I looked into the factory farming of diary animals and came to the conclusion that it was just as cruel. I thought if was going to have a moral and ethical stance I should go the whole way with it.
‘There was lots of mickey-taking among my team mates but that didn’t bother me, I put it down to naivety on their part – and anyway I’ve got ginger hair, so I’ve had to put up with lots of jokes over the years.’
Neil has three children and one grandson (all but his son are vegan) and after a brief involvement with a company making low-fat vegan snack bars based on a recipe he created in the family kitchen, Neil is now performing in front of a crowd again. He is touring with a series of vegan festivals which kicked off last month in Liverpool and will reach Lancaster in June and Blackpool in September.
At the Live A Better Life fairs Neil speaks with typical Scouse humour about his plant-exclusive lifestyle and gives demonstrations of his favourite smoothies. ‘I never minded playing football in front of a crowd – the bigger the better – but the thought of standing up in front of people and talking scared me. It does get better the more you do it, though,’ he added.
‘I don’t do it for the money or to be the centre of attention, I do it to promote veganism which I really think can make a real difference to people’s lives and well-being. Ethical vegans do it for the planet and for animals and the health benefits are just a bonus but whatever reasons people have, there does seem to be more awareness of veganism and I think that can only be a good thing.’
Kick off your new diet
This month sees National Vegetarian Week and the Altrincham-based Vegetarian Society is hoping meat-eaters will use the week as an opportunity to sample a new diet.
They want people to ditch the meat between May 19 and 25 and to discover a whole new world of tasty and tempting dishes. Recipes, tips and shopping advice will be available on the website www.nationalvegetarianweek.org and there is more information on the society’s own site, www.vegsoc.org.