Have you ever met a vegan footballer? Have you ever heard about a vegan footballer? Not talking about American football here, but football, or soccer, if you prefer. I haven’t met any or heard about any until a few months ago.
We asked here on All About Vegan Food a while ago what people would like to read about and one of the answers was “about vegan footballers, if there is any” and I was immediately intrigued by it because I’ve always wondered that with no confirmation or ability to get any information in relation to the topic. By the time I did more research with no luck but kept my eyes open and a couple of months ago I’ve found information about English footballer Neil Robinson in the Great Vegan Athletes Facebook page. I’ve contacted him and we have been exchanging emails since it and he is one of the most interesting and inspiring person I’ve talked to in the last years and was nice enough to take some time to answer my interview.
It is great to see so many vegan athletes around the word, taking the plant-based lifestyle to many fields and I would love to see veganism also taken to the football/soccer fields! It’s about time and Neil Robinson is definitely doing his part:
You went vegetarian at age 13, in 1970, after watching a TV documentary about an Amazonian tribe who sacrificed a cow by slitting its throat and cooking the animal after, right? How was being a vegetarian in England in the 70s?
That’s correct. In fact they didn’t slit the cow’s throat – they stabbed it in the throat and it fell to the ground and then the tribesmen proceeded to stamp on the poor cow to drain as much blood from the animal that they possibly could. Pretty horrific stuff for me at the time – and it was my first exposure to animal cruelty (no YouTube then of course!) all for the sake of food. Being vegetarian in the early 70’s was clearly more difficult with regards to commercial meat substitutes – because there weren’t any, although I think Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP) had just become available so we used that in a lot of meals. Unlike today where we have meat substitutes for virtually every type of meat or meat-based meal – which I don’t eat by the way. But, to be perfectly honest, we also just cooked everything fresh with all the different types of beans available, and clearly we had the vast amount of vegetables and fruits available that we have today, so it was no real hardship really.
When you realized your dream of playing football for Everton Football Club, signing the apprentice professional forms in April 1973 and the following year signing as a full-time professional footballer, you were already vegetarian. Did it interfere in your training? Were you the only vegetarian you knew playing football by that time?
It didn’t interfere with my training whatsoever – in fact I was one of the fittest players at the club, and that’s including the experienced professionals! The only concern the club had about me was that I was very slight – but that was just down to my genetics and body type and not a dietary issue – so they tried to build me up with protein drinks and weight training. Yes, I was the only known vegetarian footballer at the time and I never knew of any other vegetarians or vegans throughout my whole career which spanned 18 years – and that was globally too!
In 1980 you went vegan. What motivated you?
My elder brother John had recently become vegan and we chatted about it for a while – I was totally ignorant to the cruelty of the dairy and egg industries. I also wrote for more information from The Vegan Society and then decided that the only way I could possibly live a truly ethical and
cruelty-free lifestyle was to go vegan. I’ve never looked back and I’m really proud to be a vegan!
You played professional football as a vegan for ten years. How your friends and people from Everton would react about it?
I don’t really have a big circle of close friends – I’ve been living quite anonymously with my family for the last 23 years since retiring from football and don’t have any close friends within football. I’m not aware that anyone within football was majorly impressed with my being vegan for the last ten years of my professional football career. I didn’t really get any national media coverage and only received small amounts of local media attention at the clubs I played for. Football is very backward when it comes to veganism.
We would love to know a little bit more about your personal life too.
Not an awful lot to tell really – as I said, I’ve lived quite ‘anonymously’ for the last 23 years but now feel it’s time to help to ‘veganize’ the planet by being more proactive. I’ve just set up my own website and started giving talks on the vegan festival ‘circuit’ and, with the help of my brother John and my two vegan daughters (Alison & Kathryn) will look at other ways to help to make this a ‘peaceful planet’. I’ve tried to convert my wife Pauline to veganism for the last 33 years (she’s been vegetarian since we got married in 1978) but all to no avail! I go to the gym 5 days a week to keep healthy and fit – I try and get to the gym for 5.30am and then it’s done for the day. My passions in life are veganism, music (I can’t imagine a world without music!), health & fitness, and, most importantly, my family. I support Everton FC and hope that maybe my 3 grandsons (Will, James, and Ollie) will become professional footballers too! That’ll make 3 generations of footballers in the family – my son Neil was also a professional footballer with Macclesfield Town but his career was cut short through injury.
After stopping playing football, how was your life? How is your daily life today, at age 56?
I retired from football in 1990 and was unemployed for a while. I opened a gym in Widnes in 1995 and sold that in 1999. I then worked in an office for several years for my brother Keith’s company and a couple of years ago I formulated and developed a snack bar which became the Frank bar. I no longer work for the company and I’m now looking at developing more vegan products. Daily life is based around fitness, vegan food, music, and family! I love walking in the woodlands and try to get out every Sunday for a couple of hours to walk in the
You and your wife have raised your three children as vegetarians. Your son eats meat today and your two daughters are vegan, and your grandson is being raised as a vegan. What has changed from the time your children were young until today in the aspect of raising a vegetarian or vegan child?
It’s so much easier these days because there’s such a great variety of commercial vegan foods available – but we shouldn’t forget to eat as much fresh food as possible and not rely on packaged foods. Our 20 month old grandson, Ollie, is in great health and eats lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and loves our smoothies! Kathryn (Ollie’s Mum) has done a great job in bringing him up as a vegan. Alison and Kathryn are really dedicated to the vegan cause but, unfortunately, my son Neil decided on eating a meat diet in his early teens after being brought up a vegetarian from birth. I honestly think he didn’t fully understand why he was a vegetarian and started eating meat because he bowed to peer pressure from his school friends. I live in hope that one day he’ll adopt a vegan lifestyle because I really fear for his long term health by eating animal foods.
How do you see England today in regards to veganism?
It’s getting better and awareness is increasing all the time – but there’s still a long way to go before it’s mainstream. Because of the global stature of the English Football Premier League, we really could do with a famous footballer embracing the vegan lifestyle – I’m sure this would help enormously and would certainly create a lot more interest because kids look up to their sporting heroes as role models. But there’s a lot a people out there doing great work in helping to raise the profile of veganism with new vegan festivals and events springing up every year.
How do you see veganism in sports today? I can see there are many athletes who are vegan these days but I haven’t heard about any other footballer. Do you know any?
Compared to other sports, football is still in the ‘stone-age’ with regards to attitudes towards veganism. Most other sports, particularly endurance sports, have embraced veganism and a ‘plant-exclusive’ diet as the ideal diet to boost sports performance. Most top level football clubs now have nutritionists to advise on diet but even these so called experts are way behind other sports in promoting a plant diet. The only other vegan I’ve ever known in professional football is Dean Howell who’s a great guy and is really dedicated to the vegan cause. Dean also has his own online shop of vegan health foods which are ‘Alkaline’ based. I must give a mention to Dale Vince who is the Chairman of Forest Green Rovers FC and he’s slowly converting the club into the first vegan-friendly football club and will also make it the most environmentally friendly club on the planet! I’ve never met Dale but would like to one day.
What would you say to young people who wants to be an athlete – or is already one – and don’t know how to do it as a vegan? Any special tips?
Don’t be afraid that a vegan diet is going to be detrimental to your athletic performance because it won’t if you nourish yourself correctly. If the likes of Scott Jurek can be a world champion ultra-marathon athlete and Fiona Oakes can win the North Pole marathon – both as vegans – then what more proof do you need that a vegan diet can only enhance your performance. Do lots of research though – there’s tons of information available on the internet, so you shouldn’t go wrong. Stay focused and believe you can do it on a plant-exclusive vegan diet!