TFB Meets: Paul Thomas Bell

Chris Henderson, 07 June 2019

Paul Thomas Bell is a football presenter, writer and patron of Back Onside – a sports-based charity supporting those affected by mental health, disabilities and challenging life circumstances.


Paul Thomas Bell is one of the good guys.

When we first approached Paul about featuring in our ‘Feel-Good Football’ series, he was nothing but positive and supportive.

Chris Henderson talked with him about his love of 90s football, celebrating unsung heroes by visiting all 42 Scottish league clubs and the importance of mental health in sport…

Chris Henderson: Hi Paul. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with football. Do you support a team?

Paul Thomas Bell: I’ve followed football for as long as I can remember. As a kid my uncle loaned me a Jimmy Johnstone video and after watching that I was hooked for life.

“They say you never forget your first World Cup”

A few years later it was the 1994 World Cup that really cemented my love of the game. Ray Houghton’s goal against Italy, Stoichkov and the balding Bulgarians, Klinsmann, Hagi and of course, Baggio. They say you never forget your first World Cup and what a World Cup that was.

Beyond that I loved late 90s football; the old firm rivalry, the English Premiership at its finest, Football Italia on a Saturday morning with James Richardson. It was a great time in football and at that age football was just life.

CH: Yeah, the 90s really were halcyon days for football. Tell us about one of the best games you’ve ever been to…

PTB: The best game I’ve ever been to was Celtic vs Ajax in the Champions League. Not for the quality of the game but because it was my first time at a Champions League game and hearing that theme song in person for the first time was something I’ll never forget.

It’s strange I know but I grew up watching some of the best games I’ve ever seen in that competition and as every fan knows, that theme song just makes it that little bit extra special.

In fact there’s a story an old friend of mine told me that I’ve never forgotten. He caught his older brother in his room, head to toe in a suit, the Champions League theme blaring on the speakers, taking in the applause of the crowd, getting ready to play the Champions League Final…on Champ Manager. Some guy.

CH: So who’s your favourite player of all time?

PTB: I was always a huge Beckham fan, but I was obsessed with Serie A, I loved Maldini, Pagliuca, Vieri, Batistuta, Rui Costa, Signori and so on.

My favourite player of all time though is Roberto Baggio, he was the first superstar I’d ever known. People always remember that woeful penalty but aside from that, he was incredible.

The ‘best’ player I’ve ever seen? Ronaldinho in his Barcelona prime, still wows me every time.

CH: You recently wrote on your blog, “Make football a place for all. That’s the pipe dream.” How far away do you think football is from being a ‘place for all’?

PTB: I think for the most part football is definitely progressing but it’s still rife with issues. It’s the situation with homophobia in the game that still astounds me.

Much of society is moving forward in positive ways and football for some reason seems to be stuck in the dark ages when it comes to this subject.

“It’s great to see the rising popularity of women’s football”

Hector Bellerin and Olivier Giroud have both said in recent times that it would be impossible for a player to come out and when I asked an ex-pro in Scotland about the subject recently, he echoed that statement.

There’s obviously a fear of backlash from the fans but sometimes it’s too easy to blame the fans, there’s something more to this issue that I think only a player or club can explain, the whole situation just doesn’t add up.

From a gender perspective, it’s great to see the rising popularity of women’s football, so in that respect we’re significantly closer to football being a place for all and long may it continue.

CH: Things definitely look to be improving. Although Prince William recently described football’s approach to mental health as a ‘dereliction of duty.’ What’s your view on this?

PTB: I think this is sometimes where we see the darker side to football, particularly within the upper echelons of the game where money is king. However, I do think the game is improving in this area.

For example, love him or hate him, Leigh Griffiths deserves a lot of praise for the way he has handled his own situation. What he has done is open a door for others to come forward and say, do you know what, I’m not okay.

You do meet people within the game who seem to just want to tick a box to say they’re doing something, but then you also have teams like Annan Athletic and Southampton among others, who in my experience have shown that they really do care about this stuff.

“The tour celebrated the kit men, the pie sellers, the grounds staff, tea ladies and the programme sellers”

CH: Tell us about the #Lads42 initiative…

PTB: #Lads42 is one of the best things I’ve been involved with in football and massive credit has to go to Stuart Martin and David MacDonald for making it happen.

Ladbrokes wanted to do something that celebrated the unsung heroes in Scottish football so we set out to do a tour that didn’t focus so much on the manager and players but celebrated the kit men, the pie sellers, the grounds staff, tea ladies and the programme sellers.

We visited all 42 league clubs and the tour renewed my love of Scottish football. We also got well over a million views online.

Albion Rovers were a great club to spend time with and what an amazing job Kevin Harper is doing there. Forfar and Alloa were also particular favourites of mine, cracking clubs.

CH: Tell us about the Back Onside initiative and what your role as mental health patron involves…

PTB: Back Onside is a sports-based mental health charity. The problem they have at the minute is they’re too small, when you see the difference they’ve made in such a small space of time you wonder what they’d be capable of if they had more funding and support.

As a patron I’ve done everything from filming with Lorraine Kelly to helping out with social media to climbing Ben Nevis to going along to group sessions but that’s about 1% of what other people are doing. The real pillar of the charity is the founder Libby Emmerson.

Sometimes you see a bit of slick branding or a bit of celebrity support and you start to think wow this is quite a big organisation but when it comes down to it, this is a one-woman band, she’s a real unsung hero.

CH: It’s such a fantastic cause. How do you think sport, specifically football, can improve a person’s mental health?

PTB: There’s never an easy fix for mental health problems but there’s a lot to be said for being physically active.

There’s nothing worse than being in that rut of not being able to get out of bed or not being able to get off the couch and it’s always easier said than done when someone tells you to go and “get fit.”

What you can do though is take little steps, start with a walk, then a fast walk, then a jog, then a run, then a game of fives and so on.

I can’t remember anyone ever telling me going for a walk made them feel worse but as I say, there’s no easy fix and everyone is different.

“I told myself to slow down, take a break from social media and just start looking after myself”

CH: What are some of the things you do to look after your own mental health?

PTB: I’m very fortunate that I’ve never had any really serious issues with mental health but last year was a bit of a strange one for me. I started the year struggling with anxiety in a way I’d never known before, then I had a brilliant summer but I finished the year completely burnt out.

At the start of this year I told myself to slow down, take a break from social media and just start looking after myself and it did me the world of good. So yeah for me it was about simplifying my life a little bit and trying to switch off more because I’m a massive over-thinker.

Listening to music also really helps me, it’s a rare occasion that I’m on my own and I’ve not got headphones in.

“Never ever feel like you’re alone, I think everyone struggles on some level”

CH: What final piece of advice would you give to anyone who is potentially struggling with their mental health?

PTB: I think for young people especially, I’d say don’t be scared to take a break from social media. It’ll still be there when you get back.

If you’re struggling, try to address it as early as you possibly can, don’t wait until you’re at breaking point. Never ever feel like you’re alone, I think everyone struggles on some level, it’s sometimes just a case of who’s willing to admit it.

Try and talk to someone, and if you do try and it doesn’t work, talk to someone else, you may not find the answers in the first conversation.

Lastly I’d say try and put your anger, your frustration, your sadness, whatever it is you’re feeling, into something positive. Fitness, sport, cooking, music, education, writing, literally anything that gives you a platform to let go a little.

No matter how bad you’re feeling, there’s always something that is at least worth a try.


You can find Paul on Twitter here.

To find out more about Back Onside, head to their website and by using the hashtag #SupportThroughSport.

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Chris is the founder of The Football Brief. He runs our regular series and can usually be found waxing lyrical about Blackburn Rovers and R9.

By |2019-06-07T06:03:49+00:00June 6th, 2019|

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