A Final Hurdle
“It’s the twenty-first century, for fuck’s sake. Either our fans get on the page, or they can go do one as far as I’m concerned. We’re a community club now and we don’t want them at Fratton Park. And you can quote me. If people don’t like it they know where they can find me. They never do…”
These un-minced words belong to Bob Beech. Bob is what you might call an ‘old school’ football fan. Brought up supporting Pompey in an era when Pringles – the sweater, not the salty snack – and punch-ups went hand in hand, he now acknowledges that particular war is long over. However, as his remarks attest, he still doesn’t take prisoners.
Galvanised by this ringing, if ribald, endorsement of Pompey’s support for the Football v Homophobia campaign 12 months ago, it reinforced my instinct to always ask the question. The response invariably moves things forward, not back.
Bob might not have instinctively been a ‘go-to’ character to back FvH, but when asked, he certainly did – and then some. And he has a point. The fact that football in England is still, arguably, only on the ground floor in terms of addressing a range of diversity issues – not least homophobia – is a shocking indictment. Anna Kessel’s thought-provoking article on sexism in football, on these pages only a couple of weeks ago, underlines the point, as does the fact that ethnic minority representation in the sport is woefully inadequate in all aspects of the game – players aside. Progress has been made, but there’s still some way to go, as recent high-profile cases demonstrate.
Unlike race or gender, sexuality is a less visible characteristic, protected or otherwise. Not that it has been out of the media and political spotlight of late. Same-sex marriages are now an accepted legal and social norm, yet still no current professional player in England feels comfortable enough to acknowledge their sexuality as, for instance, Gareth Thomas has in rugby. And there remains deep-rooted pessimism that the status quo is likely to change any time soon. As part of an interview in the current issue of When Saturday Comes, Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s Education and Development Manager, was asked whether a professional footballer would come out anytime soon. His answer was unequivocal: “Not in my lifetime…”
With homophobic (and other) abuse still regarded by many in football as ‘banter’ – witness a reprised Malky Mackay furore, with a notable walk-on, hole-digging contribution from Dave Whelan, in the past six months – the lack of optimism is understandable. But if you want reactionaries to react badly, totally ostracising Mackay for his role in some bone-headed text exchanges will struggle to win minds, let alone hearts. For the record, Mackay always struck me as a sensible kind of guy and it was a genuine shock when he was implicated as he was. If he is not capable of rehabilitation we truly are sunk.
Others in the game and the media have also indicated that his alleged casual prejudices are not a totally accurate portrayal of his character. So perhaps six months coaching Stonewall FC might be what’s needed here to keep him on the straight and narrow in the future? After all, to quote Eve Zibart, ‘Prejudice rarely survives experience’.
Despite the faux pas, English football need not be doomed to seeing its players raise their heads above the parapet only once they have retired. Last September, when Mark McAdam, the Sky Sports reporter, acknowledged his sexuality in a high-profile feature in Gay Times, the football world barely batted an eyelid.
“I had one person on Twitter call me a ‘faggot’. And he turned out to be a young kid just trying to make a name for himself. Everyone else was overwhelmingly positive and at least three Premier League managers contacted me to offer their personal support. I can honestly say I’ve never received any homophobic abuse in the football world,” Mark said. “The key problem I faced was I had so few role models, though. That made things difficult, because who was there to look up to; nothing or no one to talk about what it was like to be a gay man involved in football.”
But football is making an effort. The Football League is currently piloting a code of practice on Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination, a base standard it ultimately intends all 72 clubs to meet. Supported by the FA’s education arm, a small platoon of trainers should soon become a brigade, ready and willing to go out and spread the message that football truly is a sport for all.
Lou Englefield, Campaign Director for Football v Homophobia, also remains upbeat. “Our campaign, which started in 2010, has seen incremental growth year-on-year,” he says. “We are seeing more clubs taking part and those clubs who have taken part before have gained confidence and are doing more.
“We had 48 clubs support the campaign last year and it will be even more this. We are also engaging fan groups and reaching out to bring in the grassroots of the game, including junior football clubs.”
It is hard to imagine that the crude homophobic bullying by some of his peers – the likes of which Graeme Le Saux had to endure in the 1990s – could happen in quite the same way now. Younger players – Colin Kazim-Richards is hopefully the exception that proves the rule – are generally better educated, informed and aware of fast-moving social mores, their popular cultural reference points for sexuality not rooted in 1970s sitcom camp. And while homophobic chanting from the stands remains, arguably, the last taboo football has to shed, clubs and the authorities can, and do, act.
In 2008, Pompey’s then-centre half Sol Campbell was on the receiving end of some of the vilest abuse imaginable when Spurs came to Fratton Park. 11 fans were convicted or admitted their guilt as a result. 18 months ago, some unsavoury chants by Pompey fans themselves, directed at Harry Redknapp and Jermain Defoe, were also nipped in the bud – this time by a process of engagement and education, explaining why, simply, they were unacceptable.
I genuinely believe there is cause for optimism. Players, fans and managers – even old-school ones – are happy to back initiatives like FvH, as McAdam’s experience underlines. Current Pompey boss Andy Awford has given the campaign his unequivocal support, as did his predecessor, Richie Barker.
It’s indicative of a world in which football clubs are increasingly mindful that reaching out to all groups in their communities can only improve their bottom lines – whether measured in terms of cash, goodwill or, most likely, a combination of the two. All sorts of commercial opportunities open up, as these groups realise the local football club is a place where they can feel at home. Some might even buy a ticket to a match.
The FA hosted its first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trans conference in November. More than 70 delegates drawn from the top to the bottom of the football family turned up, a genuine rainbow alliance committed to making football better for all. The proliferation of gay supporters groups in recent years has added impetus, too. And with last week’s announcement of a new £7 billion rights package, it’s clear that football – or an elite element of it, at least – has once again hit the jackpot. A scrabble down the back of the Premier League sofa for some small change could resource an education and training programme in clubs which could make a real, lasting difference to the pro game, with the potential for a genuine trickle down to all levels. Is that really too much to ask?
Because the challenge football faces is adequately resourcing the seeds it has scattered. A code of practice – even a mandatory one – will only succeed if you can effectively reach ordinary football people at all levels.
‘Inclusion’ is not some pseudo-political-correctness-gone-mad jargon, but simply about respect for your fellow human beings. It is a message the overwhelming majority involved in football is almost certainly more willing to embrace, I am convinced, than many would imagine. Let’s make sure they receive it.
In the end, as Mark told me: “I’m just an ordinary bloke who loves his football.”
Enough said. As Bob Beech pointed out: It is the 21st century, after all.