Gay-friendly football team the Nottingham Lions talk about their experiences playing for all sides.
The UK is currently ranked third in the Rainbow Europe list of LGBTQ+ friendly European countries, and yet 8% of UK football fans would stop watching their team if they fielded an openly gay player. From more than 4,000 sports fans responding to a Radio 5 Live survey, 18% also said that gay players should keep their sexuality to themselves, 50% said they have heard homophobic abuse at games, and 15% believe a gay player would make teammates feel uncomfortable.
There is a culture of homophobia in football which has meant that only one male professional player has ever come out (see box below), and that was almost 30 years ago.
Mitch Dring, 22, grew up playing football at an amateur level, but his experience at several clubs led him to feel that coming out would mean having to give up the sport he loves. “I was once warming up on a pitch, just kicking a ball between three players, and somehow the conversation came up that if there was an openly gay player in the team, the others would leave the club.”
The homophobic language used in locker rooms and on the training ground presented Mitch with another barrier to coming out and continuing to play. “The language is offensive, I don’t know if they mean it in [a homophobic] way, but it’s still there.”
‘I had always thought that if I came out, football would have to stop’
Mitch now plays for the Nottingham Lions, an LGBTQ+ friendly team based in West Bridgford, Nottingham. “I just thought in that environment I couldn’t do both, I couldn’t be openly gay and play football. I stuck with that for a couple of years and then I found this place that’s a gay football club. In my head I had always thought that if I came out, football would have to stop, but that’s clearly not the case.”
The Lions are made up of around 40 players, the vast majority of whom are openly gay. They play in the Gay Football Supporter’s Network League, a national league for LGBTQ+ friendly teams, and the Midlands Unity League.
Simon Reid, 32, became involved in the team nine months after it was created and is the current chairperson.
“The team was created to provide a safe environment for LGBT players to play football. There were other teams around in the UK, one or two of the guys who played for the Leicester team heard that someone in Nottingham was trying to set something up and they got involved. The first session was just six guys having a kickabout on the playing field.”
Things have progressed since those early days when the team was known as the Nottingham Ball Bois. The Lions meet at a floodlit all-weather pitch next to the field where it all started, and a dedicated coaching staff runs drills and fitness work, but the original ethic of acceptance and support still pervades the club.
Team manager Craig Innes, 28, was initially reluctant to make the move from his Sunday League team. Unlike many of the players, he was openly gay at his former club for a year before joining. “It was mostly my friends that I played with every Sunday, so it wasn’t really that much of an issue. I know people who have had trouble, but luckily I didn’t.”
‘I didn’t really have a gay social life before I joined’
Craig continued to play for his Sunday League team after he joined the Lions, and eventually it was the organised approach and commitment to training that drew him to move across entirely. He also found that the team offered him the opportunity to make friends with new people of the same mindset.
“I enjoyed the training here, and the people, we had something in common. I didn’t really have a gay social life before I joined.”
The support offered can have a bigger impact than just expanding social circles, however, as Ian Ruck, 40, discovered. “I heard about the team through a friend of a friend, found out that training was on Sunday at 6 o’clock, so I turned up and it was brilliant. Straight away I had 20 new friends, all with the same interest of playing football and keeping fit. It was good for me in becoming more confident, and helped me come out in the end. A couple of years with the team and knowing other gay people helped me through the whole process.”
So is football heading towards a more inclusive future? International campaigns such as Rainbow Laces (which encourages players from across several team sports to wear rainbow laces) are trying to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues in sport, but Gareth Davies, 35, a Lions player and referee, doesn’t think significant change will be possible until high profile figures come out publicly. “Being gay in football is the final frontier. Once somebody of a high profile comes out and announces their sexuality, that stigma would pretty much be over with.”
Simon Reid is also aware that instigating change will be more difficult while gay teams play in a separate league. “There is an appetite among some of the members to join a local league. I think if we want to try and tackle homophobia in football, we’ve got to put ourselves out there and play mainstream clubs. Going forward we’ll probably try to do both.”