Tommy Conlon: Anger and prejudice sustains a fearful workplace
Robbie Fowler was feeling a bit sorry for himself last week, after a chapter from his past finally came back to haunt him.
On Wednesday, the former Aston Villa player and German international Thomas Hitzlsperger publicly announced that he is gay. Everyone from Angela Merkel to David Cameron wished him well. But the story was a one-day wonder, in Britain and Ireland at least.
It led however to something of a chain reaction on social media, and an old article by Graeme Le Saux surfaced in the wash. It was actually an extract from his 2007 autobiography. It didn't generate much traction at the time but got a new lease of life last week on Twitter.
Le Saux played 36 times for England during the 1990s. He had two separate spells at Chelsea FC, ten years in total.
The extract is a gripping account of the misery he suffered because of a rumour that he was gay. The rumour became an urban myth and mutated into an accusation with which to scourge him. The abuse from opposing fans was vicious. Opposing players also spat it at him.
The story Le Saux tells is an indictment of the dressing-room culture in British football. One could argue it is an indictment of that swathe of the white working class which still supplied most of the players back then, and an overwhelming majority of the fans. It is a portrait of cruelty and intolerance. It is a portrait of suspicion and mistrust of anyone who doesn't conform, of anyone who might be different. It even captures a hostility towards anyone who might dare to have middle-class tendencies.
Le Saux grew up on the island of Jersey. He'd been to university briefly before his football career took over. He read books, he liked visiting art galleries and listening to alternative music.
"Everybody (at Chelsea) regarded me as an outsider. I was an easy target because I did not fit in. The only people I knew in London were students, so I turned up at training with my student look: jeans rolled up, Pringle socks and my rucksack with The Guardian in it. For much of my career, reading The Guardian was used as one of the most powerful symbols of how I was supposed to be weirdly different. I was not what footballers regarded as typical. I got the impression they had not come across anyone like me before and the rumours that I was gay stemmed from not fitting in."
In the summer of 1991 he had gone on holidays with two of his team-mates, Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen. Back at pre-season training, the holidays were a general topic of conversation. Le Saux was asked where he'd been. When he told them, one dressing-room comedian piped up. "Oh, so you went camping with Ken." Laughs and nudges all round.
From that casual line came a running joke in the squad that soon became a whisper on the grapevine. Le Saux at this time had a girlfriend. He later married and is the father of two children. Two months after that pre-season comment, Chelsea played West Ham at Upton Park.
"I got the ball on the left and played it upfield," he writes in his book. "Then the chant started." It was a crude sexual chant that rang out repeatedly across the North Bank terrace. "I stood in shock. 'Oh my God, that's it,' I thought. I knew fans everywhere were going to make my life a misery."
And they did. At every away ground it was more or less the same: torrents of filthy homophobic abuse that left him frightened and angry. It went on for years. "All the anger and prejudice hidden away under the surface of everyday life starts spewing out of them. You get a sense of the mentality of the mob."
Players like Paul Ince and Robbie Savage goaded him on the field. Matters came to a head in a Liverpool-Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge in February 1999. Fowler baited him during a break in play with explicit pantomime gestures, mocking him in front of the gallery. The packed crowd witnessed it, the TV audience saw it.
But Le Saux was a tough little nut. When he got his chance later, he whacked Fowler with an elbow.
Both players were later suspended. But the controversy empowered Le Saux. The football authorities and the wider public
finally acknowledged the torment he'd been enduring alone. "The debate about what happened had exposed it for the puerile cruelty, the out and out bullying, that it was."
Fowler remained unrepentant for years afterwards. Last Thursday he tweeted a mixture of excuses and regrets. "Getting a bit of stick for something that happened when I was a kid," he wrote, "naive and immature".
But he was still dismissing Le Saux's hurt in his own autobiography, which was published in 2005 when Fowler was 30.
"Obviously embarrassed looking back," he added on Thursday, "but sadly cannot change what happened. You learn from mistakes growing up, and that I have . . ."
Things are changing for the better, said Le Saux last week. And the globalisation of the game in Britain has surely helped accelerate the change. But it is still a fearful working environment when a player is not safe from his fellow professionals, much less the baying mob in the stands.