Tuesday 24 October 2017

FA draws total blank in bid to make contact with gay professional footballers

Players have worn rainbow laces in a bid to promote inclusion and diversity in football. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
Players have worn rainbow laces in a bid to promote inclusion and diversity in football. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Paul Hayward

The Football Association’s attempts to make contact with gay professional footballers have drawn a blank, with “not one” willing to meet the organisation’s chairman, Greg Clarke, even in secret or anonymously.

On his tour of the national game, Clarke managed to speak to a black manager who said people in football from his ethnic background could “forget” about being hired if they earned a reputation for being “difficult”.

Race proved an easier subject for the FA chairman to discuss than sexuality, with current non-heterosexual players in the men’s professional game preferring not to be open about their sexuality in a sport where there is thought to be a higher than average chance of hostility or derision.

Clarke told Telegraph Sport: “I understand the reticence. I went to the women’s cup final. It was great. There was gay, there was straight, there were kids, it was relaxed. It was like a big wedding reception. I had a great time. There was no judgment in the room. Everyone was there because they wanted to see the game.

“I’ve met a lot of gay activists, gay publishers. I went down to Stonewall, watched a game, had a beer in the bar afterwards - and talked about the issues. At the semi-pro level and below, nobody’s worried. I haven’t met one player at professional level who would even agree to meet me in the middle of nowhere for a conversation over a cup of coffee. Not one.

“I don’t blame them for that. If they don’t feel comfortable having that conversation, it doesn’t say good things about our game.”

Clarke insisted he is not assuming this reluctance stems from a fear of abuse from some fans and on social media, the most commonly posited reasons for not ‘coming out’. He said: “I don’t want to speculate about what’s in their heads. They obviously don’t feel comfortable. I’ve spoken to the Premier League, the EFL [English Football League], the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association], the LMA [League Managers’ Association].

“We are all desperate to make the game more LGBT-inclusive. We haven’t yet won the trust of the professional gay players. I’ve reached out. I’ve seen athletes, swimmers, divers, I’ve gone everywhere. And they’ve shared their views with me. I’ve said, ‘Why won’t gay footballers meet me?’. They’ve all said, ‘I don’t know because I don’t know any gay footballers’. They’re very deeply buried.”

At professional level, Thomas Hitzlsperger (Aston Villa and West Ham) and Robbie Rogers (Leeds United) have both spoken of their homosexuality, but only after leaving the English game or retiring. In May, Liam Davis became the first openly gay footballer to play at Wembley, in the FA Vase final.

Clarke says he has also tried to break down barriers for black coaches and managers, and heard an alarming claim that “awkward” individuals in that field are more likely to suffer consequences.

“When I had the same conversation with black managers, BAME managers [about problems faced], I ended up in a situation where I was meeting clandestinely with black players and black managers,” Clarke said. “I was in a coffee bar talking to a really nice guy who’s a black manager and he said, ‘Let me tell you something, Greg. It’s really hard to get a job as a manager. It’s doubly hard to get a job as a black manager. But if you’re an awkward black manager - forget it. We can’t get a reputation for being difficult’.

“I’m not going to say who they were. All the black managers and players I met years ago when I was putting the Rooney rule [on job interview ratios] in place - I never said a word about any of them.”

Clarke accepted that gay footballers were under no obligation to reveal their sexuality. He said: “Why would you sign up for that potential risk if it’s working for you, if you’re happy? You might think, ‘Why do I need to share my sexuality with anybody?’. I respect that. Where I worry is that there may be people who want to be openly gay but don’t feel able to be openly gay. If they do, they should be comfortable, accepted and supported.”

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