In a breathless few minutes, my gay football team’s WhatsApp group went from relative calm to a flurry of exclamation marks, clappy hands and heart emojis.
Scrolling to the top, I stopped. This wasn’t the usual sassy nonsense that jabbers on for 30 messages; this was a game-changer.
A Blackpool player had just told the world he is gay on Sky Sports.
‘HUGE!!’ bellowed one in the group. Another joked that everyone would be immediately following him on social media.
Who was this guy, Jake Daniels? A 17-year-old striker who’d barely broken into a Championship side whose uninspiring season saw them finish in the bottom half of the table.
Unremarkable, and yet utterly remarkable.
I watched his interview and the moment caught in my throat. As my eyes began to water, I tried to make sense of what I was feeling.
I’m a 40-year-old homo who loves football. I played in the park every night after school.
My childhood revolved around Ceefax results on a Saturday afternoon (Jeff Stelling was but an apple in Sky’s eye). I remember crying when a friend lost my football over the church gates.
I remember beer shirt sponsors, keeping a four-league wallchart in my bedroom, and an older kid who’d called me fluky on the pitch and me thinking it meant wonderful.
But then I also remember Justin Fashanu.
Or do I? Justin Fashanu was the first Black player to command a £1million transfer fee, but in 1990 he became the first to come out as gay.
His career, already on the slide, never recovered. Short stints at clubs in England were marred by jokes from teammates and taunts from opposing fans.
While his brother John was howling ‘Awooga!’ down the lens in Gladiators, as a primetime TV star, Justin was pinballing between clubs at home and in North America.
He was the game’s dirty little secret who’d been swept under the carpet and shipped across the Atlantic.
So, in fact, I didn’t remember Justin. I should have as a player, but he’d been forgotten about.
Out of sight, out of mind, until he took his own life in 1998.
I was 17 then, the same age as Jake Daniels is now. I knew my feelings for men then, as Jake knows his now. But I daren’t have told anyone, let alone the entire footballing world.
The tragedy of Justin Fashanu’s story – the treatment of him by English football and even his brother, who has since expressed regret for disowning him – was burned into the conscience of the game.
His name was a dark warning to any footballer who was gay. Come out and there’d be hell to pay.
The crowd would shoot you down until you were a shaking shell of yourself. You’d be shunned by your teammates, dropped by your sponsors and sold by your club.
That is what gay footballers fear.
Footballers already have short careers, why put themselves through the wringer of public opinion?
While other places of work progressed into the 21st Century – in 2000 even the Armed Forces allowed openly gay recruits – football remained wed to an ugly culture of don’t-ask-don’t-tell.
Perhaps there were players who were out to their teammates? If so, it was kept very much in-house.
David Beckham had worn sarongs, eye-liner and been on the cover of gay magazines; football seemed to have moved on from Justin Fashanu’s days in the top flight.
But it hadn’t. At its core a fear among players and clubs remained.
The information vacuum was filled with tabloid innuendo as to who might be gay. Fans guessed, I guessed.
For decades, I wondered who would come out. Would anyone come out? What would the big moment look like? And now I know.
What had been swept under the rug by the game for my whole adult life, what had kept apart two core parts of my identity – the football fan and the gay man, like repelling magnets – was now a lump in my throat.
Jake ‘The Legend’ Daniels. Thank you. Of course it could only have been a Gen Z-er, someone brought up more enlightened than I was or ever will be. Someone not bound by other people’s past prejudice.
His club has been supportive and I’m sure advertisers will be falling over themselves to sign up such an articulate, progressive face of modern football.
So I hope this is a true watershed moment. More players will feel comfortable speaking publicly about themselves.
I have faith in the opposition teams and fans too.
The game has changed from the days of Robbie Fowler presenting his bum to Graeme Le Saux amid a homophobic smear campaign against the latter for, among other things, reading broadsheets and visiting art galleries.
I should know, I play for a gay-friendly team, London Titans, in a ‘straight’ league.
We have no such abuse, besides the odd ‘fag’ insult.
Daniels will get that too, I’m sure.
But I expect him to be protected by the English game – in boardrooms, terraces and on the pitch, as redemption for its past sins, if nothing else.
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