Statistics and silence

A young player treads warily in a new dressing-room. He awkwardly hangs at the edges of the team-mate banter bubble, the titters around a phone screen, the clique on the coach and avoids the Christmas do at a local night-spot where minor fame meets female flesh. He slowly falls for someone working at the club. That someone is a man. The man falls for him too. Fear – both on and off the pitch – takes over.

The plot of Ross Raisin’s new novel, A Natural, is plausible enough, built on long-held assumptions about the culture of British football. Every player and pundit protestation that “it’s OK to be gay” in 2017, amid rainbow laces and community outreach, hits the wall of a seemingly incontrovertible fact: no male professional still playing in the UK has disclosed a same-sex preference since Justin Fashanu in 1990. 

The world of football, according to Raisin’s anthropological take on newly promoted “Town”, is closed and inward-looking. It privileges certain attributes. It freezes time. Players don’t grow up. Social change is accepted only in so far as it is functional to winning. The pressure to succeed creates a compacted conformity, as well as anxiety, frustration and boredom. “Do you enjoy it?” someone asks the 19-year-old Tom Pearman, Raisin’s fictional former Premier League academy product newly dumped into League Two for his first season in the men’s game. “It’s what I always wanted to be,” he replies. Which perhaps doesn’t quite answer the question.

Pearman is not only finding his way as a player, he’s also suppressing a desire for connection, his sexuality only half-articulated even to himself. It is mirrored by his loss of innocence on the pitch, a young talent whose once unthinking instinct is now being moulded, hardened, labelled, commodified and judged. As the manager who signs him exclaims, “That boy’s a player. A natural. And I’m going to turn him into a man.”

This portrait of a young athlete living a secret life, trapped in a sport that won’t accept him, seems to flow from that incontrovertible fact – since there (statistically) must be male gay footballers, who are they? How do they feel? What does their silence say?

Legacy of Justin Fashanu

Fashanu himself is still cast as a warning even as public awareness of his career fades two decades since his death, the highlights reel restricted to that goal against Liverpool at Carrow Road in February 1980, the searing left-foot volley after an effortless use of the right boot to tee the ball up. As a teenage talent, there seemed to be no limits. 

The BBC sport website has a formula paragraph inserted at the base of its articles about gay footballers. It reads: “In 1990, former England Under-21 international Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer to reveal he was gay. He took his own life eight years later, aged 37.”

Between the first and the second sentence lies an assumed causation and a lesson for others. But there is another more mixed history of those later years, one in which Fashanu’s post-disclosure career featured periodically successful spells at a range of lower-league and Scottish clubs where his sexuality appears to have been largely accepted, if not without comment, by players and his own fans. 

If Plainmoor and Tynecastle, among other places, proved homes to an openly gay footballer in the early to mid-90s, would it not be the same, or better, 20 years on? As Juliet Jacques, founder of the Justin Campaign, has written, the post-mortem simplification of Fashanu’s story has potential costs for the current generation. There was no straight line from the homophobia Fashanu faced and what happened on 1 May 1998. “Now, surely, enough time has passed for us to consider the shades in Justin’s story, remembering him as someone who struggled with a difficult family background and a host of prejudices, against his ethnicity, his sexuality and his faith … [To do so] is fairer for any closeted footballers, for whom the narrative that homophobia in football was primarily responsible for his death forms a dauntingly negative precedent.”

Still, these were not easy years. His time at Torquay United (1991-93) yielded 15 goals and the assistant’s manager’s position (from February 1992). But Fashanu typically couched his opening plea for tolerance with a combination of confidence and vulnerability. “Torquay fans have got to decide whether they support me or are embarrassed by me. I hope they support me but it’s up to them.” The Torquay chairman Mike Bateson, all the while embracing the attention brought by the signing, claimed to have asked the squad if they’d have problem with their prospective team-mate. No one objected – but that didn’t mean Fashanu’s sexuality wasn’t the source of crude dressing-room “jokes” in the early weeks. No one has adequately explained why Fashanu’s pre-match routine included changing in the referee’s room. A warm welcome from fans at Plainmoor was tempered by shocking abuse away at West Brom and Fulham.

At Airdrieonians in 1993, his five goals in 16 appearances could not save them from relegation but his knee was holding up and fans were onside, as they were later at Hearts. Again, acceptance was still sometimes tinged with something else, his sexuality (and race) packaged into songs to which Fashanu’s reaction remains unknown – “He’s black/He’s gay/He plays for Air-der-ray/Fashanu/Fashanu”.

In the 1980s, when Fashanu’s sexuality was not yet public, abuse was private and direct, not least from Brian Clough who had signed him for £1m in 1981 and increasingly despaired of seeing a return on the pitch. At the time, Fashanu was known to be attending “Part Two”, a gay members’ club in Nottingham and was confronted by his manager, whose language (“poofs”) was both of, and behind, the times.

Clough later sought to reframe his objections into the idea that a gay footballer is necessarily placing themselves outside of the dressing-room core. The result is a tortuous, covert homophobia. “That [his sexuality] in itself didn’t bother me too much,” he wrote. “It was just that his shiftiness, combined with an articulate image that impressed the impressionable, made it difficult for me to accept Fashanu as genuine and ‘one of us’.”

A glimpse of the atmosphere in the late 1980s is inadvertently provided by the West Ham winger Mark Ward, whose autobiography From Right-wing to B-wing was written in prison after he was jailed for cocaine supply in 2005, features a team-hotel anecdote in which Fashanu is the inevitable target. 

Ward arrives at the hotel to be told that he will be sharing with Fashanu. “I left the key on the reception desk and started to pace up and down looking for help. Being asleep in the bed next to Justin Fashanu? No fucking way! I was panicking now and started to hunt for someone to talk to – where the fuck was Alvin [Martin]? He would sort it out. Just at that moment I heard lots of sniggers. I turned the corner and pissing themselves laughing were Alvin, Galy [Tony Gale] and Dicksy [Julian Dicks]. It was a good set-up and I was so relieved to hear that Justin was rooming on his own that night.”

The year after Fashanu’s suicide, football’s only engagement with issues of sexuality seemed to be centred on pantomime: the long-term fan abuse endured by Graeme Le Saux. In his 2007 autobiography, Left Field, he describes the infamous February 1999 incident at Anfield, during which Robbie Fowler repeatedly used gestures and taunts (“come and give me one up the arse”) towards him as “the most traumatic match of my career” and “the most extreme humiliation anyone could visit on me”. 

Le Saux’s “crime” had been breaking the rule of conformity: reading the Guardian, hanging out in an Armenian café on Gloucester Road and taking a European driving holiday with his team-mate Ken Monkou in the summer of 1991 (“camping with Ken” became the private Chelsea dressing-room “joke” that, three months later, spread to the terraces). Only a year after Fashanu had come out, and just as the striker was enjoying a positive first season at Torquay in Division Three, the Jersey-born left-back was facing chants of “Le Saux/Takes it up the arse” to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”.

But Le Saux also recognises that, after the nadir of 1999, football had already begun to change. The dressing-room culture during his first spell at Chelsea (1989-92) was defined by Graham Roberts, Vinnie Jones, Kerry Dixon and Steve Wicks (“old-schoolers who regarded me as a dork, a swot and a pretentious weirdo”); when he returned in 1997, it was Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola.

The cause of distress to Le Saux – a married man with children – was not, he says, any homophobia on his own part. “I never believed that there was anything wrong with being gay but I felt that if it were accepted that I was gay, I would be unable to continue as a professional footballer.”

Slow progress

The roots of our present-day omertà are seemingly tangled in this same fear that identification of difference could undermine an individual’s chance of success. There is a parallel sense, and much evidence, that both society and football have not come as far as we tend to think – that beneath the words, and the letter of the law, prejudices lie latent.

“Players do not come out of the closet because they are afraid,” said Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann. “We have to appear hard and strong but we are afraid of what people will say about us. I think I would [come out as gay]. But of course, that’s easier when you do not have to go through it. There are a lot of bad people in football and players can be afraid to go to stadiums and get abused.”

The potential for terrace abuse is not an imagined fear and extends beyond the anecdotal. A survey in 2016 commissioned by Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) equality charity, found that 72% of football fans in the UK have heard homophobic abuse in the previous five years. One in five 18 to 24-year-olds say they’d be embarrassed if their favourite player came out. In a separate BBC poll, 8% of football fans said they would stop watching their team if it featured an openly gay player – take that percentage and apply it to a 50,000 crowd at a Premier League ground.

And what of English football as the ‘global game’, watched and marketed across continents where there have been few advances in gay rights, in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa where homosexuality remains illegal, even countries within the Uefa ‘family’ in which homophobia remains endemic and state-sanctioned? Even if a player were to receive support in the UK – and that is in dispute – there can be no reassurance that it would extend internationally.

This is replicated in English grassroots football too, from youth games to Sunday league, where the Football Association regularly finds itself taking disciplinary action against players and clubs for homophobia – verbal abuse being the most common form. Ifeanyi Odogwu, a barrister who sits as a judge on the FA’s appeals tribunal, sees a widespread problem but there are few comparators with which to evaluate trends. “There has been a steady increase in the number of incidents being reported since the FA established the specialist Anti-Discrimination panels in 2013,” he said. “In my experience homophobic comments make up a significant proportion of those cases. However, the catalyst for this increase is most likely due to the more pervasive disapproval of certain kinds of behaviour and an awareness of the FA’s zero tolerance approach, rather than more incidents occurring.”

Those outside the game, on the other hand, question old-school attitudes inside the dressing-room. In this view, managers and players are the problem. Football (the men’s game at least) is an enclosed world in fear of change, resistant to anything that might re-shape the internal dynamics of a competitive and often ruthless environment.

A current footballer who has played in both the professional and semi-professional game cautions that “hyper-masculine” behaviours in the dressing-room are still prevalent and contribute to an atmosphere in which gay players still feel uncomfortable revealing, let alone celebrating, their sexuality. “Football is exploitative,” he says. “Fans exploit weakness. Players exploit weakness. Changing-room ‘banter’ exploits you. It’s in the nature of team sports and football in particular. It’s about exploiting weakness and dominating each other. 

“Football as a sub-culture legitimises that behaviour. Homophobic behaviour isn’t always direct but things that are said that have an undertone of that, whether it’s ‘pussy’ or ‘girl’ or ‘poof’. For example, using the word ‘gay’ as an insult to describe something as ‘crap’ might not have homophobic intent, but it has the consequence of being homophobic.

“Individually footballers, if you ask them, they’ll say ‘diversity is a good thing’ but, in the group setting, the hyper-masculine traits assert themselves. The comments, the jokes, the taking the piss, it’s a result of insecurity. That includes sexism too, of course, and other behaviour.”

If fan culture is changing and players themselves profess to be more tolerant than once thought, is the current rate of progress encouraging or an indicator of a deep, residual problem? Take the cluster of public disclosures this decade. The Swedish professional Anton Hysén (son of the former Liverpool defender Glenn) came out in 2011. Liam Davis announced his sexuality publicly in 2014 while at Gainsborough Town, then in the Conference North, and played in the FA Vase at Wembley in May 2017 with his hometown club Cleethorpes. He had been out to his team-mates at a number of non-league clubs since the age of 18. 

In 2013, Robbie Rogers saw his release by Leeds United at the age of 25 as an opportunity to “discover myself away from football” and is now with LA Galaxy. He said his fear of player reaction was not unfounded. “There’s a reason why people don’t come out,” he said. “It’s because they hear so many things that scare them. The thought of going into the locker room and being treated as an outcast was the last thing I wanted. It’s sitting there with all the guys, the banter, the talking, trying to fit in. It’s your team, it’s your brothers. Being outcast from that would be awful.”

Of highest profile was the Germany international, Bundesliga winner and Premier League midfielder, Thomas Hitzlsperger, in 2014. “The time is right simply because I quit playing six months ago as a professional player,” he said. “And I want to talk now about my experiences as a homosexual in professional football.”

Not a long list – and one surely not unconnected to parallel advances in Europe over gay marriage and other civil rights for LGBTs. But a few grudging steps forward won’t always feel like progress if the rest of society has used the same time to march a mile down the road. 

Although the continuing public appeal directed at the putative gay footballer, even from the Football Association itself – “reveal yourself and let others follow” – often looks like the prurient demand of the straight male, an echo of negative tropes about “coming out of the closet”, the gay man in hiding who must account for himself. It also assumes that young men still exploring their own preferences want to self-identify in so categorical a way or that the reaction of football and society would not be without costs and complications for the individuals involved. The silent response from gay football players across the country might reasonably be translated as, “Well, why should we? What’s it got to do with you?”

Hitzlsperger also challenged the notion that footballers are expected to know or care about the private lives of their team-mates any more than an employee in a company does. “Whether you believe me or not, I don’t know a single gay football player personally,” he said in 2014. “Look, we didn’t get together every morning to talk about our private life. We went there to train together and become better players, and win as a team, not to talk about our private lives, that’s just an illusion people have.”

For all the assertive masculinity and testosterone flowing through a dressing-room, the peacock display and insider codes, these may in fact be curiously sexless places. Players bond for a purpose (winning) and in order to challenge and trust one another. Sex, in this scheme, could be rendered an irrelevance; and differences in sexuality could, and will, be likewise in the long-term. Outside the dressing-room, in the clubs and hotels, sex would inevitably reappear, but only as status and a distraction from the main event – which will always remain football. 

Raisin is similarly less interested in demands for disclosure or any cliché of the “homoerotic dressing-room”. Instead, the more revealing conflict is between a body as “athlete” and “person”, a machine finely honed for achievement in the public gaze to the exclusion of all else, including a private life. As David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay on the kinetic beauty of the sportsman: “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”