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How football broke down its social barriers – a trip into the future

Alistair Magowan takes a trip into the future to ponder what a more equal football landscape might look like and where the real breakthroughs might stem from. (Some names are fictional). 

It is September 2021, the autumn before the first winter World Cup. Fifa has concluded years of wrangling with European leagues to make sure the Qatar tournament goes ahead, but its problems in choosing the middle-eastern country are yet to cease.

Several major players have threatened to boycott football’s showpiece event unless a temporary solution is found to overcome Qatar’s anti-gay laws and let all fans into the country. Fifa’s headquarters in Switzerland are bracing themselves for a month of protests.

It shows that there are still many barriers to overcome in the world game but the current landscape in Britain seems a world away from 10 years ago where even straight players were loath to speak about homophobia in football.

Looking back, it is incredible to think what was still tolerated in 2011.

Rugby and cricket had their openly gay stars in Gareth Thomas and Steven Davies. In football there were none, other than non-league player Liam Davis and that did not come to light until three years later.

In 2011 there were only two black managers in English football’s top four divisions, and no female representatives on the Football Association’s board.

Kick it Out used to receive just 0.01% of the Premier League’s TV money and the Football v Homophobia campaign received no funding at all. “Piecemeal” is how Piara Powar, director of European anti-discrimination body FARE, described the authorities’ approach. The one feather in the FA’s cap, at least, was the beginning of the Women’s Super League, although even that had been delayed.

In comparison to that sorry resume, football now appears to have gone through a revolution, or maybe it has just finally caught up with society.

In the current 2021-22 season, not only is former Middlesbrough defender Ugo Ehiogu one of nine black managers in the top four divisions but Heather Rabbatts is the Football Association’s chairperson. Former England women’s captain Casey Stoney is a coach at Charlton men’s team and there are four openly gay players in the Premier League and Football League.

So how did we get to a point where this could happen?

3451990 Thomas Hitzlsperger (L) celebrates scoring with teammates whilst playing for Aston Villa

Many thought that when Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first Premier League player to come out in early 2014, it would lead to a more tolerant landscape. But the fact that he and former Leeds winger Robbie Rogers decided to wait until their playing careers were over suggested there was still a long way to go.

Former NBA basketball star John Amaechi, who also waited until he had retired from the game before revealing he was gay, believed prior events were more telling.

“Change doesn’t happen this way, that you get one iconic person and then everything shifts,” Amaechi told BBC Sport after Hitzlsperger’s news.

“Footballers coming out at the highest level will be a product of a cultural change in football, not a pre-cursor. That can be done by a remarkably small number of people who hold a remarkable amount of power evolving.

“I’ve worked with multi-national organisations that have made concerted efforts at senior level, and it’s amazing that in two or three years that organisation starts to shift radically. It attracts the very best people regardless of their demographic.”

In the end, Amaechi proved right. Rabbatts’s appointment as the first woman on the FA board in 2012 was perhaps not seen as seismic at the time but after a first year settling in she began to publically question the FA executive, perhaps the first time this had been done with wider equality issues in mind.

“Sports governing bodies must reflect the make-up of the diverse society that we live in,” she said aftercriticising the make-up of a FA commission to improve the England team’s chances in 2013. Initially the panel included no black, ethnic minority or female representatives.

Rio Ferdinand was subsequently added to the group and the decision by Rabbatts to set up an Inclusion Advisory Board was another step in the right direction despite former Derby defender Michael Johnson stepping down after previous homophobic comments came to light.

Former Reading and Blackburn striker Jason Roberts replaced Johnson on that board in the summer of 2014 and later the same year became Kick it Out’s new chairman after Lord Herman Ouseley retired. This was another important shift.

In 2012, Roberts took a stand against Kick it Out, by refusing to wear a T-shirt in support of the anti-discrimination group. He believed that the body had taken its eye off the ball in a year when former Chelsea defender John Terry and ex-Liverpool striker Luis Suarez had been found guilty of racial abuse towards opposition players.

But his actions helped bring Kick it Out and the surrounding issues into the limelight again. The FA clamped down on offences with a proper legal procedure as evidenced by the Suarez and Terry cases and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) stepped up its player education programme.

When he took over, Roberts was quick to streamline Kick it Out’s message, galvanise its supporters and increased pressure on its main funding contributors – the FA, the Premier League and PFA. In two years the cashflow doubled from almost £600,000 to £1.2m.

His strong links with the PFA allowed the union to finally integrate its ‘Coaching Fair Play’ initiative among Football League clubs, allowing qualified black coaches a chance to gain more interview experience and slowly but surely, the number of black managers has climbed. It is still not at the 15% level that Roberts has targeted, half the ratio of non-white players in the game, but it is on an upward curve and currently sits at 10%.

By 2016, a wider breadth of voices were being heard at English football’s top tables.

FA national game director Kelly Simmons became the second woman on the FA board, as women’s football overtook cricket to become the second biggest participation sport behind the men’s game. Indeed, the women’s team success under manager Mark Sampson at the 2017 European Championship lifted the game to heady heights.

That triumph in Scotland had sponsors queuing up to associate themselves with the Women’s Super League, which now has two professional divisions of eight teams, and another semi-professional league beneath it.

In fact, 2017 was a pivotal year. Former PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle joined Simmons on the FA board and Rabbatts also became the first woman to be FA chairperson, a historic step for English football. That came after an increase in the number of women, black and ethnic minority board members at professional clubs.

Was it any coincidence then that we then saw Harvey Brale and David Woolsworth come out as the first openly gay professionals still playing the game?

The pair were friends but not in a relationship together, and took the bold step to make their announcement via YouTube simultaneously, thereby sharing the perceived attention and abuse they thought they were about to receive. And it worked.

For years there was speculation when this would happen and now there were two at once. It was a masterstroke and the reaction was remarkably grown up, as had been the case when Rogers, Hitzlsperger and Davis had made their announcements. Football had finally shown that the gap between the game and the rest of society was not as great as some had feared.

There were difficulties to begin with. The media treated the pair with maturity, except from one ill-received comment off air from a national TV pundit. But he was sacked on the spot.

Away supporters did abuse QPR’s Brale and Leyton Orient’s Woolsworth during the first season, but because of a new stance under Rabbatts, the FA clamped down hard on the offending clubs by banning the supporters and fining clubs up to £100,000 in the first instance. That is what happened during a FA Cup game at Chelsea’s Battersea Stadium. The increased sanctions of up to £250,000 for a second offence and then threatening to play games behind closed doors for a third case never came to pass. The precedent was set and Football League clubs, with dwindling resources, soon got the message.

Overall, as money continued to flow into the Premier League and player wages of £1m a week became more common, dramatic steps were taken by clubs to reduce tickets prices to a maximum of £20 for young people. Seemingly, a more tolerant audience emerged. Maybe that tag of prejudice being “a generational thing” was true after all.

The flow between coaches in the men’s and women’s game has continued since Robbie Fowler took on the Liverpool Ladies role in 2017. There is yet to be a women’s manager higher than the fourth tier, but Hope Powell’s success in reaching the League Two play-offs at AFC Wimbledon showed the doors were no longer closed. After all, she was a black, gay woman. More importantly, she was also a very good coach.

Alongside long-serving Charlton manager Chris Powell, Stoney struggled to begin with as the players took time to listen to a new voice. But the Addicks have now established themselves at the top of the Championship with promotion this season’s target.

It is a far cry from when Stoney began her football career at Arsenal by washing Dennis Bergkamp’s underpants. She ended up going back to the Gunners in 2014 to finish her playing career, and after moving into coaching with Arsenal Ladies made no secret of her gratitude towards Bergkamp after he took over from Arsene Wenger and became a mentor for Stoney.

The 38-year-old Stoney says she still speaks to Bergkamp, who is fast becoming the perfect heir to Wenger’s throne, and their relationship shows how integrated and open football has become.

The English game still struggles with the rich clubs getting richer and the European League is set to come into force next season, but at least, like every other business, talent is the most precious commodity from boardroom to the pitch.

Follow @alistairmagowan and @21stClub

About Alistair Magowan

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