‘It’s sort of the hidden problem in football’; Altrincham FC look to tackle homophobia head on

Those were the words of Altrincham FC director Bill Waterson as his club looked to line up in a special, LGBT-inspired rainbow kit to try and raise attention to an issue in football often overlooked in his eyes. The National League club wanted to tackle the issue both on and off the pitch, for both players and supporters alike.

For the Vanarama National League North side, making a clear show of support for the LGBT cause within men’s football was something that the club had been wanting to do for some time.

Waterson said: “So we’ve had a strong inclusion and diversity setup here for a couple of years here now and we’ve thought about doing something for Football v Homophobia and we wanted to make sure we did it properly, so we were gonna take a couple of years to get it done.

That came to fruition this month, it’s Football v Homophobia’s tenth anniversary, it’s there action month February, and it’s LGBT Pride history month as well.”

LGBT football charity Football v Homophobia, who were given pride of place as Altrincham’s shirt sponsor for the special edition rainbow kit, had declared February 2019 their month of action, looking to encourage various shows of support from clubs across the English football system and beyond, from established clubs like Altrincham right down through to grassroots football.

Waterson explained: “It was a coming together of events that allowed us to give proper publicity to this very important initiative to get rid of homophobia in football.”

‘The fact there are no gay footballers tells a story in it’s own right’

For Waterson and the rest of those involved at Altrincham FC, Football v Homophobia’s cause struck a chord with them because it was an issue that they felt was too often going under the radar in football.

The club director said: “It’s sort of the hidden problem in football [homophobia].

“With racism it’s obvious, and there are obvious targets, whether fans from ethnic minorities or players from ethnic minorities.

An officer from the Greater Manchester Police proudly supporting Altrincham FC’s LGBT rainbow kit campaign at their match against Bradford Park Avenue, as part of the force’s Police with Pride initiative, on February 19th 2019.

“With homophobia, the fact that there are no gay footballers tells a story in it’s own right, so there must be something that’s preventing gay footballers from coming out, there must be something that’s preventing LGBT+ fans from being able to express themselves on the terraces.

“Therefore we felt we needed to do something.”

And do something they did indeed. Loudly, and proudly, walking out to rapturous cheers from their supporters, Altrincham’s players wore their vivid rainbow kit, designed with the LGBT flag and it’s colours as inspiration.

The one-off kit choice was a proud and clear message of support from the National League North side, and one that was firmly backed by all those around them – including their opponents on the day Bradford Park Avenue and the respective league and Football Association governing bodies.

“[The] National League are very strongly behind us, the Football Association are very strongly behind it as well. Today’s opponents Bradford Park Avenue were massively supportive of what we’re trying to do today.

“We’ve not come across a negative voice. Everyone very strongly in favour of what we’re doing today.”

Welsh club Conwy Borough followed suit shortly after Altrincham, also donning a rainbow jersey for their match against Prestatyn in order to raise awareness for homophobia in football and encouraging clubs and supporters alike to take a stand.

Much like Altrincham’s campaign, Conwy Borough’s custom shirts garnered widespread attention in Wales and even recently found themselves mentioned in an article on the match on the UEFA website.

Auctioning the shirts

“So we’ve set about trying to remove those barriers that would stop people who might feel a little bit intimidated coming to a football ground and that’s partly what this campaign is about.”

After the match, intending to both raise even more attention and money for the cause, the match-worn shirts were auctioned off by the club, with all the profits going directly to an LGBT youth group in Manchester called The Proud Trust.

Rainbow LGBT-inspired Altrincham kits hanging up in the club dressing room ahead of their match against Bradford Park Avenue on February 19th 2019. (image credit: Altrincham FC)

The group is in the process of attempting to refurbish a community centre in the heart of Manchester for the LGBT community.

Conwy Borough also auctioned off their match-worn shirts following their match against Prestatyn.

A community club; Altrincham look to fight homophobia in the stands too

However, as the auction pointed to, Altrincham’s strong message on homophobia wasn’t just targeted to abuse or inappropriate behaviour on the pitch.

Waterson was keen to stress that this campaign, and the club’s attempts to make a statement of acceptance, was as much about the fans and making a safe, welcoming environment for them too.

“Absolutely right, [it’s about the fans too].

“Our mantra as a community club is to make this stadium a welcoming place for everybody who wants to come and watch.

“This is our national game, therefore it’s part of our national character. It should reflect the diversity that we see on the streets every day, whether that be racial, sexual, gender orientation, sexual orientation.

“What we should see in a football stadium is the same as you see out on the streets and that’s blatantly not the case.

Homophobia from the terraces is still an ongoing issue in the modern game, and as Waterson suggests it is sometimes overlooked and unreported more often than other forms of abuse such as racism.

An anonymous survey taken of more than 100 football fans across the United Kingdom found that 62% of respondents had reported hearing some kind of homophobic slur, chant or term used at a match.

Of those who responded that they had heard homophobic abuse, more than half said it was directed at an individual, whether that was a player, official or fellow supporter.

One respondent, who said he was a Huddersfield Town fan, wrote: “I’ve definitely heard homophobia language at the match.

“I don’t think its done with the intention of being offensive if I’m honest, I think some people just don’t think. It’s crowd mentality, they wouldn’t say it on the street if it was just them.

“I’ve watched football all my life and I do think it’s improved a lot from what it used to be like.

“I think now there are gay fan groups [like Huddersfield Town’s LGBT supporters group, the Proud Terriers] makes it a lot easier for people to feel accepted and comfortable. They can find other people like them, which wouldn’t really happen 10 years ago.”

That seems to be the general sentiment of many involved in football, or trying to help tackle homophobia in the sport. Things are improving, and far better than they were, but they still aren’t quite there yet.

For more than half of survey respondents to have experienced or heard homophobic language of some nature at football matches around the country suggests that there is still a problem there, and is exactly why clubs like Altrincham have taken it upon themselves to show those targeted by such abuse that its a small, unwanted minority.

Most of football welcomes fans with open arms, regardless of their sexuality, and the National League North side have been keen to show this loudly and proudly, gaining amazing support for their efforts along the way.

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