‘It was a clean tackle and he just turned and called me a f*****’; Playing football as a gay player

Those were the words that one teammate said to Brandon McKenna during a training session that made him truly question whether he wanted to continue playing football anymore.

It lead to McKenna taking a nine month break from football, but luckily he was able to rekindle his passion for the game in a much more welcoming environment through LGBT-friendly club Village Manchester FC.

The English Football Association’s 2015 State of the Game report suggested that as many as 6.25 million men are involved in some form of football, with over 1 million of those involved in FA-affiliated leagues and teams.

With 2.3% of men in the UK identifying as non-heterosexual, the experiences that McKenna had at his former team are unfortunately not unique and have led to a need for these kinds of LGBT-friendly clubs to be formed in major cities all across the United Kingdom.

‘I was there to play football, my sexuality had nothing to do with it’ – Brandon McKenna

When I met up with McKenna to talk about his past experiences with homophobia he was watching on the sidelines of the Village Manchester FC training session, unable to take part himself due to illness.

Still, his passion for the game was as clear as day, and it was remarkable to think that the actions of his own teammates at a former club could have made the man in front of me quit the game he loved for nearly an entire year.

McKenna explained: “I played for a club about a year ago and I was just going through a training session.

“It was just us, there was nobody else involved, and I tackled one of the players. It was a clean tackle and he just turned and called me a faggot.

“It kind of really disheartened me.

“I was there to train, to play football, my sexuality had nothing to do with it. Having a comment like that, I just thought what was the point. I stopped playing football. I stopped for about nine months.”

Luckily for McKenna he was pointed in the direction of a club that was built from its very core to be more accommodating and to be accepting of players regardless of their sexuality.

“Someone suggested Village Manchester. I went to one training session and thought it was alright. Then went to the second training and started getting involved with more people.

“You really get this community feel to it, there is no kind of hostility. Everyone is very welcoming and calm. I just felt very welcome within the club, so I stayed.”

While McKenna is gay, not all of his teammates at Village Manchester are. In fact, the club estimates that more than half of the players at the club are in fact straight, though as the club makes no efforts to ask players cannot say for certain what percentage makes up what.

“We have to estimate we’ve got 40% gay and 60% straight.

“We don’t know that for a fact, we don’t ask people and we don’t talk about it too much. There quite a lot of people here you can’t really tell, and I think that’s a big thing for it.

Village Manchester FC 1st team playing Manchester Maccabi in 2014. (Image credit: Village Manchester FC)

“I’m quite masculine myself, you can’t tell that I’m gay. But again, I don’t want a hostile environment. I don’t want ‘Lads’ lads everywhere, I want people that will accept me for who I am and I can be myself no matter what and feel welcome.”

Homophobia still affects the team when they play their matches, competing in the Lancashire and Cheshire League – a regular, FA-affiliated Saturday league against other, traditional clubs.

“We still get it to this day. The club was formed in 1996, so this will be the best time to play because there will be the least amount of homophobia, but you still get the comments when you’re playing games and when you make an appearance and things like that.”

The history of Village Manchester FC

Club treasurer for Village Manchester FC Steve Joyce was keen to explain the background of club while I was at their training session.

He explained: “[Village Manchester] were the second LGBT friendly club in the UK, maybe third in the world. Back then there was a lot more homophobia in society, a lot more homophobia in football.

“It still exists, but nobody near as much as it did. We were formed 23 years ago to provide a safe, welcoming space for people to play and support the game they love.

“This year we’ve grown significantly and we have the makings of a third team. They’ve had a few games, [it’s exciting] after 23 years we’ve grown again.”

Joyce explained that the club has found itself an attractive proposition for a number of players moving in from out of the area, particularly from overseas, and who are seeking out a more relaxed, welcoming club than a lot of traditional, long-established lower league sides.

“One of the reasons for this is we’ve got so many new players from a massively diverse backgrounds. Actually a lot of overseas players who’ve move to the UK and are looking for an inclusive welcoming club.

“Obviously we don’t ask sexuality, there’s no survey when people join, so a lot of the new players I’ve no idea if they’re gay, bi or straight which is fantastic because they just want an open club.

“When I’ve asked some of the guys why they’ve joined, it’s the inclusivity, it’s the diversity. It’s a club that isn’t maybe quite as macho as some football clubs, or some football clubs have the reputation for being. It’s that welcome that attracts a lot more straight guys than we’ve had before.”

Homophobia in the modern game

Despite clear progress, Village Manchester have still suffered from homophobia during their games this year, targeted at both players and staff.

Joyce said: “Yes, we’ve had half a dozen issues this year. I’ve had instances against me on the sideline.

“I have to say its all silly little things, stupid throwaway comments that people don’t realise are inappropriate or they do realise they are inappropriate and they do it anyway. None of it is particularly violent or particularly bad, it’s just inappropriate and together its too much.”

That hasn’t always been the case though, with violent incidents having occurred against the club in past seasons.

Village Manchester FC team photo taken in September 2013 (Image credit: Village Manchester FC)

“We have in the past, only two or three years ago, had quite violent homophobia against us, both physical and verbal. It is still there, it’s generally better, but it still happens so we’re still needed.”

That is one of the reasons that campaigns and attention being given to the issue of homophobia in men’s football by larger, established professional clubs has been particularly pleasing for Joyce and the rest of Village Manchester to see.

“It’s fantastic that high level clubs, including Premier League clubs, the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City [getting involved]. City are particularly good at this.

“Altrincham were fantastic with their kit, [it got] an awful lot of PR there, so it’s fantastic that they’re doing it because every time they do it its more awareness that this is still an issue.”

However, as Joyce pointed out, when the bigger clubs did bring up these issues and addressed them, with their larger fanbase the problem and those causing it also multiplied, really highlighting the issue.

“Every time they do it they also get thousands of comments the Premier League clubs that are still bigoted, still homophobic, so there is still a need there for us to have these campaigns.

“When people say its got better why do you still need the campaigns, its because its not perfect yet.”

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