Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Hitzlsperger And The Evolution of The Gay Footballer

The news from Thomas Hitzlsperger this week leaves football teetering on the brink of an unprecedented breakthrough – a top-flight player coming out - for the second time. The very same tabloid headline that today appeared next to Hitzlsperger  – “I’m Gay” – also announced Justin Fashanu’s coming out way back on October 22nd 1990. So what happened in the intervening 23 years and how did football’s awkward journey to acceptance get derailed for so long?

Fashanu came out from the lower leagues, but it wasn’t necessarily planned that way. He could easily have made the statement as a top-flight player, making cameos at West Ham and Manchester City in the months leading up to it. Arriving at Leyton Orient he was lucky to fall under the stewardship of Frank Clark who instinctively persuaded his striker to come out, keen to end his personal torment and perhaps knowing he would get more goals from a liberated soul.

Men like Clark - worldly, progressive and compassionate - should’ve marked the next generation of managers at this point as the likes of Clough (Clark’s own manager and Fashanu’s tormentor previously) became lost to football’s drinking culture. It didn’t happen and English football would have to wait until 1996 and Arsene Wenger’s top-down revolution at Arsenal for a shift in outlook.

The years in between are key. Fashanu played on to accepting English and Scottish crowds. He was not hounded out of football and at the very least achieved an uneasy truce engaging in banter with fans  – both sides using humour as a shield. The confidence that kept him afloat would also be his undoing however, when he contrived one tabloid story too many and his lies caught up with him.  Over-exposed and under pressure, things were not going well for the world’s first out player. Had it been such a wise move?

By now football’s gold rush – a reaction to England’s 1990 heroics - was on.  Sky showered the game with money upon seizing the reigns in the 1992/93 season and a working-class pastime became a national obsession. Yes wages went through the roof, but the real money was in sponsorship. The game was under more scrutiny than ever and the stakes were high. Suddenly, there was a lot to lose.

At that same moment the mood of the country shifted and the era of the lad arrived. One minute Suede were jumping bones in council homes, the next Oasis had smashed a football through the window. For the next few years much of the social progress achieved in the 70s and 80s was disregarded as cartoon geezers and page 3 models rubbed shoulders inside the pages of The Sun, gay people still chief among its daily targets. Here was a national knees-up that partied like it was 1966.

Just as the noise died down and with the hope of a new millennium within touching distance, sombre news came from East London: Fashanu had taken his own life. The message couldn’t be any starker for the prospects of any footballer considering coming out.  What’s more shocking now is that just one year after this tragedy Robbie Fowler would see fit to taunt Graham Le Saux about his sexuality in the middle of a Chelsea v Liverpool game, bending over with a smirk before making a tired Elton John gag. Le Saux was booked for time wasting.

As football dragged its heels (or perhaps knuckles) into the 21st century three significant changes occurred in British popular culture. Boy bands were seemingly required by law to have one gay member who would duly be outed by The Sun, C4’s Big Brother would place gay and transgender people at the heart of prime time TV and the internet would speed up social change, eating away at historical prejudices all the while.

And football? Football fell into a lost decade on the subject as a culture of fear descended. There was no banter from fans because there were (seemingly) no gay footballers. Progress on the subject became impossible as the game pretended they didn’t exist.  This eerie stand off lasted ten years, from the moment that Paul Durkin booked Le Saux until the breaking news of December 18th 2009 when Welsh rugby union player Gareth Thomas announced he was gay.

Getting to the heart of football’s inherent homophobia would always involve chipping away at the edges and so it was that with Thomas making the first move, others sports followed.  Steven Davies, the cricketer, revealed his sexuality in February 2011 and Tom Daley broke new ground, swerving traditional media when uploading his considered post to youtube at the end of last year.

Football’s steps would be more tentative and come at a safe distance from the British game. Anton Hysen, son of Liverpool player Glen, would come out in early 2011 breaking the mold by being a young player with his future ahead of him, albeit in the lower leagues of Sweden. Robbie Rogers was shrewd in ‘retiring’ from football before choosing to re-launch his career in 2013 at LA Galaxy, thus coming out in LA rather than Yorkshire.  

The Brit abroad, the foreign signing, and finally, with Hertlzberg, the retired pro - all inextricably linked to the our national game yet not quite part of it. It would seem we are on the brink once more. This time there can be no going back.

Thursday, 6 June 2013


If English football’s tentative steps towards accepting openly gay players has gathered momentum in recent times, it’s come more by association than anything else. Whilst young out players are happy to name check our domestic game as part of their story, you won’t find them plying their trade here.

First there was the coming out of Anton Hysen, born in Liverpool. Then followed Robbie Roger’s blog earlier this year, penned in London. The former’s no-nonsense attitude, whilst admirable, still had to be played out from the safety of the Swedish lower leagues, his defiance dialed in via Skype. 

Roger’s circumnavigating of this country is even more intriguing. American born, he started playing football at the age of four and through his love of the game and a series of decoy girlfriends hid his sexuality while his career progressed through the ranks of the MLS. Any thoughts he may have had regarding coming out whilst a professional were no doubt put into sharper focus when he arrived at Leeds United eighteen months ago at the height of an unforgiving northern winter.

On reflection, his injury-plagued year in Yorkshire may well have awarded him vital time to think. Away from home and sidelined, Rogers found the strength, if not the location, to come out. On February 15th this year, writing online and now in London, he announced he was gay along with his immediate retirement. As chin-stroking onlookers continued to debate whether the next out gay footballer should be playing or retired, Rogers had cleared both hurdles in one jump. 

With its hint of defeatism, something about this online statement failed to convince, though. Permanent retirement at the age of 25? More likely this was an attempt to put clear water between his brief dalliance with the English game and his new found status as an out gay man - the two clearly awkward bedfellows. 

Rogers maintains he fully intended to retire before a change of heart, which may well be the case. Either way he diffused the situation expertly.  The fear (as that is the one word that dominates English football on this matter) was always that coming out would spark tabloid frenzy in the interim period between any announcement and that player’s next fixture where they would have to “run the gauntlet” (this in itself a phrase that throws up a whole host of unfounded fears).

The decision to walk away from football, however briefly, brilliantly threw everyone off the scent. Under the radar, he was able to train with LA Galaxy before signing and making his debut for them last week as a low-key substitute to the outrage of precisely no one. Gauntlet ran.

Sprinkled with stardust since Beckham’s spell at the club, it’s no surprise that Rogers picked Galaxy to re-launch his career. If any club can smooth out the uglier aspects of the game through an injection of showbiz then it’s one based in LA and, like Beckham, Roger’s looks will have helped alongside his natural ability. 

The problem for English football is that it too has transcended its origins to become part of a new showbiz elite in recent years, but without allowing openly gay footballers at its top table. While that continues to be the case it will remain a stop-off for many on the way to a more attractive destination.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

"Gay Hero" to Zero?

Given the potential, The Daily Mail’s piece by Martin Samuel on Joey Barton this week really should have been taken at face value - as the slightly lazy inoffensive piece of journalism it was - by both Barton and gay pressure groups.
The article - which suggests Barton come out and acquire 'gay hero' status - and the player’s subsequent response via twitter point to curious attitudes from both men. 

It's unlikely anyone thought Samuel would handle homosexuality in football with kid gloves and there was no surprise in his casual sneering at gay pressure groups, nor his archaic assertion that having a French accent makes you gay (did Graham Le Saux ever stand a chance?).

More interesting was the response of Barton and the aforementioned gay groups. Having carefully re-positioned himself as the thinking man’s footballer in recent years, Barton’s panicked tweets seemed less than carefree.  Having justifiably claimed ‘My sexuality is of no concern to anyone except me and my family’ he then added swiftly ‘Can’t see the missus being happy about this piece’. The double-whammy subtext appearing to be: don’t forget I’m heterosexual and though the wife will be angry, clearly this does not upset me.  Except it seems to.

Next comes ‘Nor would I like my child to read this’. Someone as newsworthy as Barton has countless column inches written about him, it’s interesting that a jokey article about his sexuality is the one that he wants to hide from the kids. Finally he threatens to sue the newspaper, a move that has ominous echoes of Jason Donovan’s ill-fated legal action against The Face magazine in the 90s. Donovan famously shed an army of gay fans and was thus depicted as a homophobe for years after.

This fate is unlikely to befall Barton. He has already contributed greatly to the debate thus far, most notably through his eloquent appearance in a BBC3 documentary earlier this year. However, his reaction does put him in danger of coming across as a sort of gay football Nimby. A less defensive, more humorous approach may have done more to confirm Barton’s new-man credentials. Given his impeccable comic timing on twitter last week regarding his questionable accent, he could even have perhaps made a joke to lighten the mood.

Lightening the mood is what football needs to do next. At one point in his article, Samuel appears to mock the argument that a ‘culture of fear’ exists in football regarding homosexuality. On this he is wrong. However - unwittingly or not - he is actually helping to alleviate that fear culture with articles such as the one he wrote this week.

In that sense it’s unfortunate that The GFSN’s statement condones Samuel’s comments as ‘unhelpful & a distraction’. A prominent sports journalist in one of Britain’s biggest newspapers casually discussing the idea of a player’s sexuality? I’d call that progress. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Ocean's Apart

Out of nowhere, without warning, a single tweet.  Cutting through a culture seemingly submerged in deep-rooted homophobia, a testament so honest it made all previous negative posturing on the subject redundant.

If not perhaps for its eloquence, it could easily have been a statement from a premiership footballer. Instead, Tuesday’s tweet and evocative letter that accompanied it came from urban singer/songwriter Frank Ocean.

Following well-documented progress in areas such as the armed forces, it’s become something of a cliché to refer to football as the last gay taboo. To do so however, is to overlook the historically hostile urban music scene from which Ocean emerges.

Whereas football may have been guilty of turning a blind eye to homophobia over the past couple of decades, hip-hop in particular has aggressively targeted the gay community over the same period. A loss of innocence in the genre and a shift to an increasingly sour cocktail of misogyny and homophobia can, perhaps only now, be seen to have gone unchecked for too long.

Yet the parallels between these two final outposts for homophobia are uncanny: both so clearly homoerotic, yet fiercely macho at the same time. The bling; the fur coats, the hot pants! Were both not so clearly coveted by an overwhelmingly hetro-following surely they would have been celebrated more emphatically by the gays in recent years?

The contradictions that particularly hip hop has offered up both then and now – Eminem’s use of ‘faggot’ then duet with Elton, Odd Future’s homophobic lyrics then backing of Ocean – are at least played out in public in a world where being outspoken is part of the job description. Football, meanwhile, defaults to its position of head-burying and non-engagement on the issue, it’s most notorious homophobic incident being directed at a player – Sol Campbell – who hasn’t even come out as gay.

The most refreshing thing about Ocean’s words were how considered they were, how he linked to a specific - if not handwritten, then typed - letter. Taking ownership of the moment, he avoided the indignity of a garish News Of The World-style confession under duress. Its intimacy ultimately fuelled its impact while its ambiguity swerved traditional tabloid traps.

The democracy of the Internet - the same democracy that may ultimately have done for Murdoch - should finally sweep away the lingering homophobia in the darker corners of an entertainment industry where football surely now finds itself positioned. The Ocean road, then, has been mapped out and football remains one tweet away from history.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Tackle Interview #8: Anton Hysen

“Fookin’ hell, lar!” This is not the sound of the world’s only out gay footballer bemoaning his lot in life, rather a jokey aside on his boyhood’s team’s – and his dad’s former club - erratic form this season. “I don’t know what’s going on these days" he says, clearly nonplussed by his side’s FA Cup semi-final victory 24 hours earlier.  

It wasn’t always like this. Anton Hysen was born in Liverpool on December 13th 1990 into a city, the red half of which was still celebrating a decade of domestic football dominance, albeit tinged with personal tragedy. The same week, local indie makeweights The Farm caught the mood striking top ten gold with the anthemic ‘All Together Now’.

Over two decades later, with Hysen now settled in Sweden, it’s hard to argue that same soundtrack could be applied to the ‘new wave’ (Hysen’s own, fitting term for events of the last twelve months) of gay football activity. Yet the dark clouds of homophobia circling the game since the turn of the century have certainly dispersed a little following his spontaneous coming out in March 2011.

Much has been written, not least in these pages, concerning the impact of his decision. That it spared us from a painful waiting game involving ex-pros inching towards an announcement of their own should not be forgotten anytime soon. For any longer term impact, we may have to wait one more Olympic cycle, possibly two.

As we sit down to talk on the night another of the game’s perennial issues rages (goal line technology) it becomes quickly apparent that when Hysen isn’t mimicking his scouse heritage he speaks clearly and deliberately. It’s a voice that hints at a LA twang, but with the conviction of a 21st century sports star who has made one of the best decisions of his life.

Which came first, realizing you were gay or wanting to be a footballer?
Well, honestly I didn’t really think about the gay stuff until I turned 18-19. It didn’t really bother me that much because football is still football and I believe that I can do whatever I want as long as I really try hard make it happen but of course people make it a bigger issue than it should be. It doesn’t bother me that much.

Did you ever feel like you had to make a choice between the two?
I would never make a choice of anything. I can be gay and play soccer and be good at it, that’s what I thought from the beginning.

Did you father’s career influence your decision to get into football or was it instinctive?
I mean obviously when you have a father who plays football its easier to get into it but I’ve never been pressured to like anything. I’ve always liked football and that’s from the beginning.

When you were straight, going out with a super model, did you ever think I can get away with this for ten, maybe fifteen years?
Not really. At the time I just wanted to be that guy that didn’t stick out so much. I just lived another life basically then thought why the hell am I doing this? It was just stupid. This is not how it’s supposed to be. So I took that choice and wanted to accept myself and do what I wanted to do.

Your parent’s reaction must have helped, not least your mum’s response, ‘No shit, Sherlock’. Possibly one of the greatest reactions to a coming out ever.
That was good. She obviously knew I had a few girlfriends that didn’t go so well. I guess a mother always knows.

Is that approach typical of Swedish parenting? Very liberal?
Yes in Sweden it’s very, very liberal nobody literally cares. I go to Stockholm and no one gives a shit basically. And that’s not only with the gay thing everything is very well taken care off. It’s a good country.

But you were born in Liverpool?
I was born in Liverpool (comedy scouse accent emerges)

Good result yesterday by the way….
We are just being lucky these days we do not play the game as well

You’re a cup sides these days…

If you’d have stayed in Liverpool playing at a similar level – say a Tranmere Rovers – do you think you would you have come out?
It’s very hard (distracted laughter)… I saw something on TV…  I just laughed so much….erm, I’d be out today, it would be harder since it’s a big league but I just feel someone has to stand up for themselves, it would be harder but I would have to have done what it takes.

Are you disappointed that a club like Liverpool with its huge influence doesn’t take a more pro-active stance on homophobia?
Of course they can all do a little better but first of all there has to be someone to take care of. Somebody has to obviously come out but what I would like to see is a straight player to say ‘Who gives a shit?’…you know… Joey Barton pretty much said that in the documentary (recent BBC3 documentary, ‘Britain’s Gay Footballers’)

How difficult was it when you were thinking of coming out to look around and think there is literally no-one I can talk to about this…no-one has been through this?
To be honest my own personality and how I act and how I feel… I couldn’t really care less what people think but of course it was a little ‘Oh shit’ I’m the only one right now, what’s going to happen, this and that. It's your own strength that matters and you see who are your real friends and who really cares and I can’t say that I regret anything because this has opened up my life a lot.

There must be some perks I guess?
Oh I mean I’m the first guy in Sweden to do it and second in the world to come out publicly I’m sure there are others who are out and proud somewhere.

How does a young footballer navigate the Stockholm gay scene?
That’s where I do this thing with my personality. I don’t really give a crap what anyone thinks about me or what they say or what they write but yeah of course when you are in the public area and a role model…

…you see your self as a role model?
Yeah, I mean you have to start thinking about stuff that you do but still you are a human being but yeah as you said someone might want to meet you or date you or talk to you for another reason, to use you.

And the gay scene historically has been associated with drug use, do you have to be careful?
I’m a football player so I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. I am all about my football and my friends and family. I don’t really know what that stuff is about to be honest (laughs)

How do you meet guys? Do you use Grindr?
No, no. Grindr… isn’t that for hook ups right? No I don’t use that. I rarely go to gay clubs to ‘find someone’. If I did go out I would go out to have fun with friends. I don’t really see any reason to go out and look for somebody at the clubs. If it’s going to happen it’s going to happen somewhere when you least expect it. You know I don’t try and look for things because you’ll get disappointed and I’m a very simple person so… (laughs)

The gay football community must be very small, are you in contact with people in Sweden, in the UK?
I have friends all over the world so I keep in contact with a lot of different people which is nice. I love to meet other people from around the world and get to know different languages and cultures.

And those that are not out, are you respectful of that decision?
Yes I am because everyone does not take it as easy as I do and it’s always a hard thing for everyone. It’s not easy turning around such a big secret especially if you are at a higher level. What if you are in the premier league and you have that on your mind all the time it’s not easy. But to let it go and tell everyone would be a lot easier for yourself to get better and feel good about yourself.

There seems to be a blanket of fear around the subject over here, it strikes me that you approach the situation with a much needed irreverence and sense of humour?
I just live my life and I really don’t care. I make jokes about myself and about the whole gay thing, this and that, up and down, etc, etc. People need to know that we don’t have to be all dramatic about it. If you’re just playing football and doing what you’re doing good then no one should really care. They did that now in America, they did a campaign called ‘You Can Play’ which is really good that says if you can play hockey you can play hockey, who cares what you’re doing.

In which league would a coming out have the most impact?
I’d say England is the biggest one.  That would truly show that the person really doesn’t give a shit.

Do you think you might play in England one day?
Oh my god! I would have to be a lot, lot, lot better.

Are you getting better?!
Actually if I do really well I could play in the top league in Sweden. I’ve been there before but I had some injuries and stuff so I know I could actually play at a pretty high level if I could just develop my skills I could be there one day but it’s hard work.

Finally, when do you think the next footballer will come out?
Well that’s going to take a while I would say 5-10 years.

That’s quite a long time?
Well it’s not easy for everyone and we’ve still got a lot of stuff to work on and not to be….I hate to talk about myself!…But when I did this it’s good because people are now talking about it and campaigns are starting to take it more seriously  its like a… new wave coming in. Everybody’s talking about it and it needs to be taken care of in a good way not a dramatic way, like ‘Oh my God!’

I agree with you it’s become such a heavy topic…
It’s so crazy! Playing Arsenal, Chelsea …what the fuck… whatever, if you score and do everything you need to do who gives a shit what you do outside the pitch? The thing is you have to be strong in yourself, believe in yourself there’s always going to be people that say things about you so it’s about how carry yourself. I can tell you there is at least one person in the whole world who will not like you so I couldn’t really care less about somebody who has something negative to say about me.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Tackle Interview #7: Ben Cohen

Not for Ben Cohen the usual post-sports career clichés. No race towards inane punditry. No premature stabs at management. And a welcome swerving of They Think It’s a Question Of Sport-style japery.  As we meet on a sunny February afternoon at St Pancras International, the former England rugby player is the proud new owner of an honorary degree from his hometown of Northampton. Partly awarded for his achievements on the pitch, it’s also recognition for his new day job. Cohen’s Stand-Up campaign is the world’s first foundation dedicated to anti-bullying and aims to rid sport of homophobia. Tackle talked to him about football’s problems on the pitch, Beckham’s influence and fusing personal tragedy with a mass gay following.

Did you grow up with gay friends around you?
My cousins were lesbians and they were very close to my dad. We ‘re from a quite accepting family. Being in the nightclub industry my dad was a very welcoming guy, it’s sort of been bred into us.

You must have experienced a lot of that scene from an early age? Did you meet many characters?                                                             
Yes my dad was a character too, so I knew a lot of people round where I lived. By the time my rugby career took off I’d seen a lot of stuff.

How much of a big deal was football growing up?How much of a big deal was football growing up?
Football was - is - everything in my family. My uncle won in 1966. My dad was a very good footballer, apparently better than my uncle, but didn’t make it for whatever reason. But George went on to do great things.

Was it ever a career option for you?
I wasn’t pushed into doing anything really. I found rugby by accident when I was 12 years old.

The rugby environment has always seemed more refined than football. In the nineties, for instance, it seemed distant from the prevailing lad culture?
And the violence! In the early nineties football still had a big hangover from all the fights. Racism too was around for a long time. Football came back on the scene for me around Euro 96 it was all about ’thirty years of hurt’ and it brought my uncle and that team out of the wilderness really. I made my England debut in 2000. In 2002 we played Wales on the Saturday and I went to watch Fulham v Spurs on the Sunday. It was interesting, I remember it being very hostile and one thing that got me was in the box someone asked a question  ‘who went to the rugby yesterday?’ and about 95% put their hand up. So it was interesting to see how people change their temperaments.

And now? What can football learn from rugby?                                                         
I think the football crowds have got better but it needs to clean its act up on the pitch. Footballers should be role models I think the crowds in rugby are fantastic. I’m sure there are isolated incidents but very few. I think the players are more respectful. Having said that I think the new breed of rugby player are becoming like footballers. Some of them forget the hard work that got them into that position. Sport for me has to play its part within society. The more fans you get whether you like it or not - you’re a role model.

Within football there seems to be this consensus from the authorities that team mates wont accept it an out player or fans wont?
How do you mean the authorities?

The FA, PFA people like Max Clifford…
It’s interesting Gareth Thomas came out at the top of his game. He was respected for his sport and not his sexual orientation. We know now sports brands are putting pressure on players to be role models in society and they are not just held responsive from their clubs but from their sports brands too, people like Nike are re-writing contracts. So if a high profile player comes out are they going to get rid of him for his sexual orientation? No. What’s needed is education.
I had a conversation with Clare Balding about the best time to come out. There is no right answer. For me it’s the top of your game, but if you come out earlier it’s going to hinder your chances of making it big time, which is completely wrong.

Is that still the case?
I think so. I think it happens at a really low level, which actually stops people.

What about banter from fans, would a more relaxed attitude to fans banter help? Is there too much fear?
What do you mean by fear?

Managers wont talk about it, fans cant banter about it? When I say banter I mean Brighton fans chanting ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’
Have you seen the footage? I’ve seen the whole footage of that. Three people – they said the whole south stand – it was three people. It comes down to education and how you are educated at school because one of those people wasn’t long out of school

Outside of David Beckham you are probably the biggest sports icon in the gay community…
I think you’ll find he’s second! (laughs)

Why do you think he’s not spoken out more?
I think there are different circumstances for different people. My circumstances were I understand what emotional damage it causes to have someone taken away from you through violence. Then I came across a fan page on Facebook with 37,000 people. For me, being a sportsman can make a difference. I’ve got a fantastic following for someone who’s not that famous, who’s not like a David Beckham. So it’s time to grow that loyal fan base by speaking up on homophobia and the emotional damage of bullying.

How useful would it be if he spoke out?
I think it would be very effective, definitely.

It feels like the arrival of Stand-up is timely given the use of the word gay as a negative has been so prolific recently - was that a big concern?
Yeah I think so, it is known as a negative. It’s used to put people down as a slang word. It’s sad, very sad. It’s education - work places, schools challenging those people. That’s the whole point of Stand Up, to stand alongside.

Did you suffer bullying? Were you motivated by personal experience?
Not really, I always stick up for people, the underdog, and am a caring person anyway. I have 50% hearing - I get the piss taken out of me all the time but don’t class it as bullying. I think what happened between my 20s and 30s has taught me a lot about life.

And that period of your life influenced what you are doing now?  
Having your dad brutally attacked and murdered, seeing your mum try to commit suicide twice. I always thought people committing suicide were selfish people because I always think lives worth living…but seeing what my mum went through (pauses)… I could get rid of my anger I could vent it on my pitch. Under no uncertain terms I always say I got myself in that world cup winning team because of the anger from what happened to my dad and wanting to win a world cup for my dad.

When you retired did you still feel the need to vent? Hence stand up?
No, not at all. I wanted to do something…break down stereotypes.

And being straight helps?
Yes not many people get that! The importance of me being straight is the most important single thing.

It’s unique
Exactly and it is making a massive difference

Finally, how long before a gay footballer comes out in England?
You know what? I don’t know. Even if it was ok tomorrow, and gay footballers were welcomed with open arms that person might not want to come out

I guess it’s about shaping the environment in the meantime?
It’s education. I’ve learned and am learning a lot about what people who are gay and struggle with sexual orientation have to go through. Living a lie is hard work. If you can imagine that as a sportsman not coming out, not having a love life, literally top secret, scared of getting outed. It’s got to be hard work. I couldn’t live like that. We’re educating people. Life is worth living.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

'Britain's Gay Footballers'

Last night's ‘Britain’s Gay Footballers’ proved a refreshing take on a well-worn story. Having languished in regional programming slots and late night graveyards previously, here the subject was finally given an edgy re-boot. Fronted by a young black female (Justin Fashanu’s niece Amal) on a youth-oriented station, it felt like a knee to the groin of football’s creaky authoritarians before we’d even kicked off.

The problem historically has in some ways been Fashanu himself, his untimely tragic death leaving a dark cloud lingering over the next generation of would-be gay footballers. Yet perversely, putting a Fashanu at the centre of the programme seemed to alleviate the usual gloom and start things on a more positive footing, particularly when comparing the presenter’s attitude to that of her father John.

‘Fash’ was caught bang to rights on camera disowning Justin in 1990 but having had two decades to regret his words appeared to skirt uneasily around the concept of an apology before slapping an uncomfortable ban on his daughters tears (‘we’ve cried for twenty years for Justin and that’s enough”). This crack of emotion however, was preferable to his earlier reasoning that football ‘was never for two men to do a slide tackle and then go back and kiss each other’. Of course, as Fash well knows, kissing is only allowed after a goal.

Other football homophobia stalwarts like Max Clifford were wheeled out to give stock answers. ‘I’ve said this a thousand times’ groaned Max. To be fair, I feel like I’ve been there for most of these, so tightly does he stick to the script (Basically: Yes, there are gay footballers. No, they shouldn’t come out). His unwavering defeatism on the subject is now starting to look a little tired, particularly in the light of recent undeniable breakthroughs with Anton Hysen and rugby’s Gareth Thomas. It’s also questionable as to whether someone who used to do press for The Beatles should be telling us what footballers find ‘unacceptable’ in 2012.

That was almost the dinosaurs done, save for a bizarre cameo from former Forest captain John McGovern whose misty-eyed loyalty to Clough seemed to prompt a mid-interview meltdown. Surely the best way to swerve questioning on Cloughie’s infamous ‘poof’ quote wasn’t to laugh manically at the camera before concluding ‘gay, homosexual, poof – its all the same!’? You can’t help thinking a chat with the forward-thinking Forest chairman, Frank Clark, would have been more enlightening.

The positives were to be taken from the ever-upbeat Hysen - out and proud in the fourth tier of Swedish football.  Admittedly it’s probably easier to ‘run the gauntlet’ when your fan-base consists of a handful of liberal Swedes huddled around one terrace as opposed to say, the baying masses at Elland Road (covered here elsewhere). However, the light-hearted dressing room scenes of togetherness handily crushed Clifford’s case and seeing both Hysen and Amal Fashanu celebrate victory at a Swedish club later that night offered a teasing glimpse of how a post-Blatter football world might look.

Perhaps the most insightful contribution came from Matt Lucas who was shrewd enough not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it came to football fans and homophobia. In allowing for chants such as ‘we can see you holding hands’ he acknowledged the need for a level of humour and irreverence in order to start combating homophobia, as opposed to the eerie silence of recent years. Yes, the banter of fans can be stinging but is not entirely without warmth. Justin himself regularly entered into these exchanges as an openly gay footballer and his brother’s need to portray football fans as the real enemy here felt like projection.
Overall this was a great opportunity for those directly affected by the Fashanu story to admit mistakes were made and allow today’s gay footballers to move out of his shadow. It’s a shame his brother couldn’t quite manage that. There’s more chance of the next pope being black than a footballer coming out, he quipped. I’m guessing he used to say that about the president too.