BY DAVID MARPLES
Being gay in football – as fan or player – is to risk the homophobia that has run through the game for years. But things are changing. Gradually, a few brave professional players have come out. And someone like Neil Beasley – with the guiding hand of the author of ‘The Boy In Brazil’ – Seth Burkett – and with the support and encouragement of publisher and author, Ian Ridley – now feels able to tell his poignant and uplifting story.
The opening packs an emotional punch, right to the solar plexus. On being confronted by his mum on his sexuality and coming out to her, our narrator gets somewhat short shrift:
“Neil, I just want you to know it’s a lonely life.”
From hereon, the reader roots for Neil and desperately wants him to not only succeed but also be happy.
The book is at its best when scratching below the surface of what it is like to be a gay footballer in the ultra macho world of a dressing room. Tales of pathetic comments about “backs to the wall, boys” are abound but while football isn’t the wholly redemptive force we sometimes want it to be, it can at the very least provide a release from the repression – sometimes a sanctuary:
“Playing on the pitch is just the same: a release. I’m with 10 like-minded people all working toward the same goal of overcoming the opposition. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, straight, gay old, young, rich or poor, if you’re good at getting that ball into the net then you’re one of the team, all working together towards victory.”
Beasley recounts his journey through non-league football, including stints as manager, chairman and playing in European competitions with Birmingham Blaze. His different experiences in this sphere are intrinsically linked to his own personal affairs: falling in love, falling out of love, bickering and long distance relationships are all poured out against the backdrop of the game of football.
If occasionally the book does read as a deeply personal narrative of one man’s life and loves at the expense of the actual football, that’s fine since ‘the personal is political.’ It is only through understanding the nuts and bolts of individual situations that we can come to grasp the bigger picture, to take a step back and understand the uneasy relationship between homosexuality and football.
Having said that, Beasley and Burkett are at their best when they tackle head-on prevailing attitudes towards the gay footballer. In a post David Beckham, Robbie Rogers, Thomas Hitzelsperger and Gareth Thomas world, attitudes are thawing and one could be forgiven for thinking that, like FIFA’s reasoning for binning their anti-racism task force, the problem has been solved. Sadly, there is a way to go.
Sure, clubs are paying lip service to inclusion in many ways but as Beasley points out, having been invited to various events at Aston Villa and Birmingham City:
“…the main reason we were invited to play at Villa Park was so that Aston Villa could put it on their website. It was exactly the same reason that Birmingham City invited us, though at least they were upfront about it. “To be honest,” we were told, “your presence here benefits us more than it does you.”
Beasley also has some interesting points regarding Hitzelsperger’s and Roger’s timing of them going public. His view is that it is how fans react to knowing one of their team is gay is the biggest obstacle to overcome. While we live in a banterous world of banter – sometimes egged on by various sporting institutions and platforms – then it will be very difficult for a footballer to come out while playing at a high level. As Beasley points out, Brighton fans regularly endure the whole repertoire of homophobic abuse – ‘You only sing when you’re bumming’, ‘Have you ever shagged a girl?’ ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ and of course, ‘You’re just a town full of faggots’ – only for the FA to take no action, despite them reassuring the GSFN (Gay Football Supporters Network) and the Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club that there was a zero-tolerance approach to homophobia.
And this in a world where Manchester City are fined for their fans booing the UEFA Champions League anthem.
It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world…said someone very wise once.
The narrative voice is also interspersed with some revealing insights from supporting roles in Beasley’s tale and intriguingly, a Premier League player. Such a structure helps in offering the reader an alternative voice.
One book won’t change attitudes wholesale – and no doubt the authors don’t believe it ever would – but in a week when a survey indicates that only 8% of fans would support their team if they knew a player was homosexual, books like this can only help to chip away at sadly prehistoric prevailing attitudes in this game of ours.
The book ends on an uplifting defiant note and happily for Beasley, being gay is not a lonely life – it is a successful, fulfilling and happy life. This isn’t solely down to the game of football – sometimes it is despite the game of football – but football and its fans, for all its faults, has a role to play in challenging homophobia.
You can purchase Football’s Coming Out by Neil Beasley with Seth Burkett from Amazon HERE