Set up in 2010, the Football v Homophobia campaign continues to grow and shine a light on key issues within the sport
“I remember it very well – it was absolutely freezing!”
Lou Englefield smiles as she casts her mind back nearly a decade, to February 2013.
She recalls standing, shivering, at the side of an all-weather pitch at Liverpool’s academy in Kirkby, watching a game between the Mersey Marauders and Wolverhampton Harts.
Truth be told, it wasn’t the highest-quality contest, but it was a significant one.
It was where the Football v Homophobia (FvH) campaign began to really gather momentum.
“It was a big deal,” Englefield, FvH’s campaign director, tells GOAL. “It was the first time that a professional club had shown support for a local LGBT+ team, and allowed a match to happen on their premises.
“Liverpool carried a report on their website, they made a film about it, and I think that was the first time a club as big as Liverpool had done anything like that.
“The feedback we got was fantastic. It had a really big and really positive impact.”
FvH was set up in 2010, its aim to, in Englefield’s words, “do exactly what it said on the tin” and tackle the issue of homophobia, and homophobic language, within football.
“Back in 2008, an organisation was pulled together in Brighton called ‘The Justin Campaign’,” she explains. “It was set up by an artist called Jason Hall, who was a Nottingham Forest fan, and who came out in his 20s.
“When he came out, he learned a bit more about the experience of Justin Fashanu, and felt he could relate to some of Justin’s experiences.
“He’d played football as a child, and he felt he’d used football as a way of disguising his sexuality. It was like If I play football, nobody would ever think I’m gay.
“My organisation, Pride Sports, was set up in 2006 and we always had quite a good relationship with The Justin Campaign.
“We all felt at the time that in football, people would talk about racism, and then other forms of discrimination.
“But we felt there was such a big issue around homophobia and homophobic language, that we needed a campaign which spoke about that.”
Initially, FvH was limited to a single day, February 19, but the success of its initial campaign – and football’s ever-changing fixture list – meant it was swiftly expanded to a week, and then a fortnight.
“It just blew up massively,” says Englefield. “It was absolutely the right thing at the right time.
“And full credit to The Justin Campaign, but the FvH brand was just brilliant. Not only did it do what it said on the tin, but it also pitted Football against Homophobia.
“Rather than criticising it, saying football is homophobic, it said that We are football, and we are against this.
“Football fans and players could really get behind that, because it kind of pushed homophobia away from the game.”
In 2014, with the campaign expanding rapidly, Pride Sports took over the running of FvH on a full-time basis. That year, an International Fans’ Conference was held in Manchester, with supporters from more than 30 countries attending.
“That was a big deal, because it predated the explosion of LGBT+ fan groups in the UK,” says Englefield. “I feel like we kind of laid the foundation for those kinds of groups to really take off.”
Englefield praises Wycombe Wanderers, who she says were the first professional club in England to really embrace FvH.
Matt Bloomfield, their long-serving midfielder, was one of the few active players at the time to speak openly about homophobia within the game.
“The world has changed enormously in the last 11/12 years,” Englefield. “At first, I think clubs were really nervous because it was new, and because we were quite hard-hitting and direct.
“These days it is very different. We have contacts with clubs, we know people, and there are LGBT+ fan groups in all the top clubs.
“And through the work of organisations such as Stonewall, and their Rainbow Laces campaign, there is so much more awareness of these issues within football.”
That awareness has been helped by the willingness of high-profile current players to speak out and to lend their support to campaigns such as FvH.
“Jordan Henderson has been outstanding,” says Englefield. “With issues such as homophobia, visibility is so important, and so is talking about it in a positive way.
“Jordan Henderson, through his actions, has basically said ‘Gay fans are welcome at Liverpool Football Club, we support them’, and for someone who is so respected and successful within the game, that’s an incredibly important and powerful message.”
FvH’s work is constant, from the grass roots game right the way up until the Premier League.
You may have seen their branding at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, for example, while there has been a big focus on the non-league and amateur scene.
Clubs are asked to designate a game, they are sent campaign packs as well as educational resources, explaining how they can make their club more diverse and inclusive.
February has been a particularly busy month, featuring a host of interactive coaching sessions, workshops and webinars, covering subjects such as communication, media, disabled football and LGBT+ representation within the women’s game.
Football is a game for everyone. No matter what. #RainbowLaces pic.twitter.com/wDLFgY2pp3
It will end with the campaign’s third annual awards night, which will take place on Friday 25 February and will be streamed live.
There are nine categories, for which over 300 nominations have been received.
Englefield herself is on the judging panel, along with the likes of Anwar Uddin, the former West Ham defender, and Esther Jones Russell, who is the head of social inclusion at the FARE network, an international organisation which seeks to combat inequality in football, and which has members in more than 40 countries across Europe.
In the meantime, Englefield says, the key thing is to keep the conversation going, to keep talking and learning, and to keep the issues surrounding homophobia under the spotlight.
“The thing about LGBT+ people is that ultimately we are a minority,” she says.
“We know that the numbers are rising, that more people are identifying as something other than hetrosexual, that more young people are seeing sexuality and gender as a bit of a spectrum, but we are never going to be a majority.
“So we need all the help we can get.