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LGBT football supporters’ groups on the rise

January 23, 2017 in News & Features

In 2014, Proud Canaries was launched and became the second officially-recognised lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) football supporters’ group in the country – the first was Arsenal’s Gay Gooners.

Since then, the group and its chair Di Cunningham have gone from strength to strength. Proud Canaries has raised awareness of LGBT fans and challenged homophobia as well as other forms of discrimination at Norwich’s Carrow Road home.

LGBT supporters’ groups are on the rise; there are now over 20 around the country, including 11 in the Premier League.

Fans from several LGBT supporters’ groups get together at a pride event

Cunningham has even set up the Pride in Football supporters network, which had its first formal meeting with the Football Association (FA) last year. The next scheduled for March 2017.

The groups are formed of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans supporters who work alongside their clubs to make attending football matches a safer place for everyone, by challenging homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

And since Proud Canaries was established, Cunningham has certainly seen a change. “In the 2014-15 season there were five incidents of homophobia and this was Norwich fans reporting Norwich fans”

“People didn’t report it before, partly because they didn’t think it was something to report, that it was normal behaviour at a football ground, and partly because they didn’t think anything would happen.

“Both of those issues have been raised by our launch and solved due to the awareness of Proud Canaries; there are LGBT fans in the crowd and that person sitting over there may be LGBT.

proud-canaries

Proud Canaries logo

“The fans can see the club are committed to Proud Canaries, that they will take action. No-one was banned or had season tickets removed, they were ejected from the ground but all five people are on their last warning and there’s been no reports since.”

The Proud Canary added that Carrow Road is now more of a “welcoming place” and that “more people are aware of not being homophobic,” she stated “you certainly get that impression from other LGBT supporters groups as well”.

The challenges of homophobia in football

The challenges of erasing homophobia from football stadia are clear.

The worry, however, is that there is no data to show exactly how many reports have been filed regarding homophobic abuse, at what clubs and what action may or may not have been taken, be it by police or football club.

If homophobia amongst football crowds was no longer a problem, we wouldn’t have police warning fans about potential discriminating behaviours; see Aston Villa’s police liaison officer’s tweet below – I didn’t wan’t to share the homophobic comments that followed in the Tweet trail…

 

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Hertha Berlin’s anti-gay banner read: ‘WH96: Rather a mother than two fathers’

Often, homophobic abuse at football grounds, such as Brighton fans being taunted by the away supporters’ song ‘Does your boyfriend know you here?’ and Hertha Berlin’s recent banner jibe at Cologne (pictured) is labelled as ‘banter’, but Cunningham rejects this outright.

“I just don’t think any of it is banter; you wouldn’t hear it if it was racist, you just wouldn’t. Mocking anyone’s race is racist and anything mocking anyone’s sexuality is homophobic.”

The chair of Pride in Football explained the difficulties of reporting homophobia and the aim going forward. “What we are trying to do, as part of pride in football, across the country, is to get some kind of unified reporting system in place

“A set of data that shows how many reports there have been, at what clubs and what action was taken as a result.

“This just doesn’t exist at the moment, as there are so many different ways of reporting; be it through the club or the police and then it just ends, it’s been reported and nobody knows what happens as a result”.

Setting up Proud Canaries

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The late, openly gay Norwich striker Justin Fashanu

It was a personal experience that led Cunningham to set up the Proud Canaries, an experience of which many LGBT fans can sadly relate to.

“I had two season ticket holders who sat behind me, almost every home match would say something homophobic in some way and it began to really get to me.

“On Justin Fashanu’s birthday [Former Norwich striker and the first openly gay footballer who tragically hung himself in 1998] we had been handing out stickers from the yearly Norwich pride event, and that day I just turned round and said ‘Can you just not’.

“Shockingly they both had young sons they brought, so I did kind of confront of it, but I did feel bad for moving seats and not dealing with the problem.

“A friend of mine knew someone from the Gay Gooners group, so we thought we would set up the LGBT Proud Canaries.”

The club responded, and provide constant support for Proud Canaries. Norwich’s latest fans’ forum stated the following points:

  • Signage at Carrow Road is being reviewed and will be updated to incorporate reference to homophobia.
  • Reporting mechanisms for supporters to report abuse – more prominence to be given to contact details in match day programme.
  • Proud Canaries would like to offer their services as an educational resource as part of any anti-discrimination work the Club is undertaking, including through the Community Sports Foundation

You can see Di Cunningham’s video animation story explaining the beginnings of Proud Canaries by clicking here

Parliament committee’s and FA struggles

“Credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first”

Chairing the group has even lead to Cunningham being asked to speak at a recent Culture, Sport and Media parliamentary committee, she said “It was brilliant, I was really pleased. Fans are usually the last in the list of people to be consulted by anybody”.

The FA Chairman Greg Clarke has twice been called to the committee and Cunningham explained that they’re getting somewhere. “Clarke has responded really well and after being called to two of the committee’s, we had a meeting with the FA”

The Premier League were supportive of the Proud Canaries last season, but the FA didn’t want to know.

Di Cunningham (left) pictured with local Police Commissioner Stephen Bett

“We had been banging on the door of the FA to give us a meeting, but credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first.”

Although Cunningham admitted nothing is “concrete” as of yet, “progress is being made”.

There has been some fantastic work off the pitch, charted by the rise of LGBT fan groups and brilliant campaigners like Di Cunningham.

On the pitch we can only be closer to seeing a professional footballer, in England, confident enough to come out with his sexuality.

It’s likely the rise of LGBT fan groups could play a major role. Cunningham explained she’d “like to think” the supporters groups could help on the way to a footballer being open with their sexuality, but admits there’s still many challenges on the way for LGBT fan groups.

“LGBT fan groups have been in the absence of anything official from the FA, so we haven’t got the signage, the steward training and you still hear homophobia at many grounds and in the absence of that, we are a do-it-yourself movement.

“But it now looks like the authorities are going to act. I think it’s that awareness of the LGBT support groups, that there are LGBT fans around.

“It’s the fact the six percent of the population are LGBT. The next difficult thing to achieve is to make games more welcoming for transgender people.”

You can read more here: Pride in Football and Proud Canaries

‘Kicks kept me out of prison’

November 29, 2016 in Features

Nathan Owor reckons he owes a lot to the Premier League’s Kicks community scheme – maybe even his life.

‘Growing up on a rough council estate in East London, most my friends were getting into trouble with police and around the neighbourhood,” he recalls.

“The Kicks project is the reason I believe I’m not in prison or who knows maybe even worse.”

‘Before Kickz I had never played for a football team because I never had the funding.

One of the highlights of the programme is the annual Premier League Kicks Cup, which brings together all of the clubs for a showpiece small-sided football competition.

Owor added: “The free football allowed me to develop my skills and even go on to play  in regional tournaments in Derby, Manchester and Blackburn which I will never forget.”

Free sessions

Currently in its tenth year, the Premier League Kicks is one of the Premier League’s flagship community programmes.

“I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs”

Jointly funded by Sport England, the project (formerly known as ‘Kickz’) uses the power of football and the value of sports participation to change young lives in some of Britain’s toughest and most troubled neighbourhoods.

Kicks runs free sessions to bring together 12-to-19 year olds who are potentially vulnerable to involvement in street crime but have a keen interest in sport.

It’s backed by all of the Premier League’s clubs, plus many others in the Football League, and also has the support of the Football Association.

Over 50,000 young people took part in the programme in 2014-15 alone, and it has helped thousands of youngsters to find routes into education, training and employment – and even kickstarted some football careers in the process.

Darren Johnson, a coach affiliated to Tottenham Hotspur’s Kicks scheme told Elephant Sport: “I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs.”

Star names

In some areas where Kicks is active in the community, police have reported falls of up to 50% in incidents of anti-social behaviour.

West Brom KickzIt began in 2006 as a pilot project in London between the Premier League and Metropolitan Police, with the aim of using football to bring communities together and engage with young people.

It is currently in operation at 56 Premier League and Football League clubs across the country, with the involvement of several police forces.

Footballers such as Jermaine Defoe and Heurelho Gomes have previously visited Tottenham’s project for kickabouts, with the likes of Yannick Bolasie  and Wilfried Zaha visiting Everton’s and Crystal Palace’s versions.

Engagement

Johnson added: “Professional footballers such as brothers Matty [now at Man Utd] and Chris [Arsenal] Willock used to train here alongside playing for Arsenal which shows our level of coaching is very high.”

Despite the name, Kicks is not all about football as the project introduces young people to other sports and activities, including table tennis, dancing and basketball – all part of its efforts to build ‘a safer, stronger and more respectful community’.

The scheme’s long-term goal is to give participants something to work towards for the future, whether it is football or other career paths, while other non-sporting elements of it seek to engage teenagers in music, educational and other personal development activities.

Where are all the British Asian footballers?

November 18, 2016 in News & Features

According to Uefa B licence coach Rajab Noor, one of English football’s perennial thorny issues has a simple solution.

“We need more players playing and more coaches coaching,” he says when discussing why more British Asians aren’t involved in the professional game.

A lot has been written and said about the lack of Asian players and coaches, and perceptions are still skewed by cultural stereotypes.

Noor (left) with BBC sports presenter Manish Bhasin (centre)

What is your son currently studying,’ my mum asked her friend a while back. ‘He’s studying to become a surgeon,’ she replied.

‘It’s a very respectable job and he will earn a considerable amount of money. It’s the best decision.’

I have grown up in Asian family but mine have never pressured me into choosing a career path I was not keen on.

However for others in the Asian community, where many place a high premium on getting the best possible education, this isn’t the case.

There are plenty of British Asians playing football at grassroots level, although cricket doesn’t seem to have the pull anymore that it once had.

But why don’t more of them go on to establish careers and make names for themselves at professional level?

Talent pool

The dearth has been blamed on racism in the past, but Noor, a full-time coach studying for his Uefa A licence, believes that times have changed.

“You only have to see statistics to see how few Asian coaches are out there,” he said. “Same with players. Why are there virtually no Premier League Asian players? The talent pool is simply not big enough.

“Look at the amount of Asians playing football. Let’s say it’s 100,000 across the country. If we had more, for instance 500,000, then things would look different.

“Many people may want to point at the FA and point at issues such as racism, but honestly we need more players playing and more coaches coaching.”

Black & ethnic minorities 

Noor with caretaker England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd

The 2011 census revealed that Asians made up 7.5% – or about 4.2 million people – of the population in England.

This is in no way reflected by the number of British Asians involved in professional football.

Initiatives such as tournaments to find Asian’s next star have helped increase the number of homegrown Asian players and coaches at grassroots level, and Noor says progress is being made.

“The FA is certainly doing its bit by getting coaches on courses. A lot more are coming through now, more than ever.”

Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) coaches have, he says, been held back by racism within the sport, but things are changing.

“In the past they’ve been neglected,” he admits. “At the same time, I’m just a coach or manager like anybody else. I wouldn’t want to say ‘Look, I’m an Asian coach’. I’ve got to where I am today for who I am.

“I don’t like to blame anybody but I do feel that there’s a lot more being done now, and the Premier League is doing a lot for BAME coaches.”

Role models 

Examples, of British-born players with Asian heritage who are plying their trade in English football are Neil Taylor at Swansea, Adil Nabi at Peterborough United as well as Northampton Town’s Kashif Siddiqi.

Neil Taylor of Swansea and Wales

Taylor who is of Welsh-Indian descent as his mother is a Bengali from Kolkata in India, played for Wales at the 2016 European Championship in France and has also been a pivotal figure for the Swans.

But despite his achievements, there is still a very limited amount of role models for aspiring young Asian players to look up to, and this – according to Noor – is a worrying issue.

“The lack of role models is a huge thing. When I’m coaching young Asian kids and I ask them if they know any Asian footballers and they reply ‘no’.

“I think we only need one or two to breakthrough and be on TV and have kids running around with their shirts on their back and wanting to be just like them.

“Until we have that, I think it’s going to be very difficult to inspire the kids of today.”

Progress 

But, returning to those cultural perceptions, are parents in Asian communities largely apprehensive about and unwilling to see their children pursue a career in football?

The film ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, which came out in 2002, highlighted the issue as an Indian girl Jess finds her obsession with football at odds with a culture which seemingly frowns on women playing sport.

To this day, the stance that many Asian parents have is that football is not the way forward for their sons (or daughters), and Noor, 27, insists this needs to change in order for Asian football to progress.

“It was the same with my parents, they never wanted me to pursue a career in football. They thought it was just a game and they didn’t really understand the industry behind it.

“I think it’s getting better and progress is being made, but I think parents need to be more informed and more educated about the sports industry and how much football has to offer.”

Noor highlights the FA’s latest community development initiative as evidence.

“It introduces football for the first time to children who usually don’t play the game. I’ve set one of them up myself and we have 100 on the register. People turn up each week and they are all new to football.

“They usually play at school or in after-school clubs, but they have never been involved in any organised football.

“More of this needs to happen because once you have a development centre up and running, you can ensure there are more Asian footballers wanting to play the game in the future.”

Ambitions 

The future is seemingly looking far more brighter for British Asian footballers hoping to make it big.

More youngsters from the Asian community are progressing in the sport at academy level, while older individuals are keen on coaching roles.

“I want to be a first team coach in a professional set-up, if not the Premier League then the Championship”

“I’m really positive and confident about seeing an Asian footballer or coach in the Premier League,” Noor added.

“We are not far off. I think there’s good Asian players and I think there’s a good number of Asian coaches knocking about.

“I’m a mentor and I have young leaders alongside me and the advice I give them is to do something that they enjoy.

“If they enjoy coaching for example, they will express themselves as a coach. Regardless of any qualification somebody gets, it is crucial to put the hours in on the grass.”

Rewarding

Noor added: “The more hours a person coaches and delivers sessions, the more they will learn about themselves and the more they will learn about their players.

“The important thing is to not be afraid to try and most importantly give it your all.”

The talented coach is hoping to make his mark at the highest level and has lofty ambitions of his own.

“The most rewarding thing in being a coach is seeing a team or an individual succeed. No matter what age group I coach, whether it’s five-year-olds or adults, seeing somebody improve and have a smile on their face during training and on a matchday is very rewarding.

“I want to be a first team coach in a professional set-up, if not the Premier League then the Championship. I want to succeed in England but if that’s not possible, I will look to go abroad, so fingers crossed.”

You can follow Rajab on Twitter @CoachNoor 

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