Over the past year or so, the private/personal life (I never really know which one to say) of Ryan Giggs has been at the centre of many a heated family debate. On one hand, as a Manchester United supporter, I couldn't give a shit who/what Ryan Giggs is having sex with. It doesn't concern me in the slightest - I support the club, not individual players - and if he's doing the business on the pitch, what matter is it to me? As long as a player isn't breaking the law, I'm pretty liberal about what they get up to. Look at the glee Man city fans express over the various antics of Mr Balotelli. My parents disagree - his actions reflect badly on the club, his reputation has taken a hammering, can't see him in the same light etc etc.
Whoever you agree with on that one though, it does seem that we have an awful lot of interest - perhaps perversely - in footballers lives off the field of play. There was even a fictional TV series on ITV a few years back on this very subject, as millions settled in every week to watch playboy footballers romp with women, drive fast cars and sport ridiculous sunglasses. That programme played up to stereotypes, yet in reality a sport which contains 92 football league clubs with 30+ men in each squad must house men who go against the stereotypes. Men who are homosexual.
Yet there isn't a single openly gay professional footballer in this country. Homosexuality in the game is seen as football's biggest taboo, and no-one seems able/wants to tackle it head on. If you ask the man on the street to name a gay sportsman, chances are that sooner or later Justin Fashanu's name will crop up, and in this documentary I'm "live-blogging" (I'm re-watching it) his niece, Amal, goes on the hunt for answers about his life/death and for a footballer prepared to come forward and out himself as gay. Whilst it's still on iPlayer, let's have a watch and see what we think:
03.00 Amal tells us that she's into fashion, which is.....nice? A chap with a silly hat on, who I suspect is homosexual, believes that football is the "gayest sport", an interesting comment since surely he must have seen a game of rugby at least once in his life. Anyway, going to try not to be flippant about this programme, because it's tackling an important issue. Let's carry on.
08.00 Amal is trying to contact high profile footballers for a chat but none are willing to come forward, so she goes to Brighton to take in a game. Born on the South Coast, and a former regular at The Goldstone Ground (google that, kids) I can tell you that homophobic chanting towards Brighton fans isn't a new thing. But is it incredibly offensive? "We can see you holding hands" and "We know why you've got soft seats" et al - abusive or just football banter playing on the fact that Brighton is seen as having a large homosexual community? Sadly, Amal doesn't seem to know herself, telling us that a gay player would probably get chants directed at them if they came out. True, and worrying, but a bit flimsy for a documentary.
18.00 Amal is upset that legendary manager/notoriously shit person Brian Clough openly described her uncle Justin as "a poof" so she travels to Nottingham to meet his former team-mate John McGovern. Upon telling him about Clough's remarks, McGovern giggles like a girl and tells her that he's laughing because that's just how it is in football. This is astonishing television. Amal then asks him if he personally knows any gay footballers. Again he laughs and speaks to her like she's just asked him if she can shit on his dick. This is really, really bad stuff.
21.00 Time for Amal to stick the knife into McGovern and turn it....but instead she's going shopping with her friend. Look, clothes! This is odd.
22.00 Max Clifford. Sigh.
26.00 Amal meets Gareth Thomas, an openly gay rugby union player. Good idea, but once again the documentary falls a little short. Gareth seems happy and other players still like/respect him, so what's the difference between rugby and football on this one? Again, these questions are left unanswered.
32.00 After watching a documentary about her uncle and reading his harrowing suicide note, Amal visits Millwall's training ground and is pleased to be able to speak to a select few squad members about homophobia in football. Darren Purse makes the good point - an openly gay player would want to be surrounded by banter in the dressing room, as that would constitute a form of acceptance from the other players. Banter, not abuse, though - where's the line on that one?
39.00 According to Amal, an assistant referee was prepared to come out and speak to her on camera, but FA policy dictated that he shouldn't give any interviews/views about issues outside of football. Ah, good old FA, ballsing everything up for so many years now.
43.00 Amal speaks to her father, John, who is positively dripping with insincerity. The programme has shifted from "gay footballers" in general to a family conflicted over one in particular, but perhaps this is understandable. Justin Fashanu came out - no other footballer ever has.
48.00 Amal goes to meet Anton Hysen - son of former Liverpool player Glyn - who is, apparently, "the world's only openly gay footballer". This is a welcome scene, because it shows us that this issue isn't just confined to our shores. This isn't a national problem - it is an international one.
52.00 Not the biggest Joey Barton fan, but good to see him standing up and doing an interview here.
We've reached the end of the documentary and it wasn't as hard-hitting as I'd hoped it would be. Having said that, considering it was fronted by a girl into fashion and the fact it was on BBC3, perhaps I was foolish to expect it to be a modern day version of The Cook Report (you'll need to google that one as well kids)
I mentioned the Ryan Giggs situation earlier because a gay player playing for my club would instigate a similar reaction from me. If we signed a man called Bryan Wiggs and he announced he was gay, I wouldn't give a fuck. Nor would I be particular bothered if my team were facing a gay player who was lining up for the opposition. But is every football fan as sane and rational (even if I do say so myself!) as me? One look at Anfield this weekend, where a Liverpool supporter made a "dubious" gesture towards the black footballer Patrice Evra, and you realise that football still has some very serious problems to address. The FA have a long running scheme entitled "Kick racism out of football" - and credit to them for that - but recent events such as the one above, Luis Suarez and John Terry tell us that it might be working, but it isn't working well enough.
On the issue of homophobia, it's difficult to acknowledge anything the FA are doing about the problem. So what is the solution? I don't have it, but watching Amal's programme, I was frequently reminded of one of my heroes. Major League Baseball in the United States had a colour barrier in place for the first half of the 20th century. If you were white, you could play. If you were black, you played in the Negro Leagues and you kept out of the way of the white folk. On April 15th 1947 that changed, as Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the "majors" in the 20th century. He suffered dreadful abuse from players and fans - and the opposing players and fans gave him a pretty hard time as well - but he came through it. Robinson was no saint - by all accounts he was a tough son of a bitch - and that's exactly why he was "the chosen one", so to speak. He was the one prepared to stand up and fight, to carry that burden, to keep his cool and maintain his dignity throughout.
Justin Fashanu wasn't equipped for that. It is perhaps naive to say that abuse from the terraces contributed to his downfall - he had retired from the game and was embroiled in scandals towards the end of his life - but the stress he must have been under on the football pitch must have been immense. For gay footballers to come out, they need a Jackie Robinson, someone who can take all of that pressure, soak it up and still perform to their abilities. You wonder if anyone ever will.