Football fans in Brighton are being encouraged to take Pride in their city’s reputation for diversity by turning out to support a special charity match on Sunday.
Former Albion hero Guy Butters, who made over 200 appearances for the club and was part of their promotion-winning squad in 2004, will be player-manager of a team of ex-Premier League stars at the ‘Football United’ game at Whitehawk FC.
The match is being held on Brighton Pride weekend and carries the slogan ‘A Celebration of Togetherness’. It’s the brainchild of Butters and Sophie Cook, who four years ago became the first transgender woman to work in the Premier League while in the role of club photographer at AFC Bournemouth. She will take charge of a ‘Rainbow Rovers’ team that is mixed gender, made up of amateur players drawn from across the LGBT+ community in football and also including allies who work in diversity and inclusion in the sport too.
The ‘Rovers’ will wear a one-off blue and rainbow-sash kit designed by artist David Shrigley and made by O’Neill’s sportswear, with the shirt featuring a map of the Whitehawk estate in East Brighton where the club is located.
The match is being supported by Kick It Out, the Football v Homophobia campaign and the Football Supporters’ Association’s Fans for Diversity initiative, while a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Brighton Rainbow Fund, the city and region’s fundraising hub for LGBT+ communities and activities.
Butters now works for Albion in the Community, the Premier League club’s official charity, and says the annual Brighton Pride festival – which last year attracted almost half a million people – represents the ideal opportunity for local football fans to show their support for inclusion, and be a part of what promises to be a unique occasion.
“Brighton is such a lovely place to live and work, and it’s a very cosmopolitan and diverse place to be too,” Butters told Sky Sports. “Sophie and I were chatting over coffee one day and we came up with the idea of a match for Pride weekend.
“A lot of the plans that we’ve got for the game are to help get that message across. We want to show that times have changed, and that we should let people be who they want to be.”
“At certain places, there were chants that fans would make to try and put you off in any way possible,” recalls Butters. “Sadly, some people are not that educated, and a few seem to still think it’s OK to spew out vile, horrible abuse.
“I had a tough skin so it was water off a duck’s back for me, but for a lot of the young lads, when they got called into the team you could see a lot of that abuse did affect them.
“I can see why. When you’re on the ball, you want to concentrate on the game, but then you’d have people screaming abuse at you. You’ve got to be a special sort of character to be able to deal with that.
“Fortunately when I was at Brighton, we had quite a lot of strong characters, older pros who looked after the younger generation. Even 15 years ago, it was different – ‘accepted’ is the wrong word, but there weren’t too many people willing to stamp out that kind of behaviour. I’m pleased to say that nowadays, with the work being done across the game, we’re seeing it less and less.”
Butters welcomes the way in which the club is harnessing the power and influence that comes with Premier League status. “Out in the community, we touch base with up to 40,000 people per week through our work in schools, health programmes and other initiatives. We should lead by example, and I think we do that. Football is such a massive platform and I think it’s very important that we get that message out.”
More pressures on players
Among the familiar faces on show at the TerraPura Ground on Sunday will be ex-Aston Villa midfielder Lee Hendrie and former Manchester United winger Keith Gillespie, both of whom have spoken out publicly about their respective battles with depression and gambling addiction.
Butters, who came through the ranks at Tottenham in the late 1980s, believes greater appreciation of mental health issues and the pressures placed on modern players is vital for those in the football family, and for supporters too.
“I was quite lucky when I played, when I first started,” says Butters. “There were no mobile phones around. You could have a little bit more freedom, and there was more of a social side to the game.
“You’d go in the players’ lounge after a match, have a couple of beers with your team-mates, talk about the game with fans… you were quite approachable.
“Nowadays, there’s such intrusion into footballers. They can’t do anything without there being a camera shoved in their face, or someone wanting to report on what they’re doing.
“There’s much more responsibility on a player. You’re representing your club, you’re in the spotlight, and you earn vast amounts of money – that wasn’t around when I played – so people are expecting a lot more from you than when I played.
“It does take a strong character to be able to handle that. Thankfully there are staff members now who look after players a lot more. To gain access to a player nowadays is quite hard.
“Football has definitely changed in that way, and it does bring a lot of pressures on younger players. That’s why I think you do see more issues around mental health with players in the game.”
‘Something totally different’
Cook, much in demand on the public-speaking circuit, is currently writing the second part of her memoirs, documenting her own battles with self-harm, gender identity and addictions. With LGBT+ people generally at a higher risk of suffering from mental health problems, this is another area where ‘Football United’ can help to raise awareness.
“The match on Sunday is another way to break down barriers through football – it’s something totally different. My ‘Rainbow Rovers’ squad contains lots of great amateur footballers – some are gay guys, some are trans women, we’ve also got women who aren’t trans, and straight allies including Anwar Uddin, who’s going to be my assistant.
“It’s going to really reflect the diversity we see every day here in Brighton, but also in so many other parts of the country now too.”
“I’ve heard great things on what’s been happening in pre-season and in training. I think Graham’s going to be a very attacking-minded manager, so I’ll be interested to see what happens. We’ve got a difficult start – Watford away, then West Ham in the first home game – but I’m looking forward to seeing a new lease of life in the team.”