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Lost City

Nottingham Ball Bois

10 January 13 interview: Joe Sharratt

The Nottingham Ball Bois - your gay-friendly neighbourhood football team - are one of the few local clubs in a national league. But, as Scott Lawley (chair and full-back) and Craig Simpson (player-manager) point out, they do a lot more...

So how did the club come into being?
Scott: It all started in May 2006. A couple of guys who have both now left were the founders; there was a similar club down in Leicester and another one in Birmingham, so why not have one here in Nottingham too? After a year or so, we entered the GFSN - Gay Football Supporters Network - national league, and went on from there. We won the GFSN League in 2009, and the GFSN Cup a year later. We’ve now got about 25 people turning up to training, and about 50 members in total. 

It’s worth pointing out that you’re actually a ‘gay-friendly’ club, meaning you have gay and straight players...
Craig: Yeah, we have a right mix. We had one season where we had probably up to five or six straight players. Because it’s such a friendly, organised atmosphere we get friends of friends coming along.

Scott: It almost got to the point once where we had more straight players starting a game, but then a few games ago we actually had an entirely gay squad for the first time ever.

Craig: To be honest that’s reflected across the GFSN League as well - you get a lot straight players who drift in and out. The teams in Wolverhampton and Trowbridge actually have a
majority of straight players but play in the gay league. I think when you get the organisation and a welcoming atmosphere you tend to get people to stick, so definitely a good mix. We’ve got a female player as well - I think we’re one of only a few clubs now that actually has a woman that plays for us, and we’re quite proud of that.

Does being part of a national league get in the way of the social side of the club, or enhance it?
Craig: The good thing about the GFSN is you get to go to places where you wouldn’t normally go, so the social aspect takes on even more importance. We’re going to places like Edinburgh, Manchester and Brighton - and the idea of going down there and coming straight back is a bit rubbish, really, so we make the most of our away trips. The social side is just as important as the playing side, definitely.

Scott: We get people who don’t want to play at all - they just come to the socials or come and watch the games. Sometimes we get people who’ve either just moved to Notts or just want to meet new people, but they don’t want to walk into a bar by themselves.

Craig: It’s a great way to meet new people, definitely; you’ve instantly got thirty or forty contacts. Not everyone who’s gay wants to go to gay bars, so we’re almost like an alternative way in, if you like. Obviously we do have links with the gay scene and the gay venues, but it’s a bit of an alternative to the gay scene. 

What’s more important: the club’s achievements on the pitch or its work off it?
Craig: I think they go hand-in-hand. We always have this argument: are we a football club or are we a social club? The football is the core really, everything is built around that common interest in football.

Scott: We won the Rainbow Heritage Award, last year, which is for community groups that have put a lot into the LGBT community locally, so we were really pleased to get that. We’ve raised money for Nottingham Switchboard, and other charities. One of the straight players has contact with a team up at Bestwood Park, and we played a fundraiser for them for their kids team - we played their dads. And we get asked by quite a few people to go and talk about homophobia in sport, from places like the OutBurst Youth Group to the Sports Education degree students at Nottingham Trent and Sheffield Hallam.

Does it anger you that you can’t just play the game? And that homophobia still exists to an extent that teams like yours still matter?
Scott: It’s an interesting question; if you could wave this magic wand and homophobia didn’t exist and it was a wonderful world out there, would this club still exist? It probably would because the social side is so strong.

Craig: It would be a good research project: do you play in this team because you want to play football and you don’t want to play in a straight team, or do you play as an offset from what you’ve heard on the scene and see it as a sub-group of the scene?

Scott: I think if you asked ten different players you’d get ten different answers as to why they’re here. Ten years ago or so, you’d have had a much higher age profile - you’d have the typical story of gay men who, because of homophobia or just because of the culture, or were put off football at school, didn’t really play until they got into their thirties. Now, the age profile is completely across the board; you still hear: “I’ve played in a local team and it didn’t feel right” from younger players. 

Craig: I’ve never come across homophobic abuse, but I know people that have.

Scott: Sometimes it’s not necessarily that people have experienced outright homophobia, but they’ve played in atmospheres or cultures where they’ve felt that they just couldn’t come out. But for every team where there’s homophobic banter going on, there will be another team where someone can be openly gay and the team will be happy with it.

We’re seeing the FA’s anti-racism policy getting some stick at the moment - what do you think about their attempts to do the same for homophobia?
Craig: It all comes down to money, and the anti-homophobia budget is minute compared to the anti-racism one. Leagues like this help. We’ve got one straight player who admitted he was probably homophobic before he joined the club and that his attitude has changed massively since. It’s small steps; you can’t change things overnight, and the league is very much a stepping stone. There’re more and more teams every year, more players getting involved, and more people hearing about it.

Scott: I think all the right noises are being made, but I think you’re actually trying to change cultural values at the end of the day - and you can’t do that with a piece of paper.

Do you have inter-squad relationships?
Craig: Oh yeah. People always veer around the subject, but some players do come along to meet guys. And yes, we’ve got partners who met though the team and are still together five or six years afterwards. I’ve had experiences and relationships with people within clubs, and we’ve had long term and short term relationships, and that’s reflected at other clubs where people have been together years and years. We haven’t had a marriage
yet though, have we? That’s what we need, our first marriage.

Do you think football is ready for another player to come out?
Scott: I think there will be a point where in a few years everyone will look back on this era and say: “what on earth was everyone thinking?”

Craig: Yeah, on the outskirts of football now you get a lot of gay people.

Scott: Sports broadcasting is actually full of gay people...

Craig: To be honest, it’s quite easy to hide your sexuality at a football club. There’s this perception that the team is together all the time, but actually you train three hours in the morning then you go off and do your own thing. I think a lot of it is the agents covering up and protecting identities, although the first person to come out is on to an absolute winner, they’ll make an absolute fortune, I really do. It will come, it’s inevitable, it’s just a matter
of time. Within football circles there are known gay footballers, but they’ve always been almost protected, and I think it’s having that leap of faith, definitely.

Scott: Unfortunately, the only example of an out footballer in England is Justin Fashanu, and we all know how that story ended.

As gay men, how do you view the veneration of Brian Clough round here, given the way he treated Fashanu?
Scott: Obviously we’ve got a few Forest fans in our team, and they seem to be able to hold two contrasting opinions at the same time; holding him in high regard for being the manager that he was, but also recognising that what he did and said regarding Fashanu was wrong. To be honest, Clough himself admitted in his second autobiography that the way he treated Fashanu did leave quite a lot to be desired.

Are you still looking for players?
Craig: Definitely. Basically we’re very friendly, open to all, straight, gay, any shade in-between...
Scott: Whatever experience as well -  if some people are a bit intimidated because they’ve never played before, you’re more than welcome to come along.

Nottingham Ball Bois website


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