England's biggest and most lucrative football clubs came under fire from the Government and equality campaigners this weekend for dragging their feet over plans to stamp out homophobia in the professional game. Ministers are privately furious at the “mealy-mouthed excuses” of Premier League teams when asked if their grounds could be used as the backdrop for the launch of a high-profile campaign against homophobia in sport.
As the annual international Football v Homophobia campaign begins this weekend, campaigners also voiced their dismay that only 16 of the 160 clubs in seven English divisions responded positively to a call to arms to tackle sport's last taboo. The campaign wrote to every professional English club asking them to get involved. The letters suggested a number of ways in which clubs, players and coaching staff could raise the profile of the issue – from mentioning it on Twitter to promotions in match-day programmes or PA announcements. Only six Premier League clubs agreed actively to help.
"Football's in the gutter at the moment," said a senior government source. "And they've got real problems with homophobia in dressing rooms and on the terraces. It needs top clubs to speak out repeatedly and as publicly as possible."
David Cameron will host a No 10 summit on racism in football on Wednesday, after a string of cases of alleged abuse aimed at black players by rival teams and fans. However, tough questions will also be asked about why there are no openly gay players in the entire English league at the moment.
No UK professional player has come out except Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998. Even now, Anton Hysen, who plays for the Swedish team Utsiktens BK, remains the only out gay professional footballer in the world.
The publicist Max Clifford recently said that among footballers he had known over the past 15 to 20 years, there were "probably half a dozen I know are either gay or bisexual". Lou Englefield, of Pride Sports, said: "There is still a reticence to talk about this."
Facing claims that it has so far failed to get a grip on the issue, the FA will meet tomorrow and is expected to launch a new strategy to engage with the lesbian and gay community.
Earlier this month Lynne Featherstone, a Home Office minister, announced that all 20 Premier Leauge teams had signed the Government's Sports Charter to tackle homophobia and transphobia in sport, on and off the pitch. But attempts to organise a photo opportunity at a major club's ground foundered.
It is understood that six Premier League sides were contacted asking for help to promote the charter. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur said they were not given enough time, while QPR said they agreed to help in future. Fulham, Chelsea and Aston Villa claim they were not contacted, though Home Office insiders insist all six teams were asked to take part.
Megan Worthing-Davies, director of Football v Homophobia, said: "We heard back from many clubs who said, 'We've signed up to the charter so we're not going to be involved with Football v Homophobia'."
Andy Wasley, from Stonewall, said: "Actions speak louder than words, and it's one thing to sign a charter, it's quite another then to actually do the hard stuff like training officials and stewards to make sure they challenge homophobia when they see it."
The 16 teams signed up to Football v Homophobia so far are: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Fulham, Liverpool, Newcastle Utd, Norwich City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Derby County, Ipswich Town, Millwall, Huddersfield Town, MK Dons, Wycombe Wanderers, Exeter City, Port Vale and Hyde FC.
A conspiracy of silence: 'No one wants to speak out about this'
Amal Fashanu is the niece of Justin Fashanu who killed himself in 1998. He was Britain's first openly gay professional footballer
"The reluctance of Premier League clubs to take the homophobia issue seriously is a shame because we are trying to take steps forward. It seems as if some people want us to go backwards.
"If a player decided to come out now, I don't think there would be enough support available. That's why we are trying to create a climate so that people will feel safe.
"The really, really sad thing is when you have people who are actually not gay but fear that they might be categorised as such if they speak up. They don't want to stand up against discrimination. Why? Them saying, 'Listen, let's kick homophobia out of football', that's not going to make them gay.
"It's a crazy mentality, and that's why Joey Barton, who contributed to my recent BBC3 documentary, Britain's Gay Footballers, is getting the reception that he is. He is being treated like a hero. Why? Because no one else is going to speak out. Football seems to be stuck in the dark ages.
"In the documentary, Max Cliffford tells me that he's been approached by half a dozen gay Premier League footballers. He has advised them to not come out. If you have this mentality, it's going to be very hard for a footballer to feel comfortable about coming out.
"We need some role models in this country if we want more people to come out, but there are none. The only openly gay footballers are like the Swede Anton Hysen, or someone like my uncle who has passed away. It is still a harsh reality for the next person coming out knowing that my uncle committed suicide.
"It would be great if each individual football club could play its part in this campaign."