The outlands of football's non-league Conference divisions can be an inhospitable place. "It's tougher there than here," says one established Premier League defender who has known both worlds, and the physical challenges are only a part of the landscape. The dressing rooms are often populated by those less familiar with the melting pot of big city communities. Some of the clubs are located in rural places, where diversity and tolerance are slower to build.
It is against this background that Liam Davis, a 23-year-old playing for Gainsborough Trinity in the Conference North, engaged in conversation six months ago with the club's veteran former Blackpool and Grimsby Town goalkeeper Phil Barnes, which concluded with the midfielder confirming to his 34-year-old team-mate that he is gay.
The history of homophobia which has shamed football for so long – including the wretched testimony of Graeme Le Saux, a heterosexual man verbally abused by Liverpool's Robbie Fowler simply for reading one of the posh papers – might give you reason to fear for the course of that conversation between two members of a small-town team from rural Lincolnshire, on a squad night out to Sheffield. Yet it ended as respectfully as it started.
"I wouldn't really like to repeat how it went, word for word," Davis says. "What was said was between us. But it started in light spirits and finished in light spirits and essentially the response that I got when I said what I said was: 'Yes… And..?"
Davis, an attacking wide player for his side, is the first individual in British professional or semi-professional football to have come out and the story of how he has done so gives the lie to the characterisation of footballers as a bunch of homophobic Neanderthals. It says everything that the sole topic of conversation around Gainsborough's Northolme Stadium, in the weeks after Davis's talk with Barnes, was the club's disastrous six-match losing start to the campaign, in English football's sixth tier. Some jocular dressing-room banter was the most anyone had to say on the matter until Davis's tweets last week about Thomas Hitzlsperger's decision to come out led the Lincolnshire Echo to approach him.
The Gainsborough goalkeeper seems to have done Davis a favour by broaching the subject in that bar, during the pre-season build-up. "Some kind of big announcement was the last thing I wanted to make," Davis tells The Independent, as he sets up early for another day at the attractive Point Café, Bar & Restaurant he co-runs with his partner, Neil, in Cleethorpes, north Lincolnshire. "People find out. People know about people in the lower leagues. But I didn't want to go in and make a statement, pushing it in people's faces. Maybe it was some Dutch courage that made me talk about it at the bar. It was more the way Phil approached it. He did it in a light-hearted way; didn't make too much of it…"
The rest of the squad has followed suit and it is to Davis's overwhelming sense of relief that a joke with sexual innuendo will be fired in his direction. "That's the best way to feel comfortable about the situation," he says. "If people didn't say anything I'd be wondering 'what are they thinking?' You want someone to crack a joke and you send something back."
This is precisely how rugby union's Gareth Thomas felt after coming out in 2009. "When you don't speak about something that shows an eeriness and lack of acceptance," he told The Independent. "If everyone goes into their shells at the slightest inkling of the subject, you're left thinking, 'what are they thinking?' In professional sport you have to be able to laugh at yourself and laugh at the others."
Davis has not discussed the matter directly with Trinity manager Steve Housham because the need has simply not seemed to be there.
It has helped that his sexuality was an open secret. It is five years since he first discussed it with his family. He was playing for Selby Town in the Northern Counties East League at the time and there was no conversation about it with team-mates. "I didn't say anything and I can't say anyone was bothered," he reflects.
It did crop up when he moved up a division, to Brigg Town, where his sexuality was by then more widely known about. "There were jokes but that was good," he says. "I knew some of the lads there from when I was in the youth system at Grimsby Town and that helped."
That experience at the then Football League club – where Davis dreamed of making the big time and, in his words, "lived and breathed football and made it my life" for four years – suggests to him now that it will be harder for players further up the football pyramid to discuss their sexuality freely in the way he has done.
He joined the club at 14, just about the time he began to develop an understanding about his sexuality, a process which was to continue until around the time he left Blundell Park at 18. "The people around me there were younger and their knowledge and understanding was not the same," he says. "Football was my whole life there. You train together, go out socially together. Discussing these things was just not possible."
Professionals higher up the pyramid believe the response to Davis's sexuality at Gainsborough – where his team-mates will tell you it is insignificant and irrelevant – would be the same in their rarefied world too. "The general characterisation of footballers as intolerant is a ridiculous, short-sighted stereotype," says one former Premier League player.
The same would go for the supporters of any such individual's team. But it is opposition fans who present the challenge, because of football's capacity to provoke such a dismal culture of anger and trolling. Davis is under no illusions about what to expect when Gainsborough travel to local Conference North rivals Boston on 1 February because ever since Saturday's local newspaper report he has had his share of criticism on forums.
"You read it and it goes in one ear and out of the other," Davis says. "You need tough skin to deal with it and on the whole players have that. You would also like to think it would not be an issue if it was someone on their team who had come out."
It would not, of course. But consider what opposition fans have dished out to such players as Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville – to cite just two from recent years – and you get a sense of what the first openly gay professional player might be up against.
Whether a minority of players might be tempted to use an opponent's sexuality to goad him on the field of play is unclear. An FA charge, bringing a mandatory five-game ban on conviction, would give any who are tempted grounds to think again. Davis has been subjected to one piece of homophobic abuse – a few weeks ago from an opposition player. "Gay ****," the opponent said, after a challenge on the pitch. "I didn't say anything at the time and was just shocked," Davis says.
It is perhaps a measure of how far the anti-homophobia message has been hammered home that when word got out that Davis had received this abuse – because walls have ears at a club like Gainsborough – the opponent sought out his number and texted him an apology. "He said that he had made the comment in the heat of the moment, not out of hatred," Davis says. "An FA charge would have caused a lot of trouble to him and his reputation."
The size of the media story is the other challenge which lies ahead for the first top player to come out. You sense that Davis finds the media aspect the least welcome part, even at his level, determined though he has been to discuss Hitzlsperger and encourage others to feel that they can take the same course. The anonymised hate which social media and forums seem to encourage has also already led some to suggest that Davis has been publicity-seeking in discussing the issue with the Echo – though it was the local paper which approached him. This maelstrom will be amplified higher up the leagues.
"It would have been great if Hitzlsperger had come out while he was still playing at the top level and set the precedent," Davis says. "When one player does, others will follow and I guess the second and third won't be the same big story. Maybe we're getting to the point when there is enough acceptance of the issue for someone to come out while playing. That's the moment when others can follow."
The sheer challenge of earning a salary to supplement the one which non-league football delivers leaves Davis with little time to contemplate the challenge his sexuality creates in his chosen sport. The Point provides a quality which is seeing it flourish near the river front. Davis is getting down to work there at 9am when we talk – a time most players are still rolling in to training.
Davis works the tables. His partner does the cooking. "Customers come in here for some good food and good service," he says. "What relevance does my sexuality have to that? And what relevance does it have to my football? They pick me on merit, because of the way I play football. I'm judged on the football. Nothing more and nothing less."Reuse content