The Inside Word: Gareth Thomas is a beacon of hope to help football on to the Rainbow List

 

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The Independent Online

The Unknown Footballer will read the names on today’s Rainbow List with a mixture of empathy, envy and quiet despair. He will be haunted by the freedom they represent and diverted by the fleeting fantasy that he will one day join them, having exposed sport’s last taboo for its triviality.

He senses the world is changing around him, but still feels trapped. Government ministers, global business leaders and fellow athletes are able to acknowledge their sexuality, but a prominent gay professional footballer remains a prisoner of myth and tribal custom.

He exists, of that there is no doubt. He is unknown only in the sense he projects a false, self-protective image to garner the assumed advantages of conformity. I have come to understand the latent power he possesses, and the strength he will need to be true to himself.

My association with Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain who came out in 2009, extends beyond the publication of his memoir, on which we collaborated. We have carried his message, that sexuality is secondary to an individual’s ability, around the country in a series of talks imbued with a rare form of emotional intensity.

Gareth challenged rugby’s machismo culture, and discovered its hidden humanity. His reward, and his burden, is to be a symbol of progress, a beacon of hope. He insists it means more to him than any trinket or trophy from a storied career. That might sound trite in cold print or cyberspace, but its truth is reaffirmed daily by strangers who share their stories.

 

They are deeply personal, inescapably intimate and profoundly moving. Parents speak of coming to terms with children who do not fit their perceptions of a “normal” lifestyle. Sons and daughters relate tales of anguish and acceptance, fear and fulfilment. Conversations are invariably snatched, occasionally lubricated by tears, and uniformly uplifting.

A common theme involves the realisation that a soft landing is possible from a terrifying leap of faith. Gareth’s example is cited as an inspiration, because of the purity of his stance.  He rejects campaigning in favour of private counsel. A succession of athletes, including a footballer who recoiled from the prospect of demonisation by faith and family, seek practical advice.

The impact of a current footballer of similar stature following suit would be seismic. Will it happen? Strangely, I do not share Gareth’s immediate pessimism. He has not merely been recognised, but embraced. His honesty generates love and respect. That, to me, is a sign society has changed. Football must prove it has done likewise.

The player who shares his deepest secret will require immense moral courage, because his game still struggles to fulfil its duty of care.  Well-intentioned seminars, conducted as part of the FA’s anti-discrimination policy, are undermined by football’s thoughtless cruelty and institutionalised puerility.

Despite the rhetoric, there is a sense that homophobia is deemed the lesser of two evils compared with racism. Each is demeaning, an insult to the human condition. One is more visible, and easier to sanction. In that context, the selection of the former referee David Elleray on a Fifa advisory panel despite being warned by the FA following a racist comment to another official is inexcusable.

The initial abuse an openly gay player will receive from social inadequates will be hateful, deeply wounding. But it will pass. The silent majority will find its voice on his behalf. Decent fans will operate a self-policing policy. Team-mates will offer reassurance that the cherished code of the dressing-room has not been breached, because lies can be rationalised.

The world may seem bleak and unforgiving to the Unknown Footballer. But by moving from the shadows into the light he can make it a better place, not just for himself, but for kindred spirits who will be forever in his debt.

Pompey coach a true hero

Heroism comes in many forms, one of which is defined by the humbling example of Alan McLoughlin, Portsmouth’s first-team coach. He survived kidney cancer and went back for more, to save the lives of strangers.

The former Republic of Ireland midfield player is 21 months into a three-year voluntary trial of an experimental drug which has been seen to significantly shrink malignant kidney tumours. The side-effects are forbidding.

McLoughlin has lost weight and had his hair fall out in clumps. His body is pockmarked by skin rashes. He has chapped hands and a constant ache in his neck. He will be on blood-pressure tablets for the rest of his life.

He was warned about the consequences of his commitment in a  10-page medical document, and could have concentrated on maximising his remission period following a successful cancer operation in October 2012.

As he told the Portsmouth Evening News this week: “I could have easily had the operation and walked off saying, ‘Thanks very much’ and taken my chances. But I just felt it was the right thing to do, morally more than anything. I owe it to the surgeon, to the people trying to find something that might help people with kidney cancer, or any form of cancer. If I can put myself out for a couple of years then it is worth the effort.”

He returns to the cancer ward in Bristol in December to monitor his progress with a major six-monthly scan. Spiritually, at least, he will not be alone.

Poppycock

In common with many football followers, I had lost track of James McClean’s career before he exercised his right to make an annual gesture, and refuse to wear a poppy on his shirt as part of Remembrance Day commemorations. His anonymous performance as a substitute for struggling Wigan at Bolton on Friday night suggests he should not detain us unduly.

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Wigan midfielder James McClean chose not to wear a poppy

Warne’s lonely heart

“Lot of you asking me who am I dating! I’m single & just broke up with the amazing Emily. Who do you think I should date then followers?”

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Ex-Australia cricketer Shane Warne

Since Shane Warne is using social media to influence affairs of the heart during his midlife crisis, it seems churlish not to suggest a quick call to rekindle the bromance with Kevin Pietersen. They deserve each other.

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