You will find the humanity of sportsmen in the margins of the searing new Gareth Thomas autobiography, Proud. The rugby player’s one-time Bridgend captain “Compo” Greenslade knew. He knew Thomas had headed back alone to Minsky’s, a gay bar in Cardiff, the night after a few of the team had washed up there to hear the winger’s sister sing, in 1995. There was no ridicule. No exposure from him for the man they have always called “Alfie”.
Thomas’s one-time coach, Scott Johnson, knew. He found him in a state of profound emotional breakdown after Wales’s 29-29 draw with Australia in 2006, decided the secret Thomas carried was killing him and selected Martyn “Nugget” Williams as one of two team members who must be told and entrusted to send the information through the team. Thomas – who was given no say in the matter – feared the worst. “Nugget? He’s from Pontypridd,” he thought. “A real man’s man. Hard worker, tough f***** as a rugby player. Face it, he is exactly the type of person who will despise you for who you are.”
Williams gladly accepted his task. And he gladly accepted Thomas.
Some will say rugby union accepted Thomas because its dressing rooms are populated by the more liberal middle classes. Nonsense. Thomas grew up among Rhondda working men, hard as nails.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the story – told with such intensity by Thomas and his ghostwriter Michael Calvin, my Independent colleague, that you may find yourself reading it in one sitting – is that these people knew about Thomas’s sexuality for two years before he made a formal revelation to the world. It was never a problem.
The football dressing room is also more accommodating than many might believe. Liam Davis, the Gainsborough Trinity midfielder, told me earlier this year that the real challenge had been finding a way of making light of his sexuality. “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,” Davis said.
Nugget Williams did that job for Thomas, when Cardiff’s change strip shirts – a deep shade of pink – were hung up for the match at Toulouse, on the day he had told the world his story. “Oh, f***, Alf! They must have known today was the day. They’ve got your f****** colour for you…!”
It is when you read that last anecdote that you hope the individuals who pose the real impediment to a gay sportsman– a small minority of unreconstructed, intellectually limited supporters – might read the book Thomas and Calvin have put together. It is that minority which the sportsmen who keep this secret fear most. They are out there on the margins of most sports.
Thomas tells the story of his second match for the Crusaders at Castleford, following his switch to rugby league, after coming out. He was trying to catch the game’s relentless pace when a foully homophobic chorus went up.
There were other such moments. One Bridgend fan spat out bile when he had returned to the Brewery Field in the colours of his new club Cardiff Blues. Thomas went over the boundary fence and after that fan. He knows he owes the rest of his career to the Bridgend water-carrier who grabbed and pulled him back that day.
A footballer would face this and much, much more. You only have to consider what in terms of club rivalry opposition fans have dished out to such players as Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville in recent years to know what the first openly gay professional player might be up against. Or what, out of a warped sense of tribalism, they have sung about the Hillsborough and Munich disasters. I caught another piece of Hillsborough slime last week on Twitter, that vast repository to which scum clings.
There are other pariahs out there. Like the reporters who, before Thomas had come out, “began knocking on our neighbours’ doors, asking whether they had seen ‘strange men’ going in and out of Gareth’s house,” as he tells it. The “exclusive” story was pulled because it didn’t fit with the public mood after Thomas helped Wales thump England 27-18 in 2007.
Thomas’s wife Jemma, who moved out of his house and his life, saw the black vans, with photographers shooting pictures through the front window. “Feral,” Thomas describes them as. Yep, pretty much.
But it is that terrace minority, with their warped sense that abuse is their contribution to the sporting battle under way on the turf, who are the scourge. “They aren’t really having a go at you,” Thomas suggests. “You are just a strange sort of symbol… a figurehead.”
He reflects that the Football Association and Premier League might do more to render homophobia as much of a demon as racism. The book is more powerful than any campaign, though. It tells that sportsmen have moved on.
Proud, My Autobiography, by Gareth Thomas is published by Ebury Press at £20
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