“We got beaten 9-2 a few seasons ago. Their manager popped his head round the dressing room door and said that, for the first time in five years of playing us, we played like a bunch of gays.”
For a brief moment, I’m not sure whether to laugh or not. Fortunately, the intense stare of Eric Armanazi – goalkeeper, manager, nightclub bouncer and, presumably, legend – gives way to a huge smile. On the social barometer that is Sunday league football, it seems, that exchange counted as significant progress for a remarkable football club.
“Progress” is a word that crops up a few times at the 25th anniversary party for Stonewall FC, Britain’s first gay football team. They were founded not by late-Victorian-era businessmen in a dusty pub but with an advert in Time Out and – as all football clubs really ought to begin life – with a kickabout in a park. The “Queens of the South” – as a Daily Mirror headline proclaimed them in 1991 – were up and running and the reception, officially at least, was encouraging. The London FA said at the time: “We don’t pay any attention to a team’s race, creed, religion or private life – so long as they can play football”.
A quarter of a century since that gathering on a pitch in north London, Stonewall FC have done more than break a few boundaries. Within ten years, they were racing to the Middlesex County League Senior Division title – winning it by 12 points – and claiming the gold medal at the Gay Games in Sydney in 2002. Throw in a mere seven IGLFA (International Gay and Lesbian Football Association) World Cup wins, and the Stonewall FC website’s boast of being “the world’s most successful gay football club” becomes rather hard to dispute.
Among the crowd for the 25th anniversary event is a diminutive figure of veritable Stonewall FC royalty. Aslie Pitter was part of the club’s first squad, became a Member of the British Empire in 2011 and, most importantly, “still a box-to-box midfielder” at the age of 55. “It seems amazing the club has been around this long,” he says. “I never, ever thought we would be this successful 25 years on.”
There aren’t many better placed to tell the Stonewall FC story and he’s more than happy to start from the beginning for what could well be the thousandth time.
“My early days of playing football were unremarkable – I never really wanted to play football seriously until I was fourteen. I played a handful of youth team and reserve team games at Sutton United, Carshalton and later at Whyteleafe but the real issues came about when I was outed at another local team, after which I was dropped from the first team, ending up in the fourths. That’s when the homophobic abuse really kicked in. At this point I had already joined Stonewall FC. Needless to say I left my local team and concentrated on Stonewall.”
Not only are they successful, established and highly regarded, but Stonewall FC are no longer the sole flagbearers for the LGBT community in grassroots football. Their vice-like grip on the IGLFA World Cup was briefly interrupted by Village Manchester FC in 2013 and lending their support to the event in Soho are players from other gay football clubs in the capital such as East End Phoenix and London Titans.
These friendly rivalries – and the occasional player defection that feeds them – can firmly be filed under Nice Problems To Have for Stonewall FC in 2016. The increasing strength in depth of teams inspired by them is a far cry from the first training session, where even the founding members themselves admit to doubting they could find eleven gay men to play a competitive game of football in London.
The emphatic overcoming of that particular hurdle of preconception led to Stonewall’s relatively swift acceptance in the mainstream leagues. Simon Neller, a towering defender-turned-referee for whom the term “no-nonsense” was surely invented, confirms that incidents of overt homophobia have been few and far between but, in any case, he’d be the first “to have a quiet word in their ear”. You don’t doubt him for a second.
Stonewall FC’s 25th birthday coincides with the Football v Homophobia initiative’s month of action and Kelly Simmons – the FA’s director of football participation and development – is present to congratulate the club on its contribution to tackling discrimination. Simmons recognises the “huge strides” that have been made, but warns against any complacency. Pitter, too, is keen for the momentum to be maintained:
“There is always lots more [the FA] could do. It’s a slow process, maybe too slow. Although the FA put a lot of effort into tackling racism on the pitch and terraces, there is still sometimes resistance to change, especially when it comes to people from ethnic minorities and women in management roles and boardrooms. We’ll only know for sure if the FA has done enough when a young player at the beginning of his or her career or a current top class player comes out. That would be the real test.”
The club chairman Ben Biggs recognises that Stonewall have changed minds and attitudes “pitch by pitch, team by team and week by week” to the extent that some have questioned the need for a gay team at all. That seems premature, although the club are at pains to point out that they have plenty of straight players too, as their focus slowly, naturally begins to shift towards becoming recognised primarily as a very good football team. Reserves manager Robin Lee (Stonewall now operate three teams at various levels of the amateur pyramid) is quicker to bemoan the reassuringly mainstream bugbears of Sunday football – inexcusably bad London pitches, erratic refereeing, hangover-related selection problems – than the behaviour of opposition sides in Stonewall’s leagues.
Their lofty status has certainly turned heads at the highest level too. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium will host their end-of-season 25th anniversary gala, after these birthday celebrations were crowned with the announcement that Stonewall FC will play a team of Manchester United veterans later this year.
The last word belongs to one of the men who have been there since that tiny appeal for players in a magazine in 1991. How would Pitter want Stonewall FC’s 50th birthday to be marked?
“It would be nice if, at the 50th anniversary, the names of the founder members were remembered, but we know the reality. Who remembers the founders of Arsenal? I’d like people to see Stonewall FC as groundbreaking, to see us as truly inclusive, successful and as being part of a wider, very diverse LGBT community. ”
“For me personally I think our biggest achievement, is that we changed perceptions about gay people in football. Yes, the trophies and medals over the years have helped, but it’s not what I would count as most important.”
You can follow Adam Hurrey on Twitter (@FootballCliches)