From sharing women’s match-going experiences to trailblazing LGBTQ+ players, young people are doing more to make football inclusive than those in power. We could all learn a thing or two from their approach, writes Laura Lawrence.
Football is changing. And it must change. I say this as a legacy fan: one of the curmudgeons who likes the traditions of football. One who would vehemently protest the creation of Super Leagues and expansion of competitions to the point where they become meaningless.
But it has to change off the pitch.
Research over the past couple of years has worried governing bodies such as the FA enough to seek out how it can engage the next generation of football fans. Forty-two per cent of Generation Z (13–23-year-olds) reportedly have no interest in sport. They want ad-free highlights over a 90-minute slog through a 0-0 draw. A TikTok vision of sport.
While the governing bodies look at how the fundamentals of the men’s game might change, off the pitch millennials and Gen Z are taking things into their own hands to make the game inclusive, engaging, and a sport they feel belongs to their generation.
At the weekend, it was the first anniversary of #HerGameToo, a tireless campaign to highlight and tackle misogynistic behaviour online and at football grounds. It’s been an heroic assent and so satisfying to watch club after club pledge their time and assurances to female football fans – promising that they will do more to make them feel welcome, safe, and appreciated as football supporters.
It sounds as if this should be second nature by now, not something that requires a national campaign. But it does; and it has brought to people’s attention what it’s really like to be a female football fan. The outpouring of stories of women’s experiences have been like a faucet since Sarah Everard’s murder and the river has run straight through the historically masculine environment of football. The young women — founder Caz May and her co-founders Amy Clement, Lucy Ford, Eve Ralph, and Leah Case — who started out with one clever social media video are now helping to hold up a giant mirror over the sport.
It’s also taken a 17-year-old to make a monumental leap — one that has taken over 30 years to happen. Blackpool first-team debutant Jake Daniels came out as only the second openly gay player in the British football leagues. With the support of his club, Stonewall, the PFA, and Sky Sports, the young player has taken his time to make the decision to go public and to do it when the time was right for him. He hasn’t been pressured into doing so because his ‘story’ could be leaked to the press.
By taking this decision to discuss his sexuality he has opened the field for more male players to feel confident that they can still play the sport they love and be who they really are. It isn’t going to be easy for Jake – sadly comments were turned off his social media accounts and the Sky Sports interview he gave. It shouldn’t be a brave thing to be who you are, but in an age where the UK has dropped down the rankings for being an LGBTQ+ friendly country due to the government’s stance on conversion therapy and general lurch to the political right, Daniels is a force for good and should be protected at all costs.
It isn’t my generation or the baby boomers above me affecting change, despite being in positions of power, it’s the generations below who are opening up the game. Long may it continue.
Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR