(April 2013 note: I used some of the ideas from the short story below in my novel Disunited, written as Anthony Camber.)
The door opened, wafting sparkles of dust between the slices of pale December light struggling through the blinds. He approached nervously, like a schoolboy summoned to the Head’s office. But I was the scruffy one, in a training kit smeared with the day’s mud, and he was wearing a designer suit. Too much bling.
“Sit down, son,” I said, tossing some unfinished paperwork onto the desk, with all the rest.
“Cheers boss.” He perched. I hate it when they perch, it means trouble. At his age he should be strutting and sprawling, I thought, flashing back to when I was eighteen. A different world. Back then I didn’t have his salary, that’s for sure. Or his talent.
“Well?” I was still the boss.
An awkward pause. Please, not a transfer request.
“I need to tell you something.” Like I said, he was perching.
“OK.” Keep it light. “Don’t worry, I’ve got Max Clifford on speed dial.”
That forced a weak smile, no more. He stared at his shoes and fiddled with a ring. Fine: the day’s schedule disintegrated in my head, which at least meant the paperwork could be forgotten for another few hours.
“Come on lad. What is it? A fight? Paps caught you in a nightclub? Got some girl up the wossname?”
“Drugs? Listen, we’ve all done a little–”
“It’s not drugs. I’m not stupid.”
“A sex tape, then.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong.” His eyes blazed, the passion the fans loved him for, the passion that sparked into genius on the pitch. And now I knew there was trouble.
I was leaning forward – being confrontational, as usual. Bad idea. I forced myself to sit back, the leather chair creaking and crackling into the silence.
Calmly, despite my rocketing heart rate: “So tell me why you’re here.” I breathed slowly, deliberately, remembering penalties scored and missed, mine and others.
He hesitated. Mouth open and shut. A decision. Eye contact. “I’m gay.”
Freeze-frame for a second, or five. “I’m not in the mood for jokes.”
Another second. “No joke.”
“Because if this is a wind-up, I’ll–” I was forward again, agitated, visions of hidden cameras, Noel Edmonds, stupid gold-plated laugh-at-the-idiot-footballer trophies.
“Boss. I promise, no wind-up. On my mother’s life.” A pause, another choice made. “I’m not ashamed of it. It’s not a phase. And I’m not gonna hide it.”
I made a noise, some kind of neigh, as the air escaped my lungs. They didn’t cover this at the coaching academy.
Deep breath. Big sigh. I took in the room, not very fancy as these things go: desk, sofa, certificates, all seen better days. And photos of those better days, of a younger, clear-eyed me – shimmying round a defender, that look on his face; the cup-winning team, all scarves and smiles. Jeez, shorts were short then.
And here and now: a boy, no more than that, albeit a hugely talented, highly paid, coiffed and tailored one, perching – still perching – before me. A dust mote flashed in the light and I followed it, carefree, immortal, until it vanished in the shadows. I felt suddenly very old.
“No,” I said.
“Boss, I’m not joking.” I was quite sure of it.
“I don’t care. I will not allow it.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“No. I can’t stop you. I can’t stop you drinking, smoking, clubbing, and all those other things lads your age do. But when it affects your performance, the team’s performance, I can drop you.”
“You wouldn’t drop me.” Standard teenage arrogance.
“Try me.” His next line was knee-jerk, obvious.
“Then I’ll quit.”
This wasn’t getting us anywhere. Time for a different approach.
“Listen, son. There are no gay footballers. There’s a reason for that.”
“I’ve read all about it. Justin Fashanu, he was gay. He played at the top level.”
“One player. One. Who was abused, transferred. Cloughy knew what he got up to, kicked him out. He ended up killing himself, you know that?”
“It doesn’t have to be like that!” He was angry now. I should have tried to calm it down, but…
“That’s just the way it is, kiddo. Get used to it. Get a girlfriend. Get on with your life, forget all this gay nonsense.” Stoking the fire. I regretted it instantly, expected a barrage of abuse in return.
Instead he just laughed, the bitter laugh of a future denied. My head throbbed. I rubbed my temples, filling time, as no words came.
Quietly, he broke the silence. “It’s the twenty-first century, man. I just want to live my life.”
“Gareth Thomas, the rugby guy. He came out, no problems.”
“There was a bit of trouble, but… I know. But rugby’s a different sport, a different crowd.”
“Football’s not so different.”
My turn to laugh bitterly. “You’ve never played at Millwall.”
He grinned. The tension evaporated. Sunshine striped across his jacket, contours of light over his face.
I stood and adjusted the blinds. “You realise the first black players had bananas thrown at them,” I said. “They still do sometimes, despite everything. You still hear monkey chants.”
“People are afraid of difference. But difference is nothing to be ashamed of. No reason to hide away. The more black footballers, the better it got. The more gay footballers, the better it will get.”
“But to be first – it’s bound to affect your game. And the rest of the team.”
He shrugged. “Someone has to be first. I’ll sort the team out. I can do the tabloids, the TV, talk to the fans, get them behind me.”
“It’s not our fans you should be worried about.”
“Sure. But if Viv Anderson could do it, and Brendan Batson, and Laurie Cunningham, and Cyrille Regis, and all the others, including Fashanu, I can do it.”
“They couldn’t hide being black.”
“Damn right. And they didn’t want to either. They weren’t ashamed of being black, and I’m not ashamed of being gay.”
I had to admire his determination, and he knew his footballing history. He was full of surprises, this boy. But he was so young. Could he deal with the abuse when it undoubtedly came? The barracking, the filth, even the death threats? He was so young.
“You telling me there’s a good time?”
Fair point. “But in a couple of seasons, when you’re more mature…”
“Boss. I’ve read the bio. You were married at 21, kid at 22, and no saint before that. I don’t want to hide away, skulk around in the shadows, spend the best years of my life afraid of being recognised or, worse, not getting any. It was different for you.”
I had to agree.
“And…” he hesitated. “In four years, there’s Brazil. I want to be in the squad. And I want my boyfriend there too, if I have one. One of the WAGs.”
I laughed at that. Footballers are always footballers. But he had more.
“And then in Russia in ’18, I might be married. And captain.”
“Christ, you’re nothing if not ambitious.”
“How do you think I got here, fancy clothes, flash car? I’d never have kicked a ball if I didn’t believe I could do it.”
“So what about 2022? With your attitude you might still be in the team at thirty. But you can’t be gay in Qatar. It’s illegal. You heard Blatter, he says gays should refrain from…” I waved my hand, he knew what I meant.
A look, a defiant smile. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Blatter doesn’t matter. He’s an old man. Old thinking, old ways. We make the world we want to see. If I come out now, be the first, stand up and be counted, be successful, others will follow. They won’t be afraid. It’ll take a few years, but by ’22 there’ll be dozens of us – out, international players. Whether I’m playing or not, I’ll be in Qatar. With a husband, and kids maybe. And I won’t be the only one.”
“It might still be illegal.”
“What are they gonna do? Flog us all? Kick us out?”
I looked at him, the man-boy, the heart of the team, the fire of youth. He wasn’t perching any more. He was right, damn him. He was too young, he was naive, he was hopelessly, recklessly optimistic, but he was right. At some point you have to make a stand. At some point you have to do what you know is right, regardless of consequences.
“OK,” I said finally, slowly, a plan forming. “OK. I’ll talk to people. Max Clifford won’t like it, though.”
“He can get stuffed.”
“Just… don’t say anything yet. Let me arrange things, get the timing right. You – you tell whoever needs to know before it all gets out.”
A grunt. “My family, my mates, they’ve always known. They’re like, whatever.”
I should have expected that by now. “Good. Right. Clear off. Keep quiet. Get ready.”
“I’m ready. Cheers boss. I’m ready.” He stood, face in the light again, as it always was, as it always would be. We shook hands with a smile and he left, flashes of dust billowing again in the echo of the closing door.
I drank in the silence, the room, the discarded paperwork. The rollercoaster of life. Still time to jump off. I picked up the office phone, hesitating over the keypad. A deep breath; time for penalties. I dialled the number.
“Hi darling,” I said. “It’s time for me to come out.”