I started playing football at Junior school when I was 11. My first attempt at getting into the school team I was unsuccessful, and ran home crying my eyes out. It didn't help that my best friend got in either and came over to my house bragging. Kids can be cruel.
That didn't stop me though. I practiced every day from that miserable day onwards. I trained alone in my garden kicking the ball against the garden wall and dribbling around plant pots and tools from the shed that I had placed on the grass. I also hung out with boys older than me who played football a lot at my local park.
That christmas one of my presents was 'Ryan Giggsys' Football Skills Video' and from then on Ryan Giggs was my Idol. I thought I knew him really well when I found out that his favorite flavour crisps was Walkers cheese and onion. I definitely fancied him too... I still do.
Something in me was determined to become a better football player so that I could make it into the school football team this time. A year later I took part in the school trials again and this time I got in the team. Not only did I get in the team I was also the Captain.
I continued to progress in football playing for a team called Clee Town that were a year older than me, and then later left to play for a team called Discoveries Colts who were a well known team in Grimsby, which helped a lot with my confidence. When I turned 17 Discoveries finished and we all went our seperate ways. I was asked to play for Louth United who were a semi professional team and I jumped at the offer.
I was competing to get into the team with some very good players - players I didnt know, and would need to get to know. Some of them were grown men, and I was still just a boy who hadn't even climbed out of the closet yet. I don't think Will Young had won Pop idol yet either! But yeah I wasn't officially gay, and I hadn't even kissed a boy.
I remember feeling realy paranoid in the changing rooms when everyone was getting ready, and not knowing where to look or who to talk to and what to talk about. I definitely didn't feel like I should be there.
If I had come out as a gay man at the beginning when I joined Louth United I definitely don't think I would have played a game of football. In a way I felt like you had to be in with the clic in order to feel accepted in the first place. Gradually I lost confidence and did not feel motivated and happy to play football for a team anymore. Not even an amateur team with my mates. I was already paranoid that people may have thought that I was gay... wait... I was gay (and still am gay!)
I struggled as a young footballer to be myself and found it hard to carry on playing the sport that I loved to play. I stopped playing for a while... apart from the odd game in the park or at college.
I then moved to Manchester to be with a guy and found out about VMFC (Village Manchester Football Club)... The guy I was going out with was quite possessive and told me that I should avoid playing for the gay football team because it was seedy. I finally got out of that relationship, then I gave VMFC coach Jason McAuley a message on facebook to see what VMFC was all about.
First training session went ok, and I remember aching a lot the next day. I took on board what Jason said to me in the car on the way to training, which was 'just keep coming to training every week, get to know the lads, and hopefully you will enjoy it.'
I was determined to start playing football again and to prove to a team that I was a good enough player so I trained every week. New people also joined around the same time as me, which made it even more fun to train and it was good to meet like minded people.
It felt so good to be back training once a week and playing a game every Sunday. The only difference was that I was playing right wing back, rather than my usual position centre back and obviously for the first time I was playing for a team who were mostly gay men.
Generally I dont think I would have played football for a team again if this option of a gay friendly team was not there. I feel much more comfortable knowing that everyone in the team is comfortable with my sexuality, and who I am. We still have the banter and the laughs and we are like a family. I do wonder how different it could have been for me if I had not have felt so uncomfortable about my sexuality in the first place.
I do believe that every time we put on a pair of football boots we are one more step (or kick) towards defeating homophobia in football.
A big thank you to Village Manchester Football Club for helping me to believe in myself and allowing me to be who I am. Have Pride.
Stephen Lee Curtis
29 September 2014