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1997 Manchester Evening News

8 November 2016
From Friday 3 October 1997, an article from the Manchester Evening News. 
Copyright MEN reproduced here as it doesn't appear on their website.
Match of the Gay

From a world cup tournament to the playing fields of Manchester

By Steve Cochrane


There are few worlds seemingly more masculine, not to say dumbly macho, than those of the football fan and player: Watching or competing, it’s to do with blokes, blokes being blokey, and any remarks about players kissing when they score a goal, or the sad history of footballer’s bubble perm, are just not on, OK? We’re blokes, and that’s that. 
Only that’s not quite true, not any more. 
“There was this gay football team…” sounds like the start of a particularly bad Bernard Manning joke, but Village Manchester FC are just such a body, and they take the sport very seriously indeed. 
They are Manchester’s first and so far only, gay team, having been formed two years ago. 
They meet every Thursday throughout the year for training sessions, have a kit deal with Adidas and sponsorship from the likes of Metz and Cruise 101, and while at the moment they’re playing weekly friendlies against various local straight teams, they’re aiming to join a straight league next year, competing on equal terms. 
Last weekend they flew back from Washington after taking part in the Gay World Cup. 
Anyone still doubting, however, that gay players compete every bit as fiercely as their straight counterparts, need only to do what I did: go along to the Armitage Centre in Fallowfield one rain swept Thursday evening and watch a match between Village Manchester and, in this case, a team from Manchester Careers Service. 
Did I mention it was raining? This is amateur football, of course it was raining, so I’ll try not to harp on about it, but anyone who actually enjoys playing in the midst of this all-pervading drizzle is plainly dedicated wholeheartedly to the game. 
As the teams kick off, I irritate Paul Bradley, 35-year-old club chairman and, injuries allowing, midfield dynamo, by asking him lots of questions when he’d rather be watching the game. But he’s polite enough, between shouting advice and encouragement, to answer anyway. 
“Though we started two years ago, things have really got going in the last year, in terms of sponsorship deals… Come on!” This last remark, you’ll be relieved to hear, was not to me but to a somewhat shaky back four. 
The team was created by the current manager, Graham Goggins, who had played for London club Stonewall (the country’s first gay club). He began by placing adverts in gay papers in Manchester, to which about 12 people answered. 
At first, they played in a straight five-a-side league in Oldham. 
Paul takes the story up: “Me and another player went to play for Stonewall in the Gay World Cup in Dallas last September, and the experience was so positive that it spurred us on to really build the team up.
“At the same time, Manchester was bidding for the Gay Olympic Games and Village Manchester was one of the official host clubs, so that forced us, in a way, to develop, and now there are 40 players, we’re entering a league next year and looking into setting up some kind of gay cup tournament.”
Oops. While I was pondering the socio-political ramifications of specifically homosexual team games, VMFC have gone 2-0 down. This seemed my cue to ask about the attitudes of straight opponents when asked to take on a gay team. 
“We’ve had no problems,” Paul insists, “but that’s because we know who we’re playing and the teams know all about us. When we go into a straight league, we’ll have to face discrimination. That’s why we need to build up the club’s spirit. 
“It’s a big challenge, but then, there are clubs in London that do it, and they survive, so I’m sure we can.”
This note of cautious optimism is undermined somewhat by a half-time three goal deficit, but neither the players nor the crowd allow their spirits to flat. Did I say crowd? Well, the crowd consists of Michael (surname withheld for fear, disappointingly, of his employers’ reaction), VMFC’s number one fan, who attends all matches and training sessions, despite not actually being that keen a football fan – “I don’t really support anyone, except village Manchester, and they’re getting better with every game.”
By now, things are hotting up on the pitch, the referee has to intervene in a nasty elbowing incident and, following goal number four, Graham, player-manager, starts to let his frustrations show. 
“Come on!” he bellows.  “They’re taking the mickey here! When they get the ball, hit ‘em!”
When 25-year-old Sean McKenzie, a midfielder who has been playing since last September, is substituted, I take the opportunity to ask why a specifically gay team is deemed necessary. 
“This is the first time I’ve played football since leaving school. I played for the school team, but after that I felt put off. What the team provides, for a lot of the players, is a space to start playing football again.”
Several players say the same or similar; they’d played in straight teams in the past, but his was the only team in which they could genuinely “be themselves”, since coming out, to a pub team of 11 or so strangers was, to put it mildly, a somewhat daunting prospect. Now, if this was Hollywood, VMFC would rally late in the game and come back to win with a stunning goal deep in extra time. It isn’t Hollywood, it’s Fallowfield, and they’re beaten 5-0. 
They refuse to be depressed, however, having got stronger as the game progressed. They look upon such defeats as part of a learning process – it’s better to be beaten by a good straight team than triumph over a bad one. 
In the bar afterwards, club captain Robert Harrison, who has played in straight teams previously talks about the differences between the two. 
“Well, straight teams are better,” he admits, bluntly, “but that’s because there’s basically only one decent gay team – Stonewall – and we’re the second best. You also have to be prepared to put up with more ‘personalities’ in a gay team, and there’s a bit more gossip, and it sometimes revolves around the players themselves,” he laughs. 
“But the team does fulfil an important role for the players. There are a lot of fans in the Village. I’ve support City since I was five, for example, but didn’t know I was gay till I was 15. A lot of gay men, though, are embarrassed to say they like football. It’s like, ‘Yawn, yawn, straight lads’ game.’”
Speaking of straight lads, I asked the victorious team whether VMFC were likely to encounter any problems playing in a straight league. The consensus seems to be that, provided they choose the right league (steer clear of Sunday morning is the message), they’ll be fine. 
“They give as good as they get,” is a typical comment. “Once the game starts, they’re just football players.”
“Their main problem,” opines one less charitable soul, “is that they’re rubbish.”
Tonight’s overall straight comment on the team is captured by the goalkeeper’s remark. 
“After the first few games, if they get results, they’ll be seen as a good team, not a gay team. And that’s that.”

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