"We thought, 'let's not do something subtle - let's do something significant'," says non-league club's director Bill Waterson, as Football v Homophobia's Lou Englefield hails Alty's "bold statement of inclusion"
Saturday 16 February 2019 17:48, UK
"Not all stripes are straight..." began the tweet, in an official club statement issued on Transfer Deadline Day.
Two weeks on, and Altrincham FC's eye-catching new arrival is now ready to take to the field for the first time on Saturday, having already made headlines across the globe.
"We believe it will be the first time anywhere in the world that a senior football club has worn a kit solely modelled on the LGBT Pride Flag," said the National League North outfit's director Bill Waterson in the announcement. "Altrincham will, therefore, be creating a small moment of football history."
Football fans everywhere quickly saw the significance, with an image of the rainbow shirt - emblazoned with the vibrant pink and black logo of the Football v Homophobia campaign - going viral via social media. Alty players will now wear the kit as a one-off for their league fixture at home to Bradford Park Avenue this weekend, with replicas having been on sale for the last fortnight on the club shop website.
"We're well into three figures now," Waterson tells Sky Sports. "We've sold it in mainland Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Oceania... It's had a reach far beyond what we were expecting."
However, this surge in shirt sales was never the aim of the exercise. "It's a nice little aside, and it helps to cover the costs of the investments we're making - but it's not the reason we're doing this."
Altrincham's embrace of diversity goes deep, and the special Pride flag kit is only the latest in a series of ventures undertaken by a club with a particularly strong sense of community. They have a dedicated Diversity and Inclusion officer (rare at this level of the pyramid), and in the last few years, they have focused on going beyond the club's core demographic of fans to ensure everyone feels truly welcome in this friendly corner of south-west Greater Manchester.
There have already been fixtures in previous seasons designated to both the Football Supporters' Federation's 'Fans for Diversity' initiative - Alty were shortlisted for the inaugural FSF National Game Community Award last year - and the Football v Homophobia campaign, with the latter currently in its annual month of action.
It will be FvH, celebrating its 10th anniversary year, that will be front and centre on the rainbow shirts on Saturday, with Altrincham one of over 80 clubs, county FAs and other football organisations to step up as campaign champions with activations this February. Alty's regular shirt sponsors J Davidson and Sons are temporarily stepping aside from that prime position - and not for the first time - in order to help with visibility.
Waterson, a lifelong Robins fan, says the local scrap metal dealers deserve to be commended for their role - "they recognise the importance of this, and I'm very grateful" - and from all those connected with Moss Lane, the reaction has been a firm thumbs up.
"Every single person we've dealt with - whether that's an Altrincham supporter, or Bradford PA, the FA, the National League, whoever it might be - everybody's been very supportive of what we're trying to do. That just shows how far football's come, because I don't think that would have been the case 10 years ago, and certainly not 20 years ago.
"There's been a couple of our older fans - I'm in my late 50s, so 20 or so years older than me - to whom we've had to explain what the rainbow flag is, believe it or not.
"But once they've understood what the occasion is about, they've got fully behind it. Even then, it's only been a few perplexed noises - 'why are we doing this? We play in red and white, don't we?' - but I think that's all important education as well.
"And some of the messages I've had from people around the world have been very uplifting. There's a guy in Massachusetts who wrote 'I wish American sports providers had the guts to do something like this, it's really incredible'. There's also been a person who explained they were going through the gender reassignment process, and hadn't felt able to go to games but now plans to go back. The fact we're reaching people like that is really quite heartwarming."
The six-colour pride flag has been around since the late 1970s, designed by US gay rights campaigner Gilbert Baker who passed away in March 2017. There have been rainbow motifs on football kits before - Spanish clubs Rayo Vallecano and CD Guadalajara incorporated a rainbow sash into special shirt designs in 2015, MLS teams and the USA national side have worn Pride shirt numbers, while both the Danish sportswear company Hummel and a group of LGBT activists joined different coloured shirts together to raise awareness of inclusion at last summer's World Cup in Russia. Yet this is understood to be the first football shirt to go 'full rainbow'.
"We had a number of designs we could have chosen from, some of which were perhaps more 'aesthetically pleasing' and may have made better football kits than a solely Pride flag based kit," explains Waterson.
"But I think if you're going to make your support for a cause clear, you may as well shout it from the rooftops. We thought, 'let's not do something subtle - let's do something significant'."
Appropriately, Waterson says Altrincham are "proud" of their activation, and how it ties into their overall inclusion goals. "Our diversity agenda is not just LGBT+ - it's also anti-racist, it's different religions, it's making sure women who want to come to games unattended feel safe in doing so. It's about making our football ground a comfortable place for anyone to be in, regardless of their background or any circumstances that they bring to the game.
"That's really important to me because football is our national sport, part of our national psyche, and a football ground should reflect our national make-up as much as possible."
Among the guests at the 6,085-capacity stadium on Saturday will be Baroness Williams, Minister for Equalities, with the Government Equalities Office's Twitter account among those to post about the shirt and the FvH campaign during February, which is also LGBT History Month in the UK.
Alty have been averaging crowds of around 1,300 so far this season; they are currently seventh in the National League North, and pulled in an attendance well over 3,000 for a recent home game against fellow promotion chasers and local rivals Stockport. It's a highly-competitive catchment area between clubs, and for Waterson, another side-effect of a diversity and inclusion focus is attracting new fans through the turnstiles.
"We do believe it's having an effect on attendances," he says. "If you look at the softer metrics, our crowd does seem more diverse now. It's not as though we've suddenly delivered substantial change, but gradual change in its own way is a very good thing. Additionally, I do think we've got more younger supporters - those aged 15 to 25 - coming to games, who I feel are encouraged by the work we're doing in this area."
For Lou Englefield, the campaign director of Football v Homophobia, the worldwide interest in Altrincham's activation is just reward for the club's commitment to inclusion.
"The viral reach of the rainbow kit shows how bold statements of inclusion can be hugely welcomed in the game," she says. "Congratulations to Altrincham on having taken this step to visibly reflect the diversity of their local community, and for their year-round work on inclusion which is letting local people know that the J Davidson Stadium is truly welcoming of everyone."
Putting a renewed focus on lower-league football has reaped rewards for FvH. "It's really helped us take the campaign message into new communities, with more county FAs wanting to take part, enabling us to reach regions and towns we wouldn't have accessed before," explains Englefield.
"We received a National Lottery grant of £2,700 in December which has basically helped us sign up those grassroots clubs, and we've got more than we thought we would."
Leading Alty's inclusion drive is Jordan Tyms, who jokes that he is looking forward to "a big sleep" after handling countless enquiries about the rainbow kit in the last fortnight. However, he says he has been energised by the interest. "To be imaginative and try a different approach, and to get such a good reception, is fantastic for the club," he says. "It's been a big step for us, and it's fantastic that it coincides with FvH's anniversary.
"We really hope it makes LGBT+ people feel welcome at Alty, and having more people from that community coming to games would be a significant legacy outcome. The impetus for us more generally is to use this as another springboard for our wider community work too."
Waterson is also keen for the kit to serve as a conversation starter for a chairperson, director or secretary at another club who is interested in following Altrincham's example. "We hope a number of other clubs take up the rainbow kit initiative, or have variants on it. We're here to show this is something that's worth doing.
"If we've got a club with a much bigger reach than ours - a Championship or Premier League club doing it - then effectively we've achieved our goal. We'd have enabled the message to be brought to a much wider area."
Altrincham's ground lies on the other side of Manchester Airport from the 'Golden Triangle', the affluent stretch of Cheshire that's been home to many big-name United and City stars down the years, while United's AON Training Complex is only a few miles away to the north. Last weekend at Old Trafford, the Premier League club launched 'Rainbow Devils' - their own official LGBT supporters club, continuing a British football snowball effect that began five years ago with the launch of Gay Gooners at Arsenal and now encompasses over 40 such groups under the Pride In Football banner.
For a club the size of Alty, there is a clear benefit to having a broad, forward-thinking appeal that perhaps reaches demographics that others struggle to engage with.
"We are a great community club and we're doing great things," says Waterson. "What constrains us more than anything is bandwidth. Our board can only take on so much at certain times, it's quite a tight-run board and we're helped by volunteers around that.
"My feeling is, if there are people who like what we're doing and want to be a part of this, then we would welcome additional investment - of manpower, brainpower, and of funds, and we have shares for sale. People coming and investing in the club off the back of this, and contributing, would be a great thing for us."
Victory on Saturday could take Altrincham up to fourth in the table, with back-to-back promotions a realistic target. They have a proud giant-killing cup tradition and, as is well known in non-league circles, missed out on election to the Football League by a single vote in 1980. Now they're writing a new modern chapter in the club's history, and looking to the future - somewhere over the rainbow.