Football fans in Brighton are being encouraged to take Pride in their city's reputation for diversity by turning out to support a special charity match on Sunday.
Former Albion hero Guy Butters, who made over 200 appearances for the club and was part of their promotion-winning squad in 2004, will be player-manager of a team of ex-Premier League stars at the 'Football United' game at Whitehawk FC.
The match is being held on Brighton Pride weekend and carries the slogan 'A Celebration of Togetherness'. It's the brainchild of Butters and Sophie Cook, who four years ago became the first transgender woman to work in the Premier League while in the role of club photographer at AFC Bournemouth. She will take charge of a 'Rainbow Rovers' team that is mixed gender, made up of amateur players drawn from across the LGBT+ community in football and also including allies who work in diversity and inclusion in the sport too.
The 'Rovers' will wear a one-off blue and rainbow-sash kit designed by artist David Shrigley and made by O'Neill's sportswear, with the shirt featuring a map of the Whitehawk estate in East Brighton where the club is located.
The match is being supported by Kick It Out and the Football Supporters' Association through their joint Fans for Diversity initiative, and also the Football v Homophobia campaign, while a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Brighton Rainbow Fund, the city and region's fundraising hub for LGBT+ communities and activities.
Butters now works for Albion in the Community, the Premier League club's official charity, and says the annual Brighton Pride festival - which last year attracted almost half a million people - represents the ideal opportunity for local football fans to show their support for inclusion, and be a part of what promises to be a unique occasion.
"Brighton is such a lovely place to live and work, and it's a very cosmopolitan and diverse place to be too," Butters told Sky Sports. "Sophie and I were chatting over coffee one day and we came up with the idea of a match for Pride weekend.
"A lot of the plans that we've got for the game are to help get that message across. We want to show that times have changed."
Great to get a first look at the amazing @davidshrigley designed kit that @RainbowRoversFC will wear in this Sunday’s #FootballUnited match at @HawksFCOfficial— Sophie Cook (@sophiecooktalks) July 31, 2019
Get your tickets now https://t.co/EeqCsEfSeZ
Or buy the shirt at https://t.co/rnibWm5T7Z pic.twitter.com/GftQwTF3Vk
Education having an effect
Brighton has long been known as one of Britain's most LGBT-friendly cities - research by Public Health England in 2017 estimated that 10 per cent of the city's population were lesbian, gay or bisexual. Down the years, attempts have often been made by opposition fans to use that association negatively to intimidate Brighton's players and fans - something Butters remembers well from his days in the Seagulls' first team.
"At certain places, there were chants that fans would make to try and put you off in any way possible," recalls Butters. "Sadly, some people are not that educated, and a few seem to still think it's OK to spew out vile, horrible abuse.
"I had a tough skin so it was water off a duck's back for me, but for a lot of the young lads, when they got called into the team you could see a lot of that abuse did affect them.
"I can see why. When you're on the ball, you want to concentrate on the game, but then you'd have people screaming abuse at you. You've got to be a special sort of character to be able to deal with that.
"Fortunately when I was at Brighton, we had quite a lot of strong characters, older pros who looked after the younger generation. Even 15 years ago, it was different - 'accepted' is the wrong word, but there weren't too many people willing to stamp out that kind of behaviour. I'm pleased to say that nowadays, with the work being done across the game, we're seeing it less and less."
Will you stand united with us on August 4th in Brighton ?— Football_United_WhitehawkFC (@whitehawkfv) July 11, 2019
Join ex Prem players, celebs, locals,
all coming together to celebrate Football and Togetherness-
in this 1st groundbreaking game including mixed gender, #LGBTQ - bring your friends, your partners, and join our family pic.twitter.com/lKZjWYibf1
Even this week, Albion's social media team were forced to delete several comments made by Facebook users after changing the official club page's profile pic to a rainbow background to mark their support for Pride.
Butters welcomes the way in which the club is harnessing the power and influence that comes with Premier League status. "Out in the community, we touch base with up to 40,000 people per week through our work in schools, health programmes and other initiatives. We should lead by example, and I think we do that. Football is such a massive platform and I think it's very important that we get that message out."
More pressures on players
Among the familiar faces on show at the TerraPura Ground on Sunday will be ex-Aston Villa midfielder Lee Hendrie and former Manchester United winger Keith Gillespie, both of whom have spoken out publicly about their respective battles with depression and gambling addiction.
The Independent reported this week that there has been a sixfold increase in the last six years of professional footballers accessing and utilising mental health support from the charity Sporting Chance and from the PFA. There has also been a renewed focus in recent weeks on how the game can best offer support to players in the men's game who are gay or bisexual, and who might want to be out publicly.
Butters, who came through the ranks at Tottenham in the late 1980s, believes greater appreciation of mental health issues and the pressures placed on modern players is vital for those in the football family, and for supporters too.
"I was quite lucky when I played, when I first started," says Butters. "There were no mobile phones around. You could have a little bit more freedom, and there was more of a social side to the game.
"You'd go in the players' lounge after a match, have a couple of beers with your team-mates, talk about the game with fans... you were quite approachable.
"Nowadays, there's such intrusion into footballers. They can't do anything without there being a camera shoved in their face, or someone wanting to report on what they're doing.
"There's much more responsibility on a player. You're representing your club, you're in the spotlight, and you earn vast amounts of money - that wasn't around when I played - so people are expecting a lot more from you than when I played.
"It does take a strong character to be able to handle that. Thankfully there are staff members now who look after players a lot more. To gain access to a player nowadays is quite hard.
"Football has definitely changed in that way, and it does bring a lot of pressures on younger players. That's why I think you do see more issues around mental health with players in the game."
'Something totally different'
Cook, much in demand on the public-speaking circuit, is currently writing the second part of her memoirs, documenting her own battles with self-harm, gender identity and addictions. With LGBT+ people generally at a higher risk of suffering from mental health problems, this is another area where 'Football United' can help to raise awareness.
"Anything that helps to break down barriers, isolation, and segregation in the game will have an impact, whether that's for LGBT people or in the wider community," she says. "A spike in the figures on mental health is almost always a result of more people coming forward to report something, when they might not have felt able to before. It's more in people's consciousness, and that's a good thing.
"The match on Sunday is another way to break down barriers through football - it's something totally different. My 'Rainbow Rovers' squad contains lots of great amateur footballers - some are gay guys, some are trans women, we've also got women who aren't trans, and straight allies including Anwar Uddin, who's going to be my assistant.
"It's going to really reflect the diversity we see every day here in Brighton, but also in so many other parts of the country now too."
ROVERS ASSEMBLE!#FootballUnited v Premier League All-Stars on Aug 4 at @HawksFCOfficial@sophiecooktalks @AnwarU01 @Liv_KnightDJ @jakec1234 @GRGin1983 @Crumpet1987 @SamuelTimms3 @AnwarU01 @No7Sammy @Transsomething @JayDot90 @WONDERKIDfilm @Joshday27 @JimHearson @Leviathen007 pic.twitter.com/ZRATq35PuU— RainbowRoversFC (@RainbowRoversFC) July 28, 2019
As for Brighton and Hove Albion themselves, they entertain Valencia at the Amex on Friday night - their final pre-season friendly before the big Premier League kick-off at Watford on August 10. After the team cruised to a 4-0 victory at Birmingham last weekend, Butters is feeling optimistic for the campaign ahead under new boss Graham Potter, who has replaced Chris Hughton. "I'm looking forward to it. I can understand why the club did change it around. I think people were sort of 50-50 with the decision but now that the new manager is in, we have to get behind him 100%.
"I've heard great things on what's been happening in pre-season and in training. I think Graham's going to be a very attacking-minded manager, so I'll be interested to see what happens. We've got a difficult start - Watford away, then West Ham in the first home game - but I'm looking forward to seeing a new lease of life in the team."
And what can fans expect on Sunday? "We're going to put a fun day on, and raise awareness and funds for a great cause, and get a message across that we're in this together, that we're all the same as well as being different. That's what 'Football United' is really all about."
Tickets for 'Football United' at Whitehawk FC on Sunday are available to buy now. Gates open at 12.30pm, with kick-off at 3pm.