When Pete Eatough turned up to play in a seven-a-side cup final in Preston, he quickly spotted something different about his team-mates' boots.
The players had been thrown together a few months previously after each signed up for a weight-loss league - they named themselves Portly Vale. "We hadn't been one of the best teams but we managed to string a run together in the cup competition," explains Eatough to Sky Sports. "I'd scored a couple of goals in one game which was unusual for me. That put me on a real high and we got into the final."
A Preston season-ticket holder, Eatough was part of a small squad for the summer 2019 tournament alongside two more North End fans, three Blackburn supporters, and a couple more players. "I arrived for the final and they were all wearing Rainbow Laces. It was incredible really that they would do that as a sign of support. It felt like just a small way to say, 'we accept you exactly as you are' - but it meant an awful lot to me."
A few months earlier, Eatough had travelled to Mexico with Darren, his partner since 2006, for their wedding. "Before we flew out, my team-mates had all got me a card and signed it, which was lovely." Back when he'd started the league, Eatough wasn't entirely sure that playing football with other guys - even at seven-a-side level - would be that positive an experience. Portly Vale went on to win the cup that day, with Pete playing a key role in the victory.
Neil Procter, Eatough's team-mate, was responsible for the Rainbow Laces gesture. He got hold of a batch from local charity Lancashire LGBT, having already been wearing them in his own boots for a while in support of the campaign as an ally. He also thought they looked good. "I'd actually had an extra pair previously and I'd offered them to Pete, but he said, 'I don't wear them because I'm worried people will kick me'.
"That really bothered me because he's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. That somebody who's gay and out doesn't feel like he can wear them, yet I do - if I get stick for it, I can shrug it off as banter, but for Pete, it's more like aggravation."
They support rival Lancashire clubs, and share a huge passion for football in general. Yet Eatough had been cautious about playing himself. "For a multitude of reasons, I would never have felt comfortable going to a normal football league because of my own lack of self-confidence in my ability.
"I'd also found that being in a football group of predominantly straight guys... it's hard to explain, but I felt as though I didn't belong. I had an inferiority complex about it, that I shouldn't be there. Often it would stem from conversations about stuff that's difficult for me to relate to. I'd just never felt terribly comfortable in situations like that."
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However, Portly Vale felt different from the start. The weight-management football league is titled 'Man v Fat' - it's supported by Sport England and endorsed by The FA, offering a programme for men with a BMI of 27.50 or over. "I heard about it on the radio and registered but it was several months before it started," recalls Eatough. "I don't think there were enough people in the Preston area at first who had signed up - I'd almost forgotten about it, in truth.
"So we started and got randomly allocated to teams. For a few weeks, it was tough, having not played for a while. But the guys seemed nice - there wasn't any edge and I felt comfortable.
"After a couple of months, we were chatting post-match about things outside of football - families, wives, and so on - and the opportunity came up to come out to them all. I said that I was in a long-term relationship with a guy and they were fine, no adverse reactions. I didn't expect there to be, but you just never quite know, as a gay guy."
After Eatough had swerved the chance to wear laces himself and explained why, Procter was left thinking about how players often look to wind up opponents or seek an advantage somehow. "I don't help myself sometimes either! I might put my fingers in their belly button when I'm marking, and stuff like that - it's all tongue in cheek.
"However, if there's somebody in a group of footballers who might feel less comfortable because of their sexuality, that could be unpleasant for them. And if you're really wrestling with that, it can be devastating. It is still a big issue in the men's game - you probably couldn't put a team together of professional footballers who are gay and out, whereas in the women's game, it feels like it's just accepted."
🌈 | This year's #RainbowLaces campaign centres around allyship, which means being supportive of equal civil rights, gender equality and #LGBT+ social movements.— Lancashire FA (@LancashireFA) November 29, 2020
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He wanted to let Eatough know that he was truly supported by all his Portly Vale team-mates. "I spoke to the rest of the lads over the next week or so, and said, 'if I can get more laces, will we all wear them?' They all said, 'absolutely'.
"We were possibly the worst team in the league - we didn't win many games, but we were well-liked, and we somehow got to the cup final. Pete came sauntering on, clocked our boots, and went, 'what, you're all wearing laces?' He was really touched. And then we went on to win the cup."
Deepdale matchdays, and deeper discussions
Eatough hasn't had the opportunity to celebrate much silverware with his club down the years. He was at Wembley with his dad in 2015 to see Preston thrash Swindon 4-0 in the League One play-off final, but even in the toughest of times, his enthusiasm for North End has never wavered.
"I've been a season-ticket holder since I was about 16, and I usually go with my brother to home games. Sometimes my husband will come with me to the cup ties, although I don't think Darren would class himself as a fan yet!
"I think Deepdale has got better in terms of being a welcoming space for LGBTQ fans. We haven't played our arch-rivals Blackpool in the league for about 10 years now, but when we did, there was a chant that went, 'your dad's a queen, tangerine, tangerine' and would go on and on like that.
"I didn't appreciate that song, of course, and occasionally I've heard comments like 'get up, you pansy' when a player goes down too easily, and stuff like that. But I've never heard anything overly homophobic, I don't think. North End have supported Rainbow Laces, which has been great to see. It's one of those things that's just paving the way for a more accepting society."
The Portly Vale team has now disbanded (Eatough lost well over a stone in weight) but the players have kept in touch with each other. Procter has set up another team - 'we're Old Knackers FC, or OKFC' - which has been taking part in charity matches. "COVID and the lockdowns have hit a lot of us really hard," he says. "I'm an actor but I've lost my income and have had to find another job entirely.
"A lot of the OKFC guys have young families - one of them has been through a very traumatic break-up - so the football team, and talking through being part of that, has been essential for their mental health as well as their physical health."
He's encouraged by the progress men's sport is making around these conversations. "We've now got these 'alpha male' footballers talking about their struggles around anxiety and depression. The Freddie Flintoff documentary, for example, has pushed things forward for men with eating disorders. And Rainbow Laces is just about another one of those things that blokes might need to talk to their friends about."
Eatough says he started to realise he was gay while still at school. He works in insurance and didn't come out until he was 24. "I suppressed it, I suppose - I thought it was a phase, and I went on to have relationships with girls as I was growing up. But it just never felt right. There was always something missing.
"I remember being out with friends one night and one of my ex-girlfriends was there. Another friend was trying to get us back together and I was resisting, which was making my friend irate as they couldn't understand why I didn't want to get back with this wonderful girl, which she was. I'd had a few drinks and eventually, I just blurted out that the reason was that I thought I was gay.
"My friend said, 'if this is how you feel, you need to start living for yourself, not for anyone else'. That was the catalyst for me. I didn't want to get to a point further down the line and think, what have I been doing with my life?" Within a year, he met Darren, and they have been together ever since.
At Preston, the annual activation of the Rainbow Laces campaign by the EFL arrives just a week after an incident that caused considerable reaction on social media, with some of it homophobic in nature. North End right-back Darnell Fisher was handed a three-match ban by the FA for grabbing the genitals of Sheffield Wednesday's Callum Paterson during their Championship match on November 21. The video of the incident went viral.
"I saw what Darnell did and I'm sure he regrets it," adds Eatough. "Other players have done it too in the past, and it feels like a consistent message needs to go out that that's not acceptable for anyone to do.
"As for the comments, it does feel personal when someone is derogatory about sexual orientation, even if it's not directly at you." He recalls insults that were thrown around when he was at school, and how they affected him at the time.
Having Rainbow Laces back then would have made a big difference, he says, and it's still an important campaign. "Obviously society has moved on a lot from even 10 years ago, but there's still a lot to be done. My husband and I wouldn't feel comfortable walking down the high street holding hands. 90 per cent of the people wouldn't care but there might still be a minority of people that would have an issue with it, and we don't want that hassle. There are people who don't understand it or are ignorant about it.
"Rainbow Laces is a reminder that says we'd like to have the freedoms that other people take for granted - to feel completely accepted and appreciated. That's how I felt when my team-mates laced up. It just took it to another level."
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.