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Rainbow Laces: Captain's armbands for campaign are powerful symbols, say Lianne Sanderson and Tom Allen

Former Lionesses star Lianne Sanderson and comedian Tom Allen - guests on Sky Sports' Soccer AM - share their experiences of being LGBT+ and discuss importance of Rainbow Laces campaign as Premier League, EFL and WSL show support

Declan Rice, Harry Maguire, rainbow captain's armbands for Rainbow Laces, Premier League, West Ham vs Manchester United
Image: Declan Rice and Harry Maguire were among the Premier League captains sporting rainbow armbands on Saturday

Former England forward Lianne Sanderson believes the visibility of Rainbow Laces - as seen in the captain's armbands worn in support of the campaign - is contributing towards a more welcoming culture in football.

Sanderson, a guest on Sky Sports' Soccer AM on Saturday, came out publicly during a career that saw her win 50 international caps for the Lionesses and European and domestic honours with Arsenal, and play professionally in the US, Spain, Cyprus, and Italy.

Still only 32, she shared her story of feeling supported in women's football while speaking alongside fellow guest and comedian Tom Allen, who appeared on Sky Sports' 'I'm Game' series last year in support of Rainbow Laces.

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Lianne Sanderson and comedian Tom Allen opened up on Soccer AM about their own experiences of coming out and discussed the impact of the Rainbow Laces campaign

Asked about the enthusiasm for the campaign shown by the Premier League, EFL, WSL and other leagues, Sanderson said: "I think it's brilliant to see the billboards around the grounds and the badges and everything, but it's much more than that.

"People are OK with wearing a badge now. You look back 10 years ago, and people that wore a badge would think, 'oh my god, they're going to think I'm gay'. I think that's the truth.

"Whereas now, people realise how important it is to raise awareness. It's much more than wearing a badge, but the fact the captains are wearing the rainbow armbands, it makes people feel comfortable."

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League - London Stadium
A rainbow banner is seen in the stands prior to the Premier League match at The London Stadium, London.
Image: Seats in the Billy Bonds Stand at the London Stadium were decked out in the colours of the Rainbow Laces campaign on Saturday

As well as the armbands, Rainbow Laces activity in the Premier League this weekend included handshake boards, ball plinths, and rainbow-coloured seats at the London Stadium where 2,000 fans were in attendance to watch West Ham play Manchester United.

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The EFL released a new video in support of the campaign carrying the anti-discrimination slogan 'Not Today Or Any Day', while rainbow goal nets were used at Reading's Madejski Stadium.

In the WSL, Aston Villa players displayed the flag of the club's LGBT+ and allies fans group Villa and Proud before their clash at home to Manchester United.

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Sky Sports presenters Caroline Barker and Scott Minto joined players, staff and fans from across the EFL family of clubs in this new Rainbow Laces video

Despite visible LGBT+ representation continuing to grow in the women's game and the increase in LGBT+ supporters groups, professional players in the UK men's game who are gay or bi are yet to find the level of comfort necessary to come out publicly.

However, Sanderson is hopeful that male footballers who might want to do so in the future will feel empowered, particularly with more positive conversations being held in football around mental wellbeing, and also authenticity - an understanding of how 'being yourself' can boost your performance.

"You don't realise how impactful it is just by being you, how it can help people," said Sanderson, referencing the letters she has received down the years from others whom she has inspired.

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Watch Sanderson tell her inspirational story alongside friends and family in this 'Spotlight' short film made by Sport Allies and the London Film School, which premiered on Sky Sports last year

"As a [closeted] player, it's a massive weight on your shoulders when you carry it around. I personally didn't have that but I know people who have.

"I also know people who have come out and are happier for it. Carrying that around with you can impact your performance. I don't think people realise that.

"I hope I live in a day and age when we do see a Premier League footballer come out but because he wants to, not because he's forced to."

Tom Allen: Rainbow Laces says 'we're here for you'

Allen hadn't attended a football match for many years before host Mark McAdam invited him to West Ham vs Sheffield United in the Premier League last season for 'I'm Game'.

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Tom Allen joined Mark McAdam at a West Ham match last season to see if football might actually be more enjoyable than he previously thought. Watch the 'I'm Game' series in full now On Demand

Having faced a different level of pressure from entertaining expectant crowds in stand-up comedy, he recognises the value of both authenticity and visibility.

"When I first started doing stand-up, I wasn't comfortable but when I confronted that and started talking openly, actually people took me at face value," he explained on Soccer AM.

"It's about pre-emptively creating that environment [for LGBT+ people] so you know that when you do come out, people are going to be supportive of you."

Aston Villa Women hold Villa and Proud banner ahead of Women's Super League WSL match vs Manchester United for Rainbow Laces
Image: Aston Villa players posed for a photo with the banner of Villa and Proud - the club's LGBT+ and allies fans group - before their WSL match against Manchester United

Allen says homophobic language and behaviour - such as he experienced during his school days - as well as other forms of discrimination are sadly still prevalent for many lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.

"We talk about progress in politics and equal marriage for example, and that's great, but it doesn't always flick a switch," he said.

"I think there are still these lingering senses of shame and awkwardness that a lot of people feel.

"Creating an environment where captains are wearing armbands and rainbow flags are seen everywhere, it's brilliant because it says that whoever you are, we're here for you.

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City vs Fulham, Premier League, rainbow captains armband
Image: Kevin De Bruyne skippered Manchester City to victory over Fulham on Saturday

"It's really powerful pre-emptive messaging, especially to young people. If you're young and you don't know and you feel scared - I know I did - that kind of messaging is very powerful."

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.

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