A non-league club will hold a special Rainbow Laces charity match on Saturday following an incident in which one of its players endured a "torrent" of homophobic abuse.
Ashby United Community Football Club, based in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, will take on LGBTQ+-inclusive club Leicester Wildecats at their Hood Park ground on Saturday (kick-off 1pm).
The match has been arranged following an incident in June in which Ashby's Callum Prince was subjected to a sustained period of homophobic abuse from spectators while running the line in an away fixture in Swadlincote in the Burton & District Sunday Football League.
Last month, a Football Association disciplinary commission ruled on the matter following an investigation, punishing the home team Springfield Sportsbar FC with a fine, penalty points, and a severe warning as to their future conduct.
Prince gave evidence at the FA hearing, describing how spectators who were cheering on Springfield shouted abusive words and phrases such as "f****t", "f***k gays" and "f**k gay pride" at him as he officiated on the touchline nearest to where they were congregated.
Springfield pleaded not guilty to charges including an aggravated breach of FA Rule E21 relating to discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexual orientation, but the commission panel noted it was "persuaded" by Prince's evidence in particular and punished the club, with the offence falling into the 'high' category, warranting a greater sanction.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Prince described the "intimidating" experience of the abuse and the effect it had on him. The 23-year-old was mostly playing as a back-up goalkeeper for Ashby at the time, and as he was not involved in the matchday squad for the game, he was asked to run the line in the second half, a common request at that level.
"It was a top-of-the-table clash, towards the end of the season," said Prince. "For a Sunday league game, a relatively big crowd had gathered. When I took my position on the touchline, there were about 30 to 50 people stood behind me.
"The abuse thickened as the half wore on, especially when Ashby moved into a 3-1 lead. It was deeply upsetting. I kind of froze in the moment."
No other spectators present appeared to challenge what was being said towards Prince. In his witness statement, he outlined how he informed the referee during a water break of the abuse he was suffering, but the official told him he would not act unless someone tried to trip him up while he was running the line. "I felt let down, as you can imagine," he said.
The homophobic comments continued. Towards the end of the game, which ended 3-3, Prince gave an offside decision against Springfield. Writing in his statement, he noted how "I was asked by a spectator behind me if my dad touched me when I was a kid".
The escalation of the abuse, and particularly the comment mentioning his father, was "difficult to process" for Prince. "My dad took me to my first game at the age of nine - I support Burton Albion - and I've been a huge football fan since then.
"I've coached U17 and U18 teams and I'm also the vice-chair and media officer at Ashby.
"I've always felt welcome and on the same level as everyone else, but I felt that was taken away from me with what happened. After the incident, I stopped playing for about five months."
My team-mates were as horrified at the abuse as I was... everyone at Ashby was so supportive, which really helped.
'Wearing Rainbow Laces is powerful'
A year ago, Prince had shared his personal story on the Ashby United CFC website during the annual activation of Rainbow Laces. He wrote about the anxiety he felt before coming out as gay while studying sport at Loughborough College, only to find he was welcomed by his fellow students and that the space was inclusive.
He found a similar environment at Ashby, where the club strongly supported the campaign for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport. Prince was wearing rainbow laces in his boots on that Sunday morning in June, the day of England's Euro 2020 opener against Croatia.
"I always have them in my boots, and never had any issues. Even though it was six months after the campaign activation, at the time at least one of my fellow players was still wearing them too," he said.
"I think that's why the abuse started, when someone saw the laces. But despite what happened, I don't regret wearing them and I will continue to do so. They highlight that sport is for everybody. We shouldn't have to play within ourselves for fear of being abused for who we are.
"Especially if you're not gay or LGBTQ+, wearing laces is powerful. When your team-mates show that they support you, they're also saying that you're just a fellow footballer and that's how you should be treated."
After the game, he told the other Ashby players what had occurred during the 90 minutes. They were horrified. "Apart from what I said to the ref, I didn't mention it to anyone else at the time. I didn't want to let the team down or distract them.
"But when I did describe it, everyone was so supportive which really helped. We submitted an official complaint to the league and county FA the next day."
It took five months for the process to run its course, during which Prince had to attend the hearing itself alongside the other parties involved. "Of course, they were trying to get the best outcome for their club and it did worry me that it was my testimony under scrutiny. If no one else is there to say they heard it too, and if there is no evidence, would it get thrown out?
"But the people on the FA panel were very calm. They encouraged me to talk about what happened - I really hadn't spoken about it much at all, except to some close friends. It made me fall out of love a bit with football, and put me on edge.
"The process was long and difficult, and every time there was an update, I had to relive the abuse. I really struggled at times."
The FA written reasons produced in November records how "the burden of proof was on Derbyshire FA to prove on the balance of probability; meaning the Commission would be satisfied an event occurred if it considered that, on the evidence, the occurrence of the event was more likely than not".
The charge against Springfield was "unanimously" proven and the panel members were "satisfied" that the aggravated breach factor had also been met to their satisfaction.
Recently, Prince has started playing again with Leicester Wildecats, one of over 25 LGBTQ+-inclusive clubs across the country that play in the GFSN National League. The Wildecats will provide the opposition against Ashby on Saturday for a friendly fixture that will help raise money for Stonewall, the charity that runs Rainbow Laces.
He is hugely grateful to both clubs and believes the message that the match sends out should be heeded by those involved in non-league football across the country.
"When incidents of homophobia happen now in the Premier League and EFL, it becomes high-profile," says Prince.
"But I believe this stuff is more common at a grassroots level - and it's not that it's happening more, because it's always been there. It's just uncommon for people to actually bother to report it.
"We've seen fantastic awareness raised through Rainbow Laces at the elite level but I feel this strikes at a bigger conversation, because it highlights how this is still a major issue at grassroots."
Prince is proud to have helped organise this weekend's friendly game, and turn such a negative personal experience into an event that is all about positivity.
In particular, he wants spectators at games at all levels who witness abuse to challenge those responsible for it if it is safe to do so and, if not, to report the abuse through the appropriate channels - something, he feels, county FAs, leagues and clubs should do more to publicise.
"I would encourage more people to get involved where they can. If someone uses a slur, challenge it, and report it to a steward.
"If anything, my experience has charged me to drive inclusion in any way I can. If it helps one person - whether they are LGBTQ+ or not - to feel more confident in who they are, and shows that this type of behaviour is in no way acceptable, let's do that. Let's take a stand."
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, currently receiving its annual activation from November 25 to December 12. Your story of being LGBTQ+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game - please contact us here to discuss further.