Liverpool supporter Keith Spooner, 24, quit playing football two years after coming out during his youth; "You'll never walk alone Keith," Henderson replied after fan sent tweet to his footballing hero; Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign
Wednesday 9 December 2020 17:29, UK
"It means an awful lot to people like me for someone who is the Liverpool captain, someone who has captained England, to have put on that armband, to give such a great response to myself as he did."
That is what lifelong Liverpool fan Keith Spooner told Sky Sports News after his footballing idol Jordan Henderson responded candidly to him on social media in solidarity with wanting to create a more welcoming atmosphere for the LGBT+ community within football.
Commenting on a photo posted by Henderson of the Reds' skipper wearing a multi-coloured armband he put on for Liverpool's game versus Wolves, Keith, who has been supporting the club since he was five, wrote: "At 17 I came out, I struggled through my teenage years but the one thing that always made me feel at home was Liverpool. Seeing this means the world to me, it truly does!"
After the Reds' 4-0 win, Henderson responded: "You'll never walk alone Keith. If wearing the Rainbow Laces armband helps just one person then it's progress. Everyone is welcome at Liverpool Football Club. Hope you enjoyed the game tonight."
Keith says he was in "shock" at the unexpected reply from his hero which has so far surpassed over 31,000 likes and has been retweeted over 2,000 times on Twitter.
"It was a big shock. I didn't actually see it until the Monday morning - it was the first thing I saw, and I saw so many notifications," he said.
"To get a response like that, I couldn't really believe it. To hear back from the Liverpool captain is a joy.
"It's been crazy. As a whole, I've just been blown away by the amount of contact I've had."
Keith, who hails from Dublin, came out when he was 17 and revealed he struggled with playing football during his youth due to the attention he attracted for being gay. He stopped playing when he was 19 after feeling too uncomfortable walking out onto the pitch.
The Rainbow Laces campaign, along with the contact from Henderson on social media, has demonstrated the power of what fostering a more inclusive environment can do for people like Keith, who is now considering joining a team again.
He explained: "I just felt the whole attention, as much as I got the support from team-mates, from family and friends, that attention of you being the one gay person on the team... I kind of went from that situation of being really comfortable in life and stepping into the football world, I was starting to feel uneasy again, so that's why I had to give it up.
"But I am hopeful now to get back playing as well. Stuff like the Rainbow Laces programme, it's giving myself an opportunity and a reason to go back in and feel comfortable when I am playing as well.
"For someone like him [Henderson], he is a brilliant professional. It's absolutely unbelievable what he does in terms of being a footballer.
"But his influence over people like me is amazing and the fact that he has been able to reach out to me, it's definitely influenced me to want to get back out there and get playing again."
With the Liverpool City Region currently being under tier two government restrictions, 2,000 lucky fans were allowed into Anfield for the first time since March to watch the Premier League title holders dispatch Wolves.
Players in Liverpool's men's and women's teams wore rainbow-laced boots in their respective fixtures last weekend and the club has also launched a workplace LGBT+ network as a part of its ongoing commitment to diversity.
Keith, who feels an immense sense of belonging to his club and its fanbase, is eagerly anticipating his next visit to Anfield and dreams of meeting Henderson in the future.
He added: "I actually can't wait to visit Anfield. I'm always excited to visit Liverpool to go and see a game and I think there's that bit of added onus now that I've had a bit of correspondence with the team captain.
"I'm really looking forward to going back and hopefully I'll get to meet Jordan as well.
"It's one of the greatest things ever when you're in Anfield and You'll Never Walk Alone plays. You are one in that 50,000 (crowd) but you feel invincible - it's absolutely amazing.
"It's one of those things as well where there is a part of it where yes, I am gay, but I'm just one of the millions of Liverpool fans around the world and for them [the club] to come out and to be putting so much effort behind this is really huge for young people like me and not just for supporters of Liverpool but for all clubs.
"But when it is the club that you love and it's your captain, it definitely has that much more of a good feeling about it.
"The stuff that has been going on at Sky Sports, with the likes of Graeme Souness and Brighton Pride, all that stuff is adding up for people like me and making me feel so much more comfortable in football. It's a great thing."
Wednesday marks Rainbow Laces Day, a cause which Keith is a major advocate of, but the Liverpool fan acknowledges that more work needs to be done to make football truly welcome for all.
Every Premier League captain wore a rainbow-coloured armband during last weekend's games, while other activity promoting Stonewall's initiative included handshake boards and ball plinths at stadiums across the country, and rainbow-coloured seats at the London Stadium where 2,000 fans watched West Ham play Manchester United.
The anti-discrimination slogan 'Not Today or Any Day' was used in a campaign video released by the EFL, while Reading's Madejski Stadium sported rainbow-coloured goal nets for their clash with Nottingham Forest.
Former England Women international Lianne Sanderson has told Sky Sports News that these visible gestures are contributing to a more welcoming culture for the LGBT+ community in football.
The success of Rainbow Laces can be demonstrated through the growth in LGBT+ fan groups and LGBT+ representation in women's football. But there are currently no gay or bi male footballers in English football's top four divisions who have come out publicly, which is something Keith wants to see change.
"We have only really taken the first few steps in terms of the Rainbow Laces week," he added.
"Of course, at the moment we don't have any openly gay male footballers in the top-flight in England and in most of the European leagues so there's clearly an issue here. It's something that we need to resolve.
"We can't step off it now that we have taken the first few steps and think that that's enough we really do need to hammer home that football is an inclusive place. Football is where you can play regardless of whether you are gay, straight, anything like that.
"The CEO of Stonewall [Nancy Kelley] is 100 per cent correct when she said this can't be a tick-box exercise. This needs to be something that is genuinely a positive influence on people and I can guarantee for people like me this is a really good thing.
"It's building up an inclusive nature in the game and making people like me feel so much more comfortable, not just to watch football but to try and get back and involved playing as well. So it's definitely working and it can definitely only grow from here as well."
On Wednesday, the campaign is celebrated nationally with Rainbow Laces Day, with sports fans across the country encouraged to lace up and post to social media in support of the slogan 'Make Sport Everyone's Game'.
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.