After Matt Morton opened up to friends and family about being gay, he told his team-mates in non-league football too. Now the player-boss at Thetford Town, he discusses his journey to mark Coming Out Day
Sunday 11 October 2020 15:21, UK
Confidence comes naturally for Thetford Town player-manager Matt Morton, but two years ago, he began to take a leap of faith.
He was still just a player at the non-league club at the time, a popular figure on the East Anglian football scene and well known where he lives in Bury St Edmunds, a short drive down the A134 from Thetford on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
Morton describes himself as "a typical alpha-male footballer - vocal, one of the lads, an established character". He was 30 when he came out as gay to his closest friend, who was also his former lodger. The initial reaction was disbelief.
"I can't repeat his exact words, but it was something like 'are you winding me up?'," recalls Morton. "You can imagine living with someone for a long period of time, playing football with them, they're your best mate, they're like family and you had no inkling. It was a bit of a shock for him."
Morton says he had no inkling either until he met someone in January 2018 and found himself inexplicably attracted. "It felt very surreal to me, but at the same time it felt very natural," he says. His relationships with women throughout his 20s had been entirely unremarkable but he had never questioned his sexuality before.
"I didn't have that Disney romance at any point with any of the girls that I dated and therefore everything else around me became more important," he explains. "All of my time went into football, work and friends, and therefore there was no time left. That was a good excuse for me growing up."
Morton is discussing what he's learned from his experiences and how it relates to football to mark Coming Out Day, in the hope that he can help raise awareness around the process and why it's complicated for LGBT+ people, particularly young men in football and other team sports.
One element to his story is that there isn't just one single 'day'. Having come out to himself, it took a few months before he felt ready to share his truth with another person, who happened to be his PA - "it felt safer because she worked for me, and it was one step removed from everyone else". Then came the day when he told his best mate, and the day when he let his other close friends know, then his siblings, his parents, his football teams (he plays Sunday league too), his Instagram followers last summer, the readership of his local newspaper for an interview a few months ago, and now, with a Sky Sports audience.
I'm acutely aware that being a player-manager coming out in the non-league scene is relatively unique. But that means you can help all the future people who want to do that by going first.
He took charge of Thetford Town last September; they play in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division, the fifth tier of non-league. "I'm an old-fashioned centre-half - strong, quick, brave, but technically not particularly good," he laughs. In another sense, however, he's very much the modern man. "I've always looked after myself, in terms of the way I look. Unfortunately, I've always been vain which is not necessarily something I'm proud of but it's the way that I am."
In football terms, Morton enjoys the contradiction. "If you saw me walking out onto the pitch, and then saw me play, maybe I'm not what you'd expect! I'm combative, let's put it that way." He might not be skilful but coming out will have wrong-footed many of those he knows through football. "People look at that and think, 'oh... OK.' None of it fits, which forces people out of their preconceived ideas of what a gay person is, and what an old-school footballer is."
He's all too familiar with the generation gap when it comes to this topic, having witnessed it back in summer 2018, soon after he had left his best friend staggered but fully supportive. Other close pals were similarly happy for Morton, as were his elder brother and sister.
"They thought they knew - it turns out they'd discussed it once. 'Why doesn't any relationship that Matt has get serious, why is nobody seemingly ever what he wants?' But obviously they were never sure. All the reactions were good bar a couple, and they were the ones I was expecting. They took a bit longer."
Morton has forged his own path in business as in football; his expertise is in fitness, wellbeing, and nutrition, and he's currently helping to develop a lifestyle app called Amplify for the UK market. He has inherited his work ethic and passion for sport from his father, Kelvin, a former top-flight referee who went on to become a referees' assessor. "He's probably the person I've always respected and admired the most. He's certainly influenced me positively in a lot of things."
The coming-out chat with both parents was difficult, initially. "It didn't come from a place of hatred; it came from a place of ignorance. I can only imagine that for my dad - for a short period of time - it was like a little part of his world fell apart.
"We didn't talk for a few weeks and that was my decision. It was the right thing to do, even though I know that it hurt him a lot. But that might have also played a big part in his willingness to be educated around it.
"It's important to say that he's always been fine with any gay people he's met. It's just that when it's your own son telling you after however many years… I felt that he was disappointed in me. He looked at me in a different way - but that got resolved really quickly."
Morton's mum, who has a strong Christian faith, also struggled with his news. Yet the family unit remains tight, and he feels fortunate. He's also recognised a positive change in his own temperament. "I've had very good parents, a good family life, so there's no sob story with me at all. But I've always had a short fuse.
"The thing I've noticed now that I'm a lot more tolerant of certain things than I was prior to coming to this realisation. That was never a conscious decision because I didn't know I was gay. But subconsciously, there must have been an underlying factor that would cause me to react.
"There's something in that, for sure. Ultimately, I'm happier now than ever before."
Morton posted to Instagram about coming out a year after he first told friends and family. "Everyone was saying to me that you don't need to announce it or explain yourself. I'm aware of that, but I wanted to own it, and say, 'this is me, this is what I've realised'. It's a lot better than it was 10 years ago, but there still needs to be activation around understanding, and events like Pride, because there's still a long way to go.
"For me, I'm certainly not the type of person that wants people to find out organically through conversations down the local pub or on a football pitch or anything else. I would rather own that and then I'll have your reaction to me, or not at all."
Having unlocked his own next level of contentment and positive mental health through talking, Morton feels almost duty bound to be open now. With the representation of gay and bi men in football being so minimal, he might be the only active player in the top nine levels of the English pyramid to be out to such a degree. That doesn't bother him at all.
"I'm acutely aware that being a player-manager coming out in the non-league scene is relatively unique. But that means you can help all the future people who want to do that by going first. That's important to me. If my shoulders are broad enough to support others who then want to follow in my footsteps, then great."
Visibility is a daunting prospect, however, and the pressure grows on footballers the higher up the game you go. Does he feel he can help to alleviate that? "Everybody's different and has their own decision to make, and nobody should be forced to come out sooner than they're ready to do it, if at all.
"All I can say, from my experience, is that I wish I'd done it as soon as I knew, because it brings everything forward a year and you always want to get time back, I guess. I wish I'd realised it about myself 10 years earlier than I did, or even longer.
"Crucially, I wouldn't wish those things if the experience was anything other than liberating. Everyone needs to realise that, for a start."
The gradual, phased way in which Morton came out helped him retain a sense of control. There were moments of uncertainty, however. "My biggest concern was actually about opponents, in terms of both fans and opposition players, using it as something to get under your skin, or even to get you sent off.
"But that hasn't happened either. Even some of my fiercest rivals over the years have been the exact opposite. There's one lad that I can think of who plays for Godmanchester Rovers and every time we play against each other, he tries to get me to bite - he gets a lot of joy out of it, calling me 'a rugby player in a football kit', and all sorts of stuff. But when I came out, he took to Twitter and was very complimentary and positive around the whole thing."
Was he ever worried that people in football might look at him differently? "I thought there was a chance of that - I just wasn't concerned about it any longer. And I'm pleased to say that nobody's treated me differently.
"What's also important I think is not to treat yourself any differently, otherwise people walk on eggshells and you don't want that either. You want everything to be as it was before and for me, it absolutely is."
Last month, Morton's Sunday league side Gym United FC - who he guided to the FA Sunday Cup Final at Bramall Lane in 2018 - called it a day after securing their 27th trophy in the space of 10 years. Aging players, their work commitments, and the pandemic were contributing factors. He speaks passionately about camaraderie and what it can help to achieve - Gym United clearly thrived on it - and the importance of context within "the honest environment" of a football dressing room.
"If your intention is humour and you get it a bit wrong, OK, you get told. If your intention is humour and it works, great, so long as it's not offensive. If your intention is to offend or to hurt somebody, then that's completely different."
On the latter, and on the pitch, the recent incident in US soccer in which San Diego Loyal players took a knee and walked off in support of their out gay team-mate Collin Martin after he was homophobically abused by an opposition player is a clear example. Morton admires the decision taken by Landon Donovan and his players, although he would have chosen an alternative approach if faced with the same situation.
"I don't disagree with what they did at all. But would I expect it of my team? No.
"Personally, I'd much prefer in that scenario that my team just do everything in their power - along with me - to make sure that we shut that player up by beating his team in as convincing a way as possible, and do my very best to go as long a period of time in that game without getting sent off as I possibly could!
"But I do think it's a great message to send, and it will create positive change going forward, not just for soccer in the States, but in general."
LGBT+-inclusive American culture played a part in Morton's coming out story. He cites watching the 2018 movie 'Love, Simon' about a closeted high school teenager falling in love as an influential moment, and a trip he took to Miami with a former boyfriend in 2019. Having spent a fortnight together in Florida just being out and comfortable, he didn't want to go back into the closet on his return to Bury St Edmunds. "The holiday was almost like a catalyst. We were talking about whether we were actually going to move in together down here which can't happen unless clearly I address it, and that's what I did."
Miami is a popular holiday destination for a lot of professional players too, or at least it was before the pandemic. Would he have addressed coming out in the same way if he was at a higher level?
"Sadly, I was never good enough," he laughs. "But if I was a Premier League footballer and I was in there now, I'd love to be the first to be able to do that.
"There's an opportunity there for somebody, actually - to be a trailblazer, to set the tone, to support so many other people like them going forward.
"In football as well, I find it quite ironic that people are always looking for a point of difference - someone will dye their hair a crazy colour, or have some pattern shaved into the side of it, or wear the most ridiculous football boots. You'll get attention for all those things.
"So I don't see why you should shy away from getting attention for something that you can't help and that matters to absolutely nobody else, yet would do a lot of good at the same time.
"The way I'd look at it is, if you've got people you care about in your life - such as your brothers and sisters, or other young family - would you want them growing up in the same world you grew up in, or would you want to help make that world better?"
Morton certainly cares deeply about his Thetford Town team-mates, even more so amid the pressures of the pandemic. Many have been unavailable for the opening matches of the season due to family issues, jobs, having to quarantine after holidays, and other factors, as well as the usual withdrawals with injuries. That's been reflected in results so far, but he's optimistic that the season will get better.
Perhaps it's the confidence you need to display when you're the boss, or maybe he's just good at putting things into perspective. Yet every manager needs to trust his players to get the best out of them. For Morton, the key instruction in his personal coaching manual was trusting and accepting himself.
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