Nathan O’Hagan explores what the 17-year-old Blackpool player’s bravery in coming out publicly as gay will mean for other footballers and the game itself

“I’ve known my whole life that I’m gay, and I now feel that I’m ready to come out and be myself.”

Twenty one simple words. The kind of words that are heard privately every day among friends and families, as a loved one chooses to reveal their truth to the most important people in their lives.

What is significant about these 21 words this week is that they were part of a public statement issued by Jake Daniels via his employer, Blackpool Football Club. By issuing this statement, Daniels became the first British professional footballer to publicly come out as gay in nearly four decades. 

Given the number of people who have played the game professionally in this country in that time, it is inconceivable that there have not been other gay or bisexual players. The explanation is, of course, that while the law of averages clearly tells us that there have been many, the fact is that not one has felt empowered to state their sexuality publicly. 

This is perhaps not surprising when you look at the first and – until this week – last player to do so. 

Justin Fashanu was a prodigiously talented young player who began his career in 1978 with Norwich City. While at Norwich, he scored one of the most famous goals the English game has ever seen – a sumptuous turn and volley against Liverpool which was so good it graced the opening credits of Match of the Day for years afterwards.

In 1980, Fashanu became the first black player to be sold for £1 million when he moved from Norwich to Nottingham Forest. It was at Forest that perceptions of his sexuality first began to negatively impact his career.

Although not publicly out, many of his teammates were aware he was gay. His visiting of Nottingham’s gay clubs came to the attention of manager Brian Clough, who labelled him a “bloody poof” and banned him from training with the first team squad.

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Despite his talent, Fashanu’s career quickly went off the rails and he spent most of the next decade on short-term contracts and loans in the lower leagues and in America and Canada. He officially came out in 1990 when a British newspaper threatened to out him. Fashanu eventually took his own life in a lock-up in Shoreditch in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault in the US.

It’s more than 30 years since Fashanu came out and, given the hostility he suffered – with even his brother, fellow-pro John Fashanu, describing him as “an outcast” in The Voice newspaper – it is perhaps unsurprising that since then the only other high-profile case is that of Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former West Ham, Aston Villa and Everton midfielder who came out in 2014. 

The significant difference between these two examples and Daniels, however, is that Fashanu’s career was well into its third act. He came out in 1990, a year in which he spent time playing at Leyton Orient in the old third division and in Canada with Hamilton Steelers. Germany international Hitzlsperger was the most high-profile player to come out, but even he did so a year after he retired from the game.

The only other modern comparison is Josh Carvalho, a midfielder with Adelaide United in Australia’s A League, who came out last year at the age of 21. Carvalho remains the only out footballer playing in the top division of his country.

Jake Daniels, meanwhile, is just 17 years old – barely taking the first kicks of his footballing journey. He will have to deal with any potential negative response, as well as the weight of responsibility that comes with being a trailblazer, at an age when most of us are still figuring out a way to not be late for school or work.

It takes a special kind of strength and resolve to succeed in professional football at any level – to attempt to do so with the added weight and scrutiny that Daniels will now be subject to marks him out as an especially courageous individual. 

The timing of his statement is also significant for the game itself. 

Undeniable progress has been made in attitudes and behaviours on the terraces in recent times. The Rainbow Laces campaign has been active for several years, for instance, and clubs have made efforts to give a voice to LGBTQ fan groups. But, despite these small but significant steps, there was one glaring omission – the lack of a professional player willing to come out publicly.

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This is in contrast to the women’s professional game, where representation is far better. At the 2019 Women’s World Cup, for example, there were more than 40 gay or bisexual players and coaches, compared with a grand total of zero at the men’s equivalent the year before. 

FIFA must take some responsibility for this. While it has publicly made the right noises in support of LGBTQ fans and of Jake Daniels’ statement, it chose Russia – a country with many anti-gay laws – as the host for the 2018 World Cup. Meanwhile, this year’s tournament in December will be held in Qatar, a country where male homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison.

As with its past ineptitude when dealing with racist incidents, so far the game’s governing body has yet to prove with actions that it can be counted on as an ally for gay players.

For all these reasons, how momentous Daniels’ statement was this week cannot be overstated. There will be numerous other gay footballers quietly watching from the touchline to see how this plays out – many of them will have been in the game for years and may now have been shown the way by a teenager in the nascent stages of his career.

Quite where that career will take Daniels at this point remains to be seen. But, if he approaches the rest of it with the bravery he has shown this week, then he could well go on to achieve great things. Whatever he does on the pitch, Jake Daniels’ place in footballing history is already assured.

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