Sheffield United supporters are invited to become forces for positive change and enemies of discrimination

Every now and then, probably more often than he actually cares to admit, James Laley will have heard someone sitting near him on the terraces blurt out a comment and privately wince.

Sunday, 9th August 2020, 5:30 pm

The person responsible might have intended to cause offence. More often than not, though, they probably just didn’t think. Which is something Laley, the founder and chair of Rainbow Blades, wants to address when Sheffield United and other football clubs across the country reopen their stadia following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think establishing the group was really important as LGBT+ phobia in football is still prevalent,” Laley says explaining why, despite increasing awareness of the issues affecting the community, he felt compelled to create the group. “Supporters still have to endure direct and indirect discrimination at matches and, with an environment like this, is there any wonder why we don’t have any openly gay players throughout the entire pyramid?

“Homophobia still happens on occasions when fans have shouted homophobic slurs eitger at the opposition team, suppirters or even one of their own if they’ve not been performing well. It happens up and down the country and that’s testament to why there are over 50 clubs, including our own, with LGBT+ supporters and ally groups.”

Rainbow Blades was established earlier this year

Established in March, as the country prepared to enter lockdown and words like ‘Zoom’ and ‘Skype’ became part of everyday conversation, Laley and his fellow members have nevertheless been encouraged by the progress Rainbow Blades have made. Open to anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or how they choose to identify themselves, those involved have spent the past five months raising the group’s profile on social media, engaging with other fan-led organisations and in dialogue with United’s hierarchy. In short, they aim to become a permanent and well-known feature on the Bramall Lane landscape.

“We’ve had a really positive reaction online and we’ve been connecting with other Sheffield United groups such as the Supporters Club and the Dem Blades fanzine,” Laley reveals. “The next few months will be very much about growing our online presence and membership base and collaborative working with other groups, as that’s proven to be really successful so far.

“We’re working closely with Sheffield United on raising more awareness around LGBT+ equality, diversity and inclusion matters and we’re having discussions about what projects we can work on together for the club and with other fans.”

Now an associate member of the Football Supporters’ Association, the birth of Rainbow Blades could actually have come at an opportune moment - despite the impact of the global health crisis on sport and other activities which are part of society’s fabric. After a near 14 week hiatus, and with the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ taking place behind closed doors, people already forced to social distance and isolate at home were reminded of football’s ability to bring folk together, promote greater understanding and become a vehicle for positive change in challenging and difficult times. It truly is more than just a game, as those who follow it become increasingly aware of its power to alter perceptions, influence policy and, given the outrage which followed when players including United’s David McGoldrick were racially abused over the internet, show solidarity with others. There are, however, still significant hurdles to overcome.

Rainbow Blades organise events for supporters regardless of their race, religion or sexuality.

“I want Bramall Lane to be a welcoming place for LGBT+ Blades and their friends, who want to enjoy the game, support their club and their team,” Laley acknowledges. “All Sheffield United supporters are welcome to join. This isn’t just a group for LGBT+ people. It’s also for allies, an ally of the LGBT+ community and fans who care about equality, diversity and inclusion at Sheffield United Football Club. We should work together to achieve one common goal and that’s why, basically, we are open to anyone. By signing up as a member of Rainbow Blades, you are saying you stand for all of things at Sheffield United.”

“We want to attract new fans to the club,” Laley continues. “We want everyone to be proud of our club, to speak highly of it as we do and help it become a step for real change. Hopefully we can also help some people who have lost their connection with the club, get back in touch and re-engage.

“We want to become part of the Sheffield United community and that’s why we’re also committed to helping promote the work of other supporters’ groups as well.”

Perhaps the most visible part of the movement to raise awareness of LGBT+ issues is the Rainbow Laces initiative, which sees professional footballers from tiers across the English pyramid thread them through their boots for one weekend on the fixture programme.

Sheffield United finished ninth in the Premier League last season, and the club's hierarchy have been supportive of Rainbow Blades: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Laley, who also works closely with this project in Sheffield, is planning a series of other football related events to further Rainbow Blades’ aims.

“We hold an all-inclusive five-a-side tournament and an eleven-a-side cup match to raise awareness of homophobia in the male game and, when it’s safe to do so, Rainbow Blades will be part of this again.

“We also took part in a Fans for Diversity tournament where we engaged Blades to represent us, and we got to the quarter-finals.

“I’m really encouraged by the support we’ve got from the club and hopefully the work we can do together going forward will have a really positive impact. The most positive thing, however, is the number of fans we’ve had signing up as members and the interaction we’ve had from them online.”

An important message: Thank you for reading this story. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on our advertisers and thus our revenues. The Star is more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism. You can subscribe here for unlimited access to Sheffield news and information online. Every subscription helps us continue providing trusted, local journalism and campaign on your behalf for our city. Once again, thank you. James.