Newcastle Panthers take pride in partnership with Newcastle United Foundation

John Harper’s story of how he nearly made it as a professional footballer is fairly familiar – up to a point.

Soon after he joined Barnsley’s Academy as a 10-year-old, the Tykes were promoted to the Premier League.

For a local lad from a small village who admits he was “quite isolated” growing up, Oakwell became his own field of dreams. However, after six years in the club’s youth system, Harper’s professional ambitions were shattered.

“They took three of the players through to scholarship, and I was one of those that failed to make the cut,” he says. He had trials at Hull and Scunthorpe; nothing came of them. He loved the game, but he couldn’t be sure the game loved him back – for reasons other than his ability.

Harper knows his 16-year-old self would have found the concept of one day playing for a gay-friendly team rather unlikely, such was the culture back in 2002. The fact that he is now player-manager of such a team, in a big northern city – and with the backing of a Premier League club to boot – would have seemed a somewhat preposterous suggestion when the door swung shut on him at Barnsley.

“Growing up in a little village, it’s hard,” he says. “When I was back there, I’d always go into Barnsley for a night out. It didn’t have a gay scene, so I was just used to what was there. It was all I knew.”

When Harper got the chance to broaden his horizons and study in Newcastle, a new chapter in his life began – but football remained part of his story.

“I still wasn’t out then, but being gay was always at the back of my mind whilst playing. Nothing was ever mentioned in our university team, and we were quite successful. But I often wondered – to what extent was it acceptable for a gay player to be out?

“It took me a couple of years to find my feet, and to come out. Things really did change quickly for me after that. I was one of the first players to join the Newcastle Panthers when we started up in 2008 – we were called the Pink Panthers back then! Just knowing that it was an environment where we could be ourselves, and what everyone’s background was like, made it a great place to play football. And it still is.”

Ten years on, the Panthers find themselves in a Tyneside community similar to many others in the UK, with tolerance generally moving at a quick pace towards acceptance for all.

They will host 18 sides from 11 of the UK’s other LGBT-inclusive clubs this weekend in the GFSN (Gay Football Supporters’ Network) Summer Get-Together, an annual six-a-side tournament, following a season of significant support from the Newcastle United Foundation.

Having ties with the Magpies has helped to raise the Panthers’ profile, and it’s a ‘big brother’ act that bears hallmarks of partnerships down south in the capital between QPR and London Titans FC and – in what was a landmark link-up – Charlton Athletic Community Trust and Charlton Invicta FC.

“Clubs are doing much more for their local LGBT teams – that really shows how things are moving on,” says Harper, now 32 and a geography teacher. “A lot have got LGBT fan groups too, of course – ours, called United with Pride, was launched back in February, and the Foundation supports both them and us. It means so much.

“Every month, the Foundation gives us a coaching session; we’ve had tickets to home games, including against Manchester United; and they’re supporting us this weekend by helping to pick up some of the tournament costs, such as putting on food at the Nine bar across from St James’ Park. That’s just a few examples.

“Now when I mention the Panthers to people in Newcastle, a lot more seem to know about us. That means we’re also attracting better players, regardless of sexuality. A lot of our players are gay or bi, but a lot are straight too. That’s the ethos of inclusion. So what I’d really like to do now is push on, and be more competitive at a local level.”

Mark Lowdon, a 27-year-old youth worker, signed up a year and a half ago. “I’ve played all my life and even though I’d heard of the Panthers, I suppose initially I didn’t really know what training would be like. I’m fortunate in that I’m confident in who I am. But the nature of the club, what it stood for, was still appealing to me.

“And it is so friendly, really inclusive, and absolutely somewhere for all abilities too. We have lads who come along that genuinely haven’t played before, or hardly ever. The Foundation’s input has certainly helped to create a buzz. When you get invited along to St James’ and stuff like that, it just gives you a lift.”

When GFSN was founded almost 30 years ago – and as its full name suggests – the mission statement was for strength through unity for those stood on the terraces. But as awareness of LGBT inclusion across all aspects of British football has developed, its purpose has shifted somewhat to the benefit of those playing the game rather than watching it.

The volunteer-run body operates a national league and cup competition for its 24 affiliated member clubs, and remains a respected voice in the media on related issues. However, despite its gaze being trained more on the grassroots, passion was always strong among its ranks for the professional game. GFSN chair Ed Connell is certainly heartened to see this new trend of clubs embracing their community LGBT teams.

“For a long time, there was reluctance – but the change really began when the Football Association and organisations like Kick It Out started to take active steps on LGBT inclusion,” says Connell.

“We’ve also seen Stonewall FC connecting with Manchester United and Arsenal in recent years, and some other gay-friendly teams have had varying degrees of success too. Now, however, we’re seeing more of the clubs reaching out, and it’s all very welcome indeed.

“One effect is that it also raises issues of inclusion within those clubs. The GFSN is helping to facilitate these relationships, so we can get more LGBT people enjoying the game, whether that’s through the physical activity itself or on the social side. Ultimately, we’d like there to be no real need for a GFSN league, because every team would be gay-friendly – but we’re not at that stage yet.”

Connell cites recognisable barriers that often make transgender people feel uncomfortable within football and team sports as an example of where there is work to be done – it’s one of several common goals shared with fellow campaign groups such as Pride in Football, Football v Homophobia and Just a Ball Game?

For GFSN, the focus is on how the welcoming atmosphere of LGBT-inclusive teams – as experienced by those coming along to their first training session, or even just stood on the sidelines – is fostering inclusion.

“It’s important that people recognise the clubs are there for anyone who wants to play, or to be involved,” he says. “The social element is a big part of what we do – it’s why the Summer Get-Together and its winter equivalent are so popular. There’ll be well over 120 players heading to Newcastle, and lots will come to watch and support too. You’re made to feel valued, whatever your contribution.”

Lowdon agrees, and says the knock-on effect for individuals with an initial sense of trepidation is always a confidence boost. “I work with young people, and so many of the remaining issues facing the LGBT community are not just to do with physical health – such as feeling they couldn’t even get into playing football, for example – but with mental health too. To see people you can identify with, active and enjoying the game… that can affect your life in so many positive ways. I’d say it’s a big pulling point for the Panthers. There’s still a lot of doom and gloom around at times, because you do hear so much negativity. But it’s getting better.”

That ambition to assist regardless of location or identity is laid out in black and white by Harper in the most recent Newcastle United Foundation review – “to expand the geographical reach of our club, and to encourage more female, trans and non-binary players to get involved.”

Despite the progress he sees both in society and within his own school, he hasn’t forgotten the isolation he felt aged 16, as a football-mad lad who just happened to be gay. “Everyone needs to find that avenue that allows them to express who they are, without hiding away from the outside world.

“Some people will say we don’t need teams that are stated as being LGBT-friendly anymore. But the kids at my school talk about the World Cup being in Russia, and the fact it’ll be in Qatar next time – they’re learning about the laws of those lands through football, if they didn’t already know about them. They also know that there are no out professional male footballers. Yet in their own worlds, they see acceptance almost everywhere – such as at Pride events, and different groups where being LGBT is talked about openly.”

With more professional clubs wanting to engage in such conversations in a meaningful way, and with their associated charities setting aside funding for a variety of community projects, it’s an encouraging picture not just for the Panthers but for all their cousins within GFSN too.

Connell says that the pro clubs could even prove to be saviours, not just for the individual teams but for the whole GFSN family (it remains the world’s only national gay football league).

“Costs are rising all the time. Playing mainstream local football is expensive, particularly when you factor in pitch hire, training ground fees, and travel. A professional club that openly supports its local LGBT-inclusive team will raise interest and boost membership.”

Harper says the Panthers’ target of joining a local league hinges on finances too – their location means they currently play only GFSN cup-ties and tournaments, as the distances involved are too great to allow anything else.

So how do you get noticed by the United or City in your area?

Some teams find harnessing social media more effectively gets them attention.

Harper laughs, wishing he had had that option when he was a teenager back in his bedroom in South Yorkshire: “I didn’t know ‘gay football’ was out there – the internet was very basic then!”

However, the firm handshake and commitment he’s had from the Foundation is worth far more than any Facebook like or retweet. Looking out for the little guy? Whether you live in a Premier League metropolis or a provincial EFL town, it’s a partnership model with big potential – just ask the Panthers.

Sky Sports is part of TeamPride, a consortium of businesses and brands that support Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign for LGBT+ inclusion in sport.