Because I had different interests, because I didn’t feel comfortable in the laddish drinking culture that was prevalent in English football in the late 1980s, it was generally assumed by my teammates that there was something wrong with me. It followed, naturally, that I must be gay.
For 14 years I had to listen to that suggestion repeated in vivid and forthright terms from thousands of voices in the stands. It was a lie. I am not gay and never have been, yet I became a victim of English football’s last taboo.
The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going. I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick. I dreaded going in. I was like a bullied kid on his way to school to face his tormentors.
It started in the summer of 1991, in my first spell at Chelsea. We had what is known as “a strong dressing-room” –a euphemism for a group of players who are very good at dishing out stick. It was not a place for shrinking violets and in the first few days of preseason training, when the banter flies around more than ever, there was a lot of talk about where people had been for their holidays.
I had had a good summer. I was 22 and had just broken into the first team. Over the previous 18 months I had become friends with two of the forerunners of Chelsea’s foreign legion: Ken Monkou and Erland Johnsen. Erland invited us to visit him in Norway. When the season finished, I took Ken to Jersey, where I’d grown up, and then we drove up through France, Belgium and the Netherlands and flew to see Erland.
We had a good time. When the trip was over, Ken headed back to London, Erland went on honeymoon to the Caribbean and I went on holiday with my girlfriend. When I got back to Chelsea and the boys asked me where I had been, I told them. Somebody – I cannot remember who – said: “Oh, so you went camping with Ken.”
There was a bit of chortling and sniggering. It got to me straight away. I told them we had not gone camping, we had been staying in hotels. But it stuck. It became a running gag. And soon, to my horror, it was on the grapevine that Ken and I were an item.
I was sensitive and pretty naive and took things more seriously than I should have done. I reacted to gibes when I should have laughed them off. By the time I changed my approach it was too late. Training became an ordeal. Everybody regarded me as an outsider. I was an easy target because I did not fit in. The only people I knew in London were students, so I turned up at training with my student look: jeans rolled up, Pringle socks and my rucksack with The Guardian in it. For much of my career, reading The Guardian was used as one of the most powerful symbols of how I was supposed to be weirdly different. Pathetic, really. It gave substance to the gossip that I was homosexual: Guardian reader equals gay boy. Some people really thought that added up.
Andy Townsend got on the bus to a game and saw me reading the paper, picked it up and said he wanted to look at the sport. He threw it back down a couple of seconds later. “There’s no f***ing sport in here,” he said. The rest of the lads laughed.
They had already pigeonholed me as a loner. But I was not a loner. Away from football I was pretty sociable. It was just that because of my background, I was not what footballers regarded as typical. I got the impression they had not come across anyone like me before and the rumours that I was gay stemmed from not fitting in. I became the target of day-to-day ribbing, which got worse and worse. I had never had any problem with bullying before. Being a pariah was new to me.
The more successful I got, the more it became an issue. In those days, if anyone thought you were even slightly effeminate, you were in trouble. I already felt as if the odds were stacked against me, without being pitched into a world of double entendres, nudging and winking.
The more my supposed homo-sexuality became a topic of humour, the more upset I became. I was confronting people all the time. It felt as if everybody in the dressing-room was in on it, even Gwyn Williams, one of the coaches. He would wander up to me before training and say: “Come on, poof, get your boots on.” Nobody in authority said: “Lads, this is getting a bit silly.” The rumours were out of control.
The p***-taking started around the beginning of July and eight weeks later my worst fears were realised. On September 7 we played West Ham United at Upton Park. I got the ball on the left flank and played it upfield. Then the chant started.
It came from the hardcore fans in the North Bank, set to the tune of the Village People’s Go West. “Le Saux takes it up the a***,” they yelled, again and again. I stood in shock. “Oh my God, that’s it,” I thought. I knew fans everywhere were going to make my life a misery.
Justin Fashanu had “come out” a year earlier and even though his career was practically over, he was ridiculed and scorned for his admission. A few years later, he committed suicide.
My preoccupation with being isolated and ostracised was turning into reality. It frightened me and I did not know how to deal with it. I did not know who to be angry with because it was my teammates who had started it. Yet nobody mentioned the chanting when we got back to the dressing-room. Maybe it did not register with some of them and I did not say: “Thanks a lot for that, boys.” I was very insecure, very nervous. I did not feel I could trust anybody.
After that game, the chanting became a regular event. The pressure I was under was immense. I would go on to the pitch knowing that I was going to get a torrent of abuse before I even kicked a ball. If there was a lull in the game, I was the fallback option and the taunting would start. If the home team’s fans got bored, they would start singing about me. I tried hard to prevent it. I stood up for myself and got angry with those who pushed it too far, but it went crazy. It became an urban myth and was talked about as if it was fact.
Everything I did was used as evidence that I was gay. The way I dressed, the music I listened to, the fact that I went to art galleries, the newspaper I read, turned into more clues about my sexuality. The variety of insults aimed at gay people became my specialist subject.
The worst thing was when I would go to get the ball for a corner or throw-in and there would be somebody a couple of feet away from me in the front row. Their faces would be contorted with aggression and they would be screaming homophobic abuse, vicious stuff. When it was that close and one-on-one, it was shocking.
Pretty soon, opposition players were winding me up about it. I was in my second spell at Chelsea when the real problems began. From the time the rumours first surfaced, I got plenty of comments from other players about being a “faggot” or a “queer”. Robbie Savage seemed to get a particular thrill out of it, but I guess that will not surprise anybody. I told him he should say it to me at the end of the game when I had tackled him a few times; see if he still wanted to call me a poof then.
It was irrational, schoolboy behaviour. Most of the time I let it go. But when Chelsea played Liverpool at Anfield in October 1997, Paul Ince repeatedly wound me up and I gave him a taste of his own medicine.
Paul and I had always got on well. We were England teammates and I respected him. Paul was really wired during the game. He would get so frantic in matches that his eyes would glaze over. I had been clattered a few times when he took my legs and left me on the deck. Then he started jabbering away at me. “Come on, you f***ing poof,” he said. “Get up, there’s nothing wrong with you.”
He said it a few times. I let it go. People get called a poof all the time in football. But it was loaded when people aimed it at me.
A few minutes later he did me again and started yelling the same stuff. I snapped. I said something that I knew would hurt him. I insulted his wife.
Paul went ballistic. He was livid. He spent the rest of the match trying to kick lumps out of me. When the final whistle went I was going down the tunnel when I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye, about to land a punch. I ducked out of the way and scarpered. The guy had lost it completely; he wanted to kill me. He was a prime example of someone who could dish it out but could not take it. He had been calling me all the names, personal stuff that he must have known would hurt, and yet as soon as I retaliated in kind, he could not cope.
I did not feel proud of what I had said. I knew his wife, Claire, and I liked her. It was not about her, though, it was about letting him know what it was like to put up with abuse. Paul quickly turned it round in his mind so that I was the villain. Since then our relationship has been very cold.
The gay slurs were putting me in a difficult situation. It was hard to keep denying that I was homosexual without being disrespectful to the gay community. I have gay friends and I do not judge them. I am not homophobic; a gay player in a team I was playing for would not be an issue for me.
But when supporters and other players accused me of being gay, it bothered me. I never believed there was anything wrong with being gay, but I felt that if it came to be accepted that I was, I would be unable to continue as a professional footballer. That is how deep-seated the prejudice in the game is.
That is why I fought back as strongly as I did. I wondered whether it was defamatory, being called gay if you were not, and in the context of football I think it is because it could end your career. No manager would want to sign you. It is a terrible indictment of the sport, but it is true.
We have got past pretty much everything else. The problems with racism are not over, but they are on the wane. You do not get people making monkey noises at English grounds or throwing bananas on the pitch. But there is still terrible prejudice within football. People pick on weaknesses. You have to deal with being constantly derided for the most trivial matters: your trainers, your haircut, your picture in the newspaper. It is endless and can be draining. If you can make someone else look stupid, that is the ideal.
Given the peer pressure, I do not think a modern footballer could come out as gay without immediately becoming isolated from his team. The group would be too hostile for him to survive. Football has not had to face up to a group of gay footballers saying: “How are you going to deal with us?”
The sport has not confronted homophobia because the gay footballers who are playing in our leagues are too frightened to declare their sexuality and cope with the backlash. Unless there is a powerful voice for a minority group, football will never make provision for it.
The abuse I had to suffer would be multiplied a hundredfold for a player who was openly gay. The burden would be too much. I think of the stick I had from the fans and it made me feel nervous before I got on the pitch. I knew I would be targeted in the warm-up. Every time I ran to the side there was a group of people giving me abuse.
Suddenly, all the anger and prejudice hidden away under the surface of everyday life starts spewing out of them. You get a sense of the mentality of the mob. If the game starts badly they will turn their anger and their frustration on you. And then a whole stadium will start singing about how you take it up the a***.
Sometimes you cannot blot it out. At Anfield once I went over to the touchline to get the ball because a kid in the crowd was holding it. He was no more than 10 and his dad was next to him. “You f***ing poof, you take it up the a***,” he screamed at me. His dad joined in. I stopped and looked at him. “Who do you think you are talking to like that?” I asked. Of course, everyone else piled in. But sometimes you have to draw the line and say: “That is wrong, you don’t treat people that way.”
Famously, there was another time when I stood up for myself, when I refused to look the other way. I had a family by then and my wife, Mariana, brought our newborn child, Georgina, to her first game. It was Liverpool again, but this time it was not a ten-year-old who was the problem. It was Robbie Fowler.
I had admired Robbie when he was a young player. He was a magnificent finisher, one of the best natural strikers I have seen. But as people, he and I are as far apart as possible. His trademark is sarcastic, put-down humour and an irreverent, caustic attitude. If that is how he plays, fine. But Robbie did not know when to stop. When things became unacceptable, he appeared ignorant of his social responsibilities and the consequences of his actions.
The Chelsea–Liverpool match at Stamford Bridge in 1999 was a high-tempo game and early in the second half I moved to clear the ball from left back. Robbie tried to block it but fouled me. I went down and Paul Durkin, the referee, booked him. Robbie looked at me. “Get up, you poof,” he said.
I stayed on the turf to get treatment and by then Robbie was standing ten yards away. The ball was in front of me, ready for the free kick. I looked at Robbie. He started bending over and pointing his backside in my direction. He looked over his shoulder and started yelling at me. He was smirking. “Come and give me one up the a***,” he said, repeating it three or four times.
The Chelsea fans were going berserk. The linesman was standing right next to me. He could see what Robbie was doing but did not take any action, not even to call Durkin over. Everyone knew what the gesture meant. There was not much room for interpretation. I asked the linesman what he was going to do. He stood there with a look of panic.
So I waited. Robbie could see he was winding me up and I suppose that gratified him, so he carried on doing it. I told the linesman I would not take the free kick until he stopped. It was a big moment, a stand-off.
What Robbie did provided a chance for people to confront a serious issue and I wish Durkin had sent him off for ungentlemanly conduct. Football had a chance to make a stand that day and Durkin would have been fêted for it. There could have been a strong statement that blatant homophobia would not be tolerated and maybe it would have been a turning point, taking some of the stigma away for gay footballers.
But football did not make a stand. Durkin ran over and booked me for time-wasting. I was dumbfounded. I asked if he was just going to let Robbie get away with it. He did not say anything. He said later that he had not seen what Robbie was doing, but I wonder if he simply did not want to deal with it. No one did. My head filled with anger. I still did not want to take the free kick. Perhaps I should have just refused to and been sent off. That would at least have forced the issue, but it would also have made me a martyr for the cause and I did not want that. Robbie stopped bending over. I took the kick.
Some people compared what happened to sledging in cricket, but those exchanges stay between the players on the pitch. That is where I believe Robbie crossed the line and betrayed the sport. When a fellow professional does something like that to you, when he mocks you for public consumption, I cannot accept it as part of the game.
I never saw anyone do that to another player. I felt that Fowler’s action – because it was so blatant – betrayed me, too. He broke the code. Black players have had plenty of abuse aimed at them, but no fellow player has ever made a public gesture like that. Robbie would not dream of miming insults to a black player, so why did he feel it was acceptable to incite me by sticking out his backside?
I was consumed with thoughts of vengeance. I could not calm down. I ran to the halfway line and tried to confront Robbie. I told him my family was in the stand. “Bollocks to your family,” he said. In his autobiography, Robbie wrote that I ran up to him and shouted “but I’m married” and he replied “so was Elton John, mate”. It is a nice line and makes him look funny, which is the most important thing to him, but he used dramatic licence. He did not say that.
I should have come off, really. My head was gone. I was not even concentrating on the game. I felt humiliated, as if the anger of so many years was welling up inside me. Eventually, the ball was played down the left side and Robbie made a run towards our penalty area. I came across and ran straight into him with a swing of the elbow. Thankfully I am not very good at it. We had a few more tussles, then Robbie caught me on the calf and I had to come off. The most traumatic match of my career was over.
I was still incredibly angry after the game. I went to see Durkin. I had heard that the cameras had captured my elbow on Robbie and I wanted to explain why I had done it. Dermot Gallagher, the fourth official, said that he had seen the whole thing with Robbie jutting out his backside. He started talking about the amount of stick he had had over the years for being Irish. I asked Durkin about the booking. I asked why I had been time-wasting when we were playing at home and the score was 1–1. He did not have an answer. I asked the linesman again why he had not done anything and he did not want to engage.
The aftermath was awful. I got buried because I had tried to take out Robbie off the ball. That was fair enough. But it seemed bizarre that people focused on this rather than the extreme provocation. Because I had reacted, a lot of people wanted to excuse Robbie for what he had done. Three days after the game, the FA charged us both with misconduct.
I sent him a letter of apology and got a letter from him, too. Not an apology, just an attempt to save face, couched in legal niceties and drafted by a lawyer or agent, designed to appease the FA tribunal before it sat in judgment. It was a sad excuse, really, an insult to the intelligence.
Later, in his autobiography, Robbie wrote: “Football’s a tough sport and to get to the top you have to be incredibly thick-skinned. A bit of name-calling never hurt anyone and the truth is I wasn’t being homophobic, merely trying to exploit a known weakness in an opponent who had done me a number of times.”
It is an interesting line of defence. According to Robbie’s rationale, it is OK to call a black man a “n*****” and pretend it is in the line of duty. I do not think so. I do not think even Robbie would argue that. He did not really have a defence and that was the best he could come up with. It was not a very good effort.
A month after Robbie offered me his backside, we were picked in the England squad. There was an awkward reunion at Burnham Beeches. Robbie did not have quite as much bravado in that situation. He looked like a naughty little boy.
Kevin Keegan was the manager and he wanted us to stage a public reconciliation for the press. I said immediately that unless Robbie said sorry, that was not going to happen. I did not want a public apology, just a private word would do. But he refused. He said that he had done nothing wrong, that it was just a bit of a laugh.
Keegan started to back off at that point. He was not qualified to deal with it, but I felt more confident. I was determined to stand up for myself. I confronted Robbie while we were in Keegan’s room. I pointed out that if he had taken the p*** out of someone like that in the middle of London’s Soho, where the gay clubs are, he would have been chased down the street and beaten up.
Even then, Robbie could not resist it. When I mentioned the gay clubs, he muttered: “You’d know where they are.” I told him I would be professional on the training pitch, but that there was no way I was going to shake his hand. I felt bolstered by the debate the incident had caused and relieved that the issue was in the open.
From that moment, there was less animosity in the chants. The debate about what happened had exposed it for the puerile cruelty, the out and out bullying, that it was. I do not feel any animosity towards Robbie now, but the stuff he sought to justify nearly drove me out of the game.
On April 9, six weeks after the original incident and six days after Robbie had got himself in more trouble by pretending to snort the white lines on the pitch at Anfield during a goal celebration in a Merseyside derby, we attended separate FA disciplinary hearings. I got a one-match ban and a £5,000 fine, but they hammered Robbie. He was dealing with the fallout from his mock cocaine-snorting antics as well as what he did to me and it provided a fascinating glimpse of the governing body’s moral code.
It gave Robbie a much harsher punishment for making what was clearly a joke than it did for his attempt to humiliate me and encourage homophobia. I wonder if Robbie appreciated the irony of that. He did something as a retort to malicious rumours, yet was happy to exploit a malicious rumour spread about me. Robbie got a two-match ban for taunting me and a four-match ban for his goal celebrations at Anfield. As I said, interesting.
The debate about what Robbie had done and the FA hearing gave me a form of closure. It was a watershed for me. After that I still got the taunts from the crowd, but the venom seemed to have gone. What Robbie had done had always been my worst fear. Now it was over, I knew that nothing could be worse than that ordeal, so nobody could offend me any more.
After the hearing, the distress I had always felt about the taunts began to ebb away. So in the end, I got there. But it did not wipe out what I had been through. It did not wash it clean. It is an indictment of our game and the prejudice it allows, but I felt a great surge of relief when I retired.
Yuki's choice reading:
(Justin Fashanu, the young football starlet, another victim of homophobia):