Damian Barr: ‘Fighting prejudice on the pitch is where it starts’

"Predatory paedophiles used the threat of homophobia to bury boys alive in shame." Damian Barr on the football abuse scandal

I hate football. I’ve never been to a match, don’t understand the rules and played it only once – I scored straight away and ran to my team-mates who couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe my spectacular own goal.

Every Saturday, as soon as the cartoons finished, our telly was turned over to acres of green streaked with red, white and blue, black and white and stripes of every colour. I switched off. To me, the World Cup is a festival of corruption set to a soundtrack of jingoism and ringing tills. Clubs are super-brands worth billions, their star players almost as prized. Cristiano Ronaldo is an aftershave fragrant with ‘enigmatic darkness’.

Rangers and Celtic were the only teams where I grew up, well, there was a third – Motherwell. With a Protestant dad I was expected to support Rangers. But Celtic, technically the team of my Catholic mum, also had claim. Honestly, the west of Scotland then was like Northern Ireland without the bombs – support the wrong team and you’d need support walking home. To avoid these troubles I was told to say I supported Motherwell, which puzzled bigger boys long enough for me to get away.

At school, I captained every quiz team but it was the football lads who got all the glory, all the praise at assembly

At school, I captained every quiz team but it was the football lads who got all the glory, all the praise at assembly. With some reason – Barry Ferguson, who was in the year below me, went on to captain Rangers. But because of boys like Barry, I spent PE lessons in the library with a permanent sick note. Please excuse Damian from sport as he is gay.

Honestly, it might as well have said that.

Bender, cannae even kick a ball straight, they said. The terrible burning shame of being picked last then told not to try and get the ball and afterwards the ‘banter’ in the changing rooms, the switching of my shower to cold. Most shamefully, my sister captained the girl’s football team. My little sister.

So, I’ve never been on team football. Not until now.

Not until these men – men I’d written off – started to tell their stories. After decades of silence, they began talking about what had been done to them by men placed in positions of trust, men who promised them glory, men who preyed on boys.

Since former Crewe player Andy Woodward (pictured above) spoke out about the abuse he says he suffered as a boy, more than 20 ex-footballers have made similar allegations, with 12 separate police investigations and an FA review launched in response. MP Damian Collins said: “An inquiry needs to establish if there is a cultural problem in the sport.”

The problem is not in the sport. The problem is in our culture

The problem is not in the sport. The problem is in our culture – the current crisis is simply an acute symptom of an old complaint. It’s the same problem that chased boys like me off the pitch, it’s why Justin Fashanu hanged himself after coming out in 1990, it’s why there is not a single out player in the Premier League.

The problem is homophobia.

All the men who have spoken out so far identify as heterosexual. I watched them give interviews on the Victoria Derbyshire programme and they looked as shocked now as I am sure they felt then. I sat sobbing with them. A special NSPCC phoneline was flooded with calls. These brave men, terrified into decades of self-harming silence, were told by their abusers: it’s your fault, nobody will believe you, you will never play again. And, perhaps the most powerful threat of all to a boy growing up then: if you tell anybody about this, they’ll say you’re gay.

What could be scarier?

We know that men who prey on boys are not gay. We know they are, in fact, paedophiles. But predatory paedophiles knowingly used the threat of homophobia to blackmail boys into silence: to bury them alive in shame. As if their abuse wasn’t terrifying enough, these boys lived in fear of being not just ‘outed’ but outcasts.

The continuing conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality is illustrated by former darts star Eric Bristow who tweeted: “Might be a looney but if some football coach was touching me when i was a kid as i got older i would have went back and sorted that poof out.”

Paedophiles are not poofs. Poofs are not paedophiles. Bristow was dropped by Sky from their Darts Commentary Team, the first most knew of such a team. He clarified, tweeting: “What i was saying was when the football lads got older and fitter they should have went back and sorted him out.”

This victim-blaming is another sinister facet of the same problem – these boys didn’t fight back, were weak, somehow weren’t man enough. And the answer to abuse then is not violence now. Appearing in parliament recently, chairman of The Football Association Greg Clarke said he felt a player coming out now would still face problems: “I think there would be significant abuse. I don’t think we’ve cracked the problem yet. I would be amazed if we haven’t got gay players in the Premier League, and I am personally ashamed that they don’t feel safe to come out.”

As the crucible of masculinity, the football pitch is also the epicentre of homophobia. It is both a cause and a symptom. It has great power to do good. Tackling homophobia in football is key to giving it the red card in our wider culture. Players in the closet aren’t protecting themselves, they’re perpetuating a culture that enables the predators to tell their toxic lies, to abuse the boys they started out as.

The NSPCC’s football abuse helpline is 0800 023 2642. See Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces initiative: stonewall.org.uk/sport