**This also appeared on the Guardian website**
Non-league club’s friendly with Stonewall is worth celebrating, but only serves to highlight the antipathy by many at the elite level
On a cold February night last Wednesday, Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium was vibrant, with home fans bellowing chants from the terraces as the south London team roared to a 6-0 win.
But it was not the scoreline that was remarkable about last week’s fixture, rather their opponents: Stonewall FC, Britain’s top-ranking gay football team and current Gay Football World Champions. The ground-breaking friendly, the first of its kind in the country, represented arguably the biggest ever statement by a UK club in the crusade against homophobia, symbolic of the notion that fans and players can coexist with each other, on and off the pitch, regardless of sexual orientation.
With ticket prices reduced to just £3 for adults and £1 for concessions, and all proceeds going to the Elton John Aids Foundation, the match is just the latest event in promoting anti-homophobia – an ongoing process for the Ryman League club all season – something that has yet to be seen in widespread effect in the higher echelons of the game.
The campaign, the brainchild of the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust, began in September when Mishi Morath, a lifelong supporter and committee member at the club, approached manager Gavin Rose and the first team for their assistance. Hamlet consequently became one of the first non-league clubs to support the Rainbow Laces Day initiative and wore the laces in an FA Cup tie against Worthing last September.
A grant obtained by the anti-discrimination network Fare then followed, which was used to purchase two Dulwich Hamlet and Altona 93 anti-homophobia banners, one of which is on permanent display behind the Dog Kennel Hill end of the stadium, with the other taken to its sister club, Altona 93, in Germany.
The issue has become ingrained in the club’s ethos, and the indelible support of the fans last week shows how unanimous the club’s efforts have been: many applauded Stonewall’s players at the final whistle – “we love you Stonewall, we do!” – a sentiment that visibly touched the Middlesex County League side’s players. Not only have the Dulwich faithful embraced the campaign but they have made it their own, strengthening the club’s worthy cause.
Dulwich’s strides on the matter do however highlight why more high-profile clubs in England have yet to emulate the club’s example. With resources far greater than a side playing three divisions below League Two, shouldn’t Premier League clubs be doing more to promote anti-discrimination within the game? Dulwich managed to squeeze the friendly in the middle of a 46-game season in the Ryman Premier League. Despite a number of players lacing up on Rainbow Laces Day, a trend that first gathered momentum in 2013, nothing of much substance has since emerged out of the Premier League in terms of how to next tackle the problem, which only affirms the division’s tendency to jump on certain trends when it most suits.
Dulwich’s friendly with Stonewall, as well as the display of the anti-homophobia banner, were unprompted and original steps from a club dedicated to the cause of nullifying discrimination in football. With more nationwide participation on this scale, greater progress will be made. Premier League sides should take Dulwich’s blueprint and take the initiative to expand a sustained campaign off their own backs, rather than waiting for change to occur.
“Other football clubs say they’re against things, but in many cases it’s just lip service,” Morath says. “We’re not just saying ‘we’re against homophobia,’ we’re trying to welcome gay fans to Dulwich. That sums up the ethos of the club, we try to go that bit further.
“We’ve got a mixture of everyone. The atmosphere is buzzing at games. More and more we have become the talk of non-league football. And reaching out to what people perceive as the non-footballing community can only strengthen us all as a club.”