Thetford Town player-manager Matt Morton speaks candidly about being an openly gay man in non-league football
Matt Morton longs to live in a world where a footballer at any level coming out as gay – just as he did in the summer of 2018 – is not considered a big deal. In fact, he would love to reach a point in which such news doesn’t even have to be broadcast.
Justin Fashanu, who took his own life in 1998 – eight years after revealing his sexuality, remains the first and only openly gay English male professional footballer.
Other sports seem to be more enlightened. British diver Tom Daley, for example, has made no secret of his sexuality, while it is estimated more than 40 players at the last Women’s Football World Cup were openly in same-sex relationships. Indeed, the USA’s Megan Rapinoe, who was voted Player Of The Tournament, is reportedly dating Olympic basketball gold medallist Sue Bird.
And yet, the silence in men’s football remains deafening.
“I would love the world – not just football – to get to a point where people don’t need the credit or are seen to have the balls to come out,” said Bury St Edmunds-based Morton, who is the player-manager of Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division side Thetford Town.
“It’s normal, why should it even have to be announced? Even events like Pride. I’ve never been and it is obviously fantastic people want to celebrate who they are, but at the same time they shouldn’t have to do that.”
But how do we reach such a point in time? And, more importantly, will we ever reach such a point? The words on this page may only begin to scratch the surface of such a sensitive issue, yet it is nevertheless refreshing for someone like Morton to speak so candidly on the matter.
If you follow non-league football in the area, chances are you know the man in question.
As well as turning out for the likes of Walsham-le-Willows and Thetford at Step 5, he was the player/manager/chairman of the all-conquering Gym United in the Premier Logos Bury & District Sunday Football League.
A tattooed defender who takes no prisoners, by his own admission he does not exactly tick many stereotypical boxes.
“There is still such a stigma around it. Would I be 100 per cent comfortable walking around Bury with my partner’s arm around me? I would because of the type of person I am, but you are always aware of people looking or actively trying not to look,” he said.
“Growing up I remember an occasion where someone called me gay in a jokey way, and a friend of mine replied: ‘Course he’s not gay, he’s hard as nails’.
“People have this perception of a gay man but I don’t fit into that. I’ve got tattoos, a relatively deep voice and I play football.
“I suppose in some ways I look and act like the traditional lad – I do, it’s just my sexual preference is different.”
Morton came to the conclusion that he was gay relatively late, aged 30.
It led to plenty of ‘soul searching’ with friends and family, but after accepting who he is, there has been no looking back.
“I realised very late that I was gay, it was around January 2018,” he revealed. “Initially I dealt with that internally. To be honest it freaked me out a little bit.
“There was a lot of soul searching and it was six months before I said anything to anyone. I wanted to be sure this was definitely how I felt.
“It was becoming more and more clear, and once you let that barrier come down and allow yourself to accept who you are, that makes a big difference.
“I told the people in my inner circle and it was probably toughest telling my parents. My mum is religious and my dad is old-school, but after that I felt much better.
“I put a little post on Instagram and it surprised a few people. It was a case of deal with it or don’t, I don’t care because it’s not changing.
“Looking back, it all makes sense. I had relationships with women but they never lasted – I just thought I was a bit of a commitment-phobe!
“Friends would say ‘why did you let her go? She was stunning’.
“Now I think about it, that doesn’t make sense at all because I’m committed to everything I do in my life; exercise, job, football, family. I used to say I don’t have the time for relationships, yet I know now that wasn’t the case.”
Coming out to people you love and trust is one thing, but doing so within the walls of a dressing room must surely be a daunting a prospect.
Dressing rooms are perhaps not the unforgiving environments that they once were, but with sexuality such a taboo subject, approaching the issue in the current climate takes a certain type of character.
Morton is well aware his personality helped him to confront it head on among his team-mates, but he understands why others would be reluctant.
“There are things that are said in dressing rooms. A player takes care of how they look and they get called ‘a bender’ or ‘gay’. I’ve never reacted to anything like that, partly because of my character but also I know the majority of the time it’s not coming from a place of prejudice,” he said.
“But that sort of thing does need to be removed. Imagine a young lad only 17 or 18 in a dressing room who knows he’s gay, but he hears it being used in a negative way. Why would he come out?
“I know most people are not homophobic, but it doesn’t help.
“I came out at 30 and that was a major factor in how much easier I found it. I felt established, everyone knows me and the type of person I am.
“If people do have a problem with it, they are less likely to say it to my face. Maybe from a few miles away after they’ve had a few beers on social media, but not straight to me.
“I completely accept it is different for a player that isn’t established, someone trying to come to terms with the fact they are gay.
“All I can say is you have to take your time, come out when you are ready and know that the large majority of people are going to be so supportive.
“Clubs will support you, and if they don’t, there are plenty of other clubs that will.
“All players care about is you being a good footballer – producing for the team, that’s all that matters. No-one will think I’m not passing to him because he’s gay.
“I wasn’t concerned particularly because 90 per cent of the lads in the dressing room are good mates of mine. I know them well and I know the type of people they are.
“There are always some players you don’t know as well and you can never second guess someone’s reaction in that case. After all, people are walking round in the dressing room with no clothes on, having showers and that sort of thing.
“I broke the ice and told them they have nothing to worry about because they’re all ugly! That’s just me and my character.
“And ultimately, if someone has a problem with it, I know that I am in the right and they are wrong.”
Earlier this month a national daily newspaper carried a story on its front page with an unnamed gay Premier League footballer who spoke of his fear about coming out.
He wrote: ‘I am gay. Even writing that down in this letter is a big step for me.
‘But only my family members and a select group of friends are aware of my sexuality. I don’t feel ready to share it with my team or my manager.
‘How does it feel having to live like this? Day-to-day, it can be an absolute nightmare. And it is affecting my mental health more and more.’
From Morton’s perspective, the real game changer for football will come when a top level footballer eventually decides to take that big step.
“Somebody has to be first, that’s the opinion I took when it came to non-league football in the area,” he said.
“You need broad shoulders, but after coming out I had a handful of players in the area get in touch telling me they were gay. I’d never out them of course, but clearly gay players are there.
“If I can set a precedent then great. It would be great if people say ‘Matt Morton came out and he was fine so I can do it as well’.
“It is going to be 20 times worse for a Premier League footballer than me.
“They are playing in front of 40, 50, 60,000 supporters each week and fans will use anything against you if they think it gives their team an advantage.
“But it would be huge. There might be a little delay while others check out the reaction, then you’ll find others coming out.
“There will be so much support. Some people argue it might not be good for a player’s brand, but it would be the opposite. Think of the media and the companies that would want to work with an openly gay footballer.
“It will take a lot of courage, but the positives outweigh the negatives. It would be a trailblazing moment that filters all the way down.”
Currently, though, there will almost certainly be footballers at a variety of levels reading this who are struggling to come to terms with the fact they are gay. Living in silence, they’ll be scared, confused, worried – paralysed by a plethora of emotions.
As someone that has taken that leap, what advice would Morton give to those who don’t know which way to turn?
“You’ve got to talk,” is the emphatic response. “Being isolated or alone does you no good. Even if you are not ready to come out publicly, find someone you can trust.
“Suicide is one of the biggest killers of men and dealing with your sexuality can cause a lot of stress.
“Bottling things up on your own is not a good place to be in.
“People can talk to me if they like. I don’t care if they are gay, bi-sexual or anything, I just don’t want people to deal with this alone. If I can help, I will.”