EXCLUSIVE – PR guru Max Clifford: ‘If a gay footballer comes out, his career is over’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Last week, over 30 Dutch sporting champions joined in Amsterdam’s gay pride celebrations, with a clear message that LGBT people should be accepted in sport. More notably, representatives from the world of football were there, too, including former internationals Pierre van Hooijdonk, Regi Blinker and Aron Winter.

In the first of a two-part series, Adrian Tippetts asks what is being done to make gay people – whether supporters, players, or club members – welcome in the beautiful game, too.

The celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who has kept the private lives of gay football stars out of the press in the past, urges caution. As far as he is concerned, the day when players can be openly gay is a long way off.

Speaking exclusively to PinkNews.co.uk, he said: “To my knowledge there is only one top-flight professional gay footballer who came out – Justin Fashanu. He ended up committing suicide. I have been advising a top premiership star who is bisexual. If it came out that he had gay tendencies, his career would be over in two minutes. Should it be? No, but if you go on the terraces and hear the way fans are, and also, that kind of general attitude that goes with football, it’s almost like going back to the dark ages.”

Clifford recalled having a gay player in his football team, when he played in a local league in the 1960s: “One of our team, Michael, was gay, and in fact, no one knew. If people had known, none of the other lads would have played football with him. There is still such a stigma about it, and I don’t think things have changed frankly.”

It is the players above all, who will help change attitudes, according to Clifford. And here he offers some optimism: “The best way is to establish champions and heroes, who are openly gay. If a person came out, was seen to be gay, well, here’s someone who is a very strong, masculine player, nothing remotely like the stereotype. That will make people think. The more of them that do that, the better.

“You need to have a snowball effect. If you had a top star in every Premiership team who was openly gay, then very quickly people’s attitudes to it would change. After all, football supporting – following individual clubs – is a very tribal affair. The fans of a particular club would show support for their player. If one of their top players came out, almost automatically, they would support him.”

But Justin Fashanu was also a top player when he came out in 1991. The football media destroyed him. Clifford said: “The football media, generally speaking, are as bad as the world of football itself, full of ignorance and blind prejudice. My friend Michael used to say, ‘no-one understands me. They immediately think I am going to jump on them in the shower’ and of course he wouldn’t, and no one would have known.

“Ignorance and fear is so destructive. There is so much embarrassment and shame about nudity and private parts of the body, it actually kills: look at the massive campaign to raise awareness around prostrate cancer, all necessary because people refuse to get checked. They would rather die than be embarrassed.”

But look at the armed forces now – the same ignorance was present there, and people also said, they could never imagine a time when gay people would be accepted. And this month, a gay serviceman is on the cover of this month’s Soldier magazine. They have enforced diversity training. Even there attitudes have improved considerably. Doesn’t that give you optimism?

“Yes, you have to have that kind of structure to make change happen. Remember that the FA, above all, are interested in making money. Meet the people that make up the FA. They’ve got round to dealing with racism, but homophobia? I wonder if they are any better than the people on the terraces.”

So ultimately, if a gay player came to you, you would advise him to cover it up, rather than be open?

“I’ve done that in the past, sure. It’s easy for me to say ‘you should stand up and be counted’, I’m not the one losing his career and home and everything else, because of it. Until people are able to stand up, you won’t go forward. They have the influence. Another easy example is Jade Goody. Doctors and charities talked about cervical cancer. Jade talked about what happened to her and there was a 60 per cent increase in young women all over Britain having cervical smears. I rest my case.”

In part two, to be published tomorrow, we ask what bodies such as Kick It Out are doing to tackle homophobia in the game.

Adrian Tippetts is a journalist and PR consultant.