Ross County pride themselves on being a club for their local community.
Based in Dingwall, home to around 5500 people in the Highlands, having a team in the top flight of the Scottish leagues is a point of pride for the town. Often the lifeblood of the local area, the Staggies rely on their fanbase to keep the club sustainable – and in turn the club does what it can to show support back.
Men’s football’s relationship with the LGBT+ community has historically been tense at best. A 2018 Outsport study showed that football was the most popular team sport amongst LGBT+ people across Scotland and other EU countries, but it was also by far the sport that LGBT+ people felt least welcome in.
So tomorrow, County have the chance to do their bit to change that in their Rainbow Laces fixture against table-topping Rangers in front of 300 supporters on live TV. The club are certainly aware of the responsibility they have to represent all of their fans, which is arguably all the more important when there is such a tangible connection between the Staggies faithful and the club.
“For the LGBTQ+ community, this is an important campaign to have a voice, and that’s the way it should be,” chief executive Steven Ferguson said.
“Football players are role-models, and clubs are as well, so we have to make sure that we are completely all-inclusive in what we do. I think it’s important that everybody is aware of these campaigns, and whether they can help in any way to support it.
“Sometimes people can be more involved than others, but it should be a common cause that’s across the board. There should be a clear line between what’s accepted and what’s not accepted, so everybody should look at what they can do at their club to make sure that the environment is completely friendly for everybody.
“We can’t keep hiding behind ‘that’s just what happens in football’, because every other walk of life has changed. There’s no reason that campaigns such as Rainbow Laces shouldn’t be accepted and welcomed as part of 2020 society and the world that we live in.
“Football is a part of society, but everybody knows what an influence football can have. That’s why it can be like the chicken and the egg with what has to change first, but I’m sure that if society and football support it and get themselves behind it then we will all be much stronger.”
Ferguson has been involved in football for practically his entire life, turning professional with Dunfermline Athletic in 1995 before signing for Ross County the following year. After hanging up his boots, he stayed in the game – returning to Dingwall first as a coach, before becoming assistant manager under Derek Adams and then moving into a role as academy director. In March 2018 he was named co-manager and earlier this year the club restructured and he became chief executive, so not many people have had such a range of vantage points within the game.
With so many different perspectives informing his opinion, it is perhaps telling that he does not think there would be any problems with a player coming out as LGBT+ in men’s football.
“I genuinely don’t think there would be any sort of issue whatsoever,” he insisted.
“I might be naive in saying that, but I’m sure the football family would be very supportive to anybody that felt like they needed that support. That would go for any campaign of this type, it should be an environment that is welcoming and supportive.
“I think everybody is much more aware of what you can and can’t say now. People are more conscious of how you should conduct yourself, it’s more prevalent and rightly so. It’s 2020, so I genuinely believe that the stereotypical dressing room is not how things are any more.
“It’s a very cosmopolitan dressing room across football at the moment, so I think things have changed and clubs and people are much more aware of how things are and how they should be.
“Right now it obviously doesn’t add up that there isn’t an LGBT+ footballer, the numbers tell you that, but it’s everyone’s choice if they would want to say how they feel publicly. We just need to make sure that the environment is there to help them make the choice to come out publicly or not. That’s football’s challenge, to make sure that everybody feels comfortable in their own skin.
“You would like to think that everybody would get behind that person. I’m 100% sure that would be the case, I don’t think there would be any issue, because people are so aware now. I suppose it’s just about having that role model for them, so that they feel brave enough to come out. Then again, they’re only going to do that if they feel comfortable, so everybody has a part to play.”
Creating a welcoming environment may be a more complex issue than it seems. Although the Rainbow Laces campaign is in it’s eighth year, there are still no male LGBT+ professional players currently plying their trade in the UK.
There are several concerns that could impede progress. Even taking the many messages of encouragement around Rainbow Laces at face value, the fear of a backlash on social media could put someone off, as could the undoubtedly intense attention that would come their way through traditional and new media alike.
From Ferguson’s point of view, the support system is in place in football to make sure coming out would be as trouble free as possible, but he believes change could simply end up being generational.
“It comes down to player welfare systems that every club has in place – depending on what the issue or problem was then I would think that every modern-day coach would be equipped to deal with it,” he explained.
“If they weren’t able to deal with it directly themselves, then they would definitely be able to signpost the player to get the support they need to get through whatever was causing them a problem.
“The young generation now are so switched on and so aware – I know people will say it’s not enough, but there certainly has been great strides made in education for the younger generation which only bodes well for them growing older.
“That’s my take on it, somebody of my age that wouldn’t have gotten that education at school is obviously educating themselves now, and it’s all included in the welfare stuff that you get in coaching education through the Scottish FA too, but we have education from a much younger age.
“Having three kids myself, and knowing how open it is within secondary schools as we stand at the moment, it shows that environment is clearly more comfortable than the adult football environment at the moment. I suppose those are the strides we need to take to make sure it’s across the board.
“That generation of schoolkids then becomes the next generation of footballers, so it might take a long time but I certainly think that society and how it’s portrayed and dealt with in wider terms will filter through to football naturally. We need to make sure that we try and support that and help that and push that along the way, and I’m sure if you went and spoke to every club that they would be willing to do that.”