Rainbow Laces – Ross County’s Malky Mackay: “You could see how hard it was for Josh in that interview when he kept swallowing, and then he eventually said it, and there was such an outpouring in his favour.”

There are not many people who have seen so many different facets of football as Malky Mackay.

Starting out juggling a job in banking with playing as an amateur for Queen’s Park, Mackay earned his career changing move to Celtic in 1993, and spent the next five years at the Glasgow giants – being part of the squad that ended city rivals Rangers’ quest for 10 titles in-a-row in the 90s – before moving to England.

He signed for Norwich City, becoming part of the squad that would earn promotion to the English Premier League in 2014 before getting released, and it was a similar story the next season at West Ham United.

Around that time he won five caps for Scotland, but it was at Watford he would really make his mark, once again earning promotion to the top flight and this time getting the opportunity to prove himself there before moving into coaching at Vicarage Road under Aidy Boothroyd.

Mackay stuck around at the club, eventually becoming manager after the resignation of Brendan Rodgers in 2009. That started a new chapter in his career, and he would reach new heights in the dug out after moving to Cardiff City in 2011 – taking them to the League Cup final a year later where they only lost on penalties to Liverpool and lifting the Championship title.

Later, the wheels began to fall off. He was sacked after Vincent Tan became the club’s chairman, and Cardiff later sent a dossier to the FA alleging that Mackay had sent racist, sexist and homophobic messages.

After a short-lived and unsuccessful spell at Wigan Athletic, he moved out of the spotlight of being a manager and became performance director at the Scottish FA, where he was tasked with finding and developing young players. The SFA’s performance schools that have already produced talents like Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson were a big part of his focus, while on top of the youth age groups he was also involved with the Under-21s and women’s teams.

Kick It Out, the anti-racism group, made supportive comments when Mackay joined the Scottish FA pointing out that he received equality and diversity training in the aftermath of the allegations, but that did not prevent controversy stirring up again in May of this year when he returned to frontline management with Ross County in the Scottish Premiership.

At the time, his message was to judge him on his words and actions now rather than what had happened in the past, as well as how the team performed on the pitch, but many supporters still were not happy.

Some minds will understandably have been made up for good, regardless of what happens next, but others may have been heartened to hear Mackay has thrown his full support behind the Rainbow Laces campaign, which has just begun its 2021 activation.

“It’s huge, because the inclusivity part of football goes from four or five-year-olds right through to walking football that the Scottish FA put on for 70-year-olds,” Mackay said.

“It’s an incredible thing. I’ve had a really good handle on it over the last four years at the Scottish FA, and I look at what the Scottish FA do for football with a pride. Not even just Scottish football, but the whole country.

“When I look at the inclusivity, it really makes you smile. The Scottish FA’s McDonalds Awards that are on every year is a fabulous event, it reminded me of the Pride of Britain Awards. People who came up on stage said that without the ability to be involved in football, they weren’t sure where they would be. It breaks your heart.

“When you look at the amount of people that have the access and comfort to go and play football now without being judged, and without having any stigma attached to them, it gives you pride in football in this country.

“Over the last couple of days I was looking at the young lad from Adelaide, Josh Cavallo, and he’s done the cut about five times before he can get to what he wants to say.

“You swallow watching that, because you can only imagine what’s going through his mind to be ready to do it.

“It’s interesting with his age, because I think you find that the youth are quite happy to just be them. It was tough for Josh, but I think the youth embrace it very quickly and easily, and now you’ve got the first top flight player (to come out).

“I know the power of what football can do in the world, it can change things. You think of what the World Cup or the European Championships do for Scotland in terms of the nation getting behind one thing, there are very few things that can do that.

“A Commonwealth Games brings everyone together, but very few things can bring a nation together the way that sport does, so the inclusivity of everyone makes a huge difference. It allows people to be themselves, and I think seeing all the different aspects of Scottish life where the women’s game has come to the fore massively, it gives people the confidence to say ‘I am me, and I want to be involved’.

“It makes a big, big difference, and I think the fact that there are more and more large organisations backing it, more governing bodies, that’s massive as well.

“It gets to the point where it doesn’t have to be a campaign eventually, it can just be part of life. You look at how far the women’s game has come from having had to battle for acceptance, and I think anybody should be able to play their sport without something like that mattering. Whatever your sexuality or your beliefs, everybody should just be able to play football together.”

It has almost become cliche to say that women’s sport is a more inclusive place for LGBTQIA+ identities than men’s sport, but Josh Cavallo’s story has given reason to celebrate in men’s football recently.

He has spoken about times he struggled, but by and large the reaction to him becoming the first top flight player in the world to come out as gay has been positive. Countless football superstars and clubs sent messages of support to him, and the smile on Cavallo’s face doing the rounds of interviews that inevitably followed his announcement was infectious.

The question remains as to whether there would be the same positivity in the UK, and whether the support structures are in place to help someone who came out. As far as Mackay is concerned, though, efforts are being made to make football more inclusive on a global scale.

“There has been a massive shift over the last few years, because it is coming through,” the 49-year-old explained.

“I work with UEFA and FIFA as well, these two monster bodies who have huge financial backing are now incredibly transparent because of what happened a few years ago. They are emptying their bank accounts and throwing money out to 211 countries worldwide – 55 for UEFA. That is for the areas that are worldwide issues right now.

“They’re not throwing the money out there saying ‘give that to Manchester United’, they’re giving it to countries so that there is inclusivity in the world to play football.

“I’m seeing that right now, governing bodies are saying that they have ways of working, procedures, risk registers, and demanding that organisations put a person in post that can look after whatever it might be. I actually am seeing it. It’s happening, but it’s only just happening in the last couple of years. There is definitely a shift at the very top.

“Like anything, you have more and more people now who are moving into positions of power who have open minds, and actually want to affect change and help everybody and anybody. It is interesting. I am helping out with the strategy at FIFA at the moment concerning the 211 countries, and the areas in the world that don’t play football that they want to help funding in. It really is going to shift things in the world, because they want football for all.

“They want to make sure that everybody can play without any stigma being attached to anything at all, and that there are funds available to help football in those areas be transparent and safe so that anyone is able to go and train and play without fear of anything.

“You could see how hard it was for Josh in that interview when he kept swallowing, and then he eventually said it, and there was such an outpouring in his favour.

“It will be a big thing, regularly the head of the Premier League or the chair of the FA will be asked what they’re doing about it, what will happen when this happens? Statistics show there have to be people that just haven’t yet decided to say it. I don’t think we’re far away from that, because I think there will be such a protection of them governing-wise and also from the community, which is great.”

Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still far too prevalent in sport.

Back in the dressing room on a daily basis with Ross County, Mackay has seen how the culture in football has changed over the decades. It does not take a great deal of imagination to think that there will be major differences between the current Scottish Women’s National Team featuring prominent LGBTQIA+ players like Lisa Evans and captain Rachel Corsie and the amateur changing rooms of the early 1990s.

Even with the lack of visible role models in the men’s game, though, Mackay is confident there will be similarly few issues if and when a top player comes out.

“I genuinely don’t think there would be an issue,” Mackay insisted.

“I don’t think it would be a Bosman moment – Bosman changed everything, but it didn’t help him one bit. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

“I think society has changed, and I think the power of social media has made a big difference to that in terms of the amount of people that are able to quickly back someone, which will allow them to relax. Maybe I’m talking nonsense, but that’s how I think. If and when that does come, and it will at some point, then I’m sure that person will hope that they’re judged on their career.

“They will probably hope that doesn’t get rolled away because they are the first person (to come out). I would hope that Josh just goes into the next game and eventually becomes a top player, and doesn’t sink under the weight of what’s happened. As and when the time comes, I think the country will embrace that as much as anything.

“Dressing rooms look after each other in this day more than ever. In days gone by, it was a tough environment at times, but life has changed a lot. Now emotional intelligence has to come into coaches’ minds more and more. The days of the draconian coach are long gone, because they’re not going to get the best out of players.

“Nowadays you find more and more coaches and managers spreading their wings and looking at business, or other sports, whatever it may be, to find ways of leading.

“It’s about how you help and motivate people – that is absolutely coming into football more and more. You find football coaches and managers have a different way of getting the best out of people, and most of the time now you will very rarely find a business leader or a top sports leader who have got there by being a tyrant. Now you’ve got a much more sensitive area, and you’ve got people who are actually pulling for each other all the time.

“You talk about that safe space, and honestly that dressing room would be the best place in the world for it, because it’s a group of people who want to look after and protect each other.”

Mackay touches on an important aspect of creating the right environment for players to feel comfortable coming out – coaches. Again this is an area where he has valuable insight – not just from his own career, but also from helping to bring through future generations of coaches and managers as a key part of the Scottish FA coaching licenses.

Building an inclusive environment for people to come out starts off the pitch, so it is important coaches and managers have the tools to support players in that regard too.

He believes more work than ever before is going in to preparing coaches and managers for off-pitch issues including LGBTQIA+ inclusion, which is one of five key facets that must be completed in order to pass the course.

That, hopefully, will help give managers the tools needed to support players thinking about coming out, in turn making football a more inclusive place for all.

“I was lucky enough to look after the Scottish Pro License, and inclusivity is part of the course,” he stressed.

“It all comes back to having those softer skills as a coach to be able to recognise if a player is struggling. Why are they struggling? What are you seeing? It’s about having the ability to deal with it and say I’ve either got to go and have a chat and see if there is help or support mechanism for whatever we’re going to find out, or do I know someone that we can get in that can help. How in the first place do we find out if there’s something up? Maybe someone isn’t as chirpy or as lively as they used to be when I’m seeing them at training.

“Part of the role of a manager is being a Samaritan at times. Your door can get chapped on any afternoon, and a player will be coming in to talk to you about anything – I swear to God it can be anything. It has happened to me at Ross County, and it has happened at the three other clubs I managed. There are times when your jaw drops – but it doesn’t, because it can’t. They’re coming to see you for help.

“You might be the only person that they’ve spoken to, and at that point you’re thinking ‘this person has felt the need to speak to me’, and number one you’re thinking you’re not equipped to deal with it, but number two you’re thinking they have come to you, so what are you going to be about it? How are you going to do it?

“Part of the qualification, part of the skill, is being able to be that person. Pro License is very unlike going out on the grass a lot, it’s mostly dealing with how to be a football manager and all these things that are going to be thrown up away from the grass.

“We had people walk off the course halfway through because the job was getting too much for them. So part of what we looked at was all the skills that are needed to put another arrow in their quiver so that they have enough to be able to recognise if someone has got an issue, and what that might be. If they come to me about it, how do I approach it and how do we deal with this?

“That’s going to come up with LGBT+. It has come up with lots of things, none of the cases I’ve been involved in was that but there was some deep stuff that I was involved with where I was thinking ‘I need help here, serious professional help to help this person’. I don’t see it being any different in terms of someone going and chapping on the door to come and see you.

“I think players will be in a more comfortable space now to do it, because you’re seeing a lot more managers who are broad-minded.”

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