Greg McLean is the secretary of St Margaret’s Old Boys FC, a Liverpool County FA referee and former manager of St Margaret’s CE Academy U18s, based in Aighburth, Liverpool. Following on from the opening weekend of action supporting Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, he gives us his story about the support he received when he decided to come out.
For a long time throughout my teenage years, I questioned my sexuality.
Were the thoughts and feelings I had just a “normal” part of growing up? Was it just hormones? Did everyone have the same thoughts?
A lack of education in LGBTQ+ in my school year, I feel, played a part in this lack of understanding. I was scared.
I did not want to be gay. Why would I want to be? Fellow students would use “gay” as a term for insulting people. “You’re gay” or “That’s gay” were common phrases on the school yard.
So the fact that I had these feelings and thoughts about my sexuality made school life very difficult. I got used to effectively acting my way through each day.
Pretending I fancied girls, or saying I found female celebrities attractive, that was commonplace. But the fact was, I didn’t and never had. In my head, I thought, well, it will happen one day. That day never arrived.
One of the big factors in my fear about my sexuality was my involvement in football. I played football from a young age, and later set up a team with my dad at the age of 15, for my school friends.
It felt like there was no room for being gay in football. If you didn’t go into a tackle fully committed, you were a “faggot”. That was the sad truth.
So I continued to live in fear, deep in the closet, guarding my secret day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month and eventually, year-after-year.
As I was in an all-boys school, St Margaret’s, it made things ten times more difficult and when I went to sixth form and girls were there, this was my opportunity to show I fitted in with the crowd.
I would start rumours that I liked one of the girls, just so that nobody would suspect otherwise and I managed to get through sixth form unscathed, nobody had found out the truth.
After completing my A-Levels, I actually began working at St. Margaret’s having previously been a student there.
I would busy myself, to distract from the pain I was going through in hiding who I really was, and I set up another football team, St Margaret’s Old Boys FC, for former students of the school.
Again though, I did not feel confident or comfortable enough to reveal the real me to anyone. Years went by, five in fact, of batting off the regular questions of: “So are you seeing anyone at the minute, Greg?” or “Have you got a girlfriend yet?” I would swiftly change the subject whenever those questions got asked by family or friends.
But in the summer of 2015, my mental health had gradually dipped significantly. Waking up each day was painful, I felt as though I was carrying around a dark cloud above my head and I was struggling to hide the misery in my face on a daily basis.
My work friends were concerned. Bless them, they kept on saying: “You need to find yourself a girlfriend” but little did they know.
After a summer holiday spent lying on my sofa, curtains closed and sitting alone with my thoughts, I had reached my lowest point. I had contemplated the options of how I could get out of feeling this way all of the time, and it was pointing to one route - ending it all.
But I did not have the courage to go through with it and I returned to work in September. By this point, I was really struggling with the day-to-day pressures of work life, running a football team and all the while, trying to act as though nothing was wrong.
There was one friend, my manager at the time, Geoff, who had his suspicions about my mental health, my anxiety and my low moods.
He had picked up that whenever the topic of girls was mentioned, that I would change the subject and find it uncomfortable. And slowly but surely, he put the pieces of the jigsaw together.
After a number of chats, and with the right line of questioning but never asking me outright, he got the answers that he expected in working out that I was in fact, gay.
What struck me was that he did not have a problem with me being gay. Having hidden it for so long, one of my main fears was what people would think of me and he had no issue with it.
It amazed me, the feeling of a weight lifting from my shoulders now that one person knew. I felt liberated.
Finally, I had the confidence to tell my two closest friends, Matty and Graham. We went out for a bite to eat and I was trying for all of that day, to work out how I was going to tell them.
But I found the words, and again the reaction was not what I was expecting. Graham simply said: “Why would we treat you any different? You are still the same person.”
I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy inside. But next was the biggest test, telling my family. I had decided days in advance that the weekend of 17 October 2015, was the time.
But again, I found the words, even if it did take a bit longer this time, and their reaction was one of love and support.
I guess on reflection, I underestimated the love of my parents because they were extremely supportive, even if they had no idea at all and were surprised. They just thought I was shy.
With those closest to me now knowing, it felt as though I was on Cloud Nine, but there was one big part of my life that was still in the dark, my football team.
I was devastated when I made the decision in November 2015 to walk away from being manager of St Margaret’s Old Boys, because I did not think that my players would want to play or be associated with a ‘gay manager’. I was concerned it would make them want to leave, or make them feel uncomfortable.
So having stepped aside, Geoff encouraged me to seek some support outside of work in the form of counselling. Ria, who was our school counsellor at the time, was the perfect person I needed at that time. Being able to talk to her about what I had been going through, and the feelings I had, finally meant I was free to be the real me, even just for that one hour per week.
Having got myself in to a much more confident place, on my 24th birthday in April 2016, I was driving home and decided to stop the car in a side street. I turned the engine off and just sat a while.
The penny had dropped. I was finally ready to tell the football lads of my struggles. I sat for the next hour writing to each player individually via text message, explaining the real reason that I had left five months earlier and what I had been going through.
The responses I received moved me to tears. I had not expected or anticipated the level of support and respect that I got.
Every single player responded to my message. The common theme in their response was that it did not in any way change their opinion of me as a person, nor did it lessen their respect for what I had done for them in running the football team, or when I had known them during their time at the school.
I sat in my car, at 11.30pm, totally numb. I was finally free. The weight I had carried since my early teenage years, which by this point was over a decade, had drifted away in that moment.
I was now an openly gay man. Nobody had a bad word to say about it. What was all the fuss about?
Even though I often reflect on what could have been in terms of should I have come out years earlier, I always think to myself that this is my story and it was meant to happen this way.
I am finally proud of who I am and hope that one day, gay footballers around the world can be open about who they are without fear of a newspaper headline or fear of abuse from the terraces.
It is time to bring our sport into the 21st century, people are gay – it is not a choice; that is who they are and they should be able to be proud of it.
You can follow Greg on Twitter at @GregMclean92
Wednesday 28 November is Rainbow Laces Day, so lace up in support of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in sport.
As part of the Rainbow Laces campaign and to celebrate a new partnership with The FA, Stonewall FC will be play their Middlesex County Football League game with Wilberforce Wanderers at Wembley Stadium on Friday 30 November.