An Interview with Rainbow Blades

If you’re a Sheffield United fan and you haven’t heard of their LGBTQ+ supporters group Rainbow Blades then, have you been living under a rock? Since forming in early 2020, the supporters group has grown in leaps and bounds as they continue to grow exponentially member-wise (over 650 fans, don’t you know?) and as a beacon of positivity for the LGBTQ+ community within the city, continuously at the forefront of making sure that football really is a sport for everyone. 

 Alongside this, Rainbow Blades are a multi-award-winning group with a 2022 Football Supporter’s Award (FSA) win for Fans for Diversity and a 2023 silver award in the Football v Homophobia Awards in the Supporters group category.  

 With all the success, we felt it was an appropriate time to try and get some members in for a chat at YPP towers, and that’s exactly what we did! We sat down with founder James Laley and Committee member Kate Lovell for a lovely long chat about all things Rainbow Blades. 

With a plethora of awards under your belt, have there been extensions to your mantelpieces to fit them all on? 

JL: (laughs) For the mantelpiece that I have at home? Yeah! The Fans For Diversity award that we won, the club can get a replica award from the FSA, that’s up to them. But the original award is in my apartment, in my living room! The Football vs Homophobia award, the one we came runner up in, that’s also in my living room. So yeah, I need to build a mantelpiece in my living room! The club won in their category at the Football vs Homophobia award (category: Professional Game Award) so they have that somewhere in the club. 

So, what drove you to create a fan supporters’ group, and, more specifically, how did it all come about? 

JL: There were two reasons really. The first one was that Sheffield United have an LGBTQ+ and allies fans group and, at the time, three years ago now, there was about 50 up and down the country and I thought, well, why don’t Sheffield United have one? They should have one! Also, I’ve got godchildren who, I hope, will become Sheffield United fans as they get older and I don’t want them to come to Bramall Lane and hear any type of discrimination, specifically LGBTQ+ discrimination. 

When we were back in League One, I remember I’d gone on my own to a night match – maybe it was Gillingham? It was during the winter and Leon Clarke was warming up on the touchline and he was head to foot in thermals. A guy a row or two behind me shouted homophobic abuse at Leon Clarke because of him being wrapped up so much because it was winter (“look at that weak…”) I was on my own and at the time didn’t have as much confidence as I do now when I go to Bramall Lane because of Rainbow Blades, so I just left it, I didn’t turn around or report it to the club. I just carried on watching the match. They’re the specific reasons why I wanted to set one up.  

I went to the club engagement manager at the time, which was John Garrett, [I] said I’ve got this idea, this fan supporter group. He loved it, said, “go away, put a plan together, launch it and come back to us” – which I did! The club were fully behind it, the CEO was fully behind it, the owners were fully behind it, and off we go! 

Kate, how did you get involved with the committee and Rainbow Blades? 

KL: Initially, during lockdown, the club sent out an email about Rainbow Blades starting up, it had a soft launch prior to that, but I hadn’t come across it until that point. [I] signed up straight away, I think I was in the first… 50 members, something like that? 

JL: I think so! 

KL: I was one of the earlier members of the group, [and] loved being a part of it! [I] felt like I wanted to re-engage with the club after a bit of time where I felt a bit distant. I’d had times where I’d not had a season ticket because my son was growing up, I’d gone to a few games during the promotion season and the Wilder years (2016-2021) but I hadn’t been fully immersed whereas previously, before I’d had my son, my whole life was Sheffield United. Last summer, a few of the committee members were stepping down and James said, “Do you think you’d like to get more involved? You’re already one of the more involved members that isn’t a committee member, so if you want to step up, I’d invite you to apply! We’re going to be opening informal advertising for a committee member.” So, I did, and the rest is history! Here I am! 

JL: And she’s amazing! She helps me so much; she keeps me grounded and calm and takes a lot on as well. 

KL: We all work together, I think that’s the great thing about the committee, we are a really good team.  

Rainbow Blades is renowned for its openness and inclusivity. How do you manage to keep the feel good- factor going?  

JL: I think because we’re open to all Blades. Yes, we are there for the LGBTQ+ Blades and we are there for LGBTQ+ inclusion at Bramall Lane and at football in general. But we have a big focus on allies. We have our Proud Allies campaign and we wanted to get that message across that any Blade can join Rainbow Blades and be a part of this family and be a part of this positive supporters group that has a great relationship with the club, that has great dialogue with the club, that gets involved with campaigns, that wins awards, that has socials, meeting up before the match and all that jazz.

We are very, very approachable when it comes to in person or online. It’s been really important for me to keep that going and with the Proud Allies campaign, even more so now. When we first started up, I had so many allies who were like, “oh, well I can’t join, can I? Because I’m not part of the LGBT community?” And I said no, of course you can join! You’re an ally! You can definitely join! That’s one of the reasons we launched the Proud Allies campaign a couple of years ago, because we wanted to get that message out there that Rainbow Blades is for everyone. 

When you look at our stats, we’ve got 645 members now and 55% of them are allies. So, it worked! It shows that any Blade can join, and you can get involved as you like, like Katey did from the very start, or if you just want to join [and] wear the pin badge, that’s absolutely fine! Because that’s still showing allyship.

KL: Like James has said, I think we are a very approachable group – I hope we’re an approachable group, most people feedback that we are! I think we’ve got a great mix of people from different backgrounds, different socio-economic backgrounds as well as different sexualities and genders. I have anxiety and I’m a nervous person – one of the reasons I wanted to get involved is to show other people who perhaps felt that way [that they] didn’t need to feel nervous coming along. We’re not clique-y, we are open for everyone, and we will go out of our way to make everyone feel as much a part of Rainbow Blades as they can be. 

With ambassadors for the group including club legends like Tony Currie and the late Len Badger, alongside Ellie Wilson (current Blades defender) on board, has this allowed and vindicated you and your ongoing mission to make Sheffield United a more inclusive and welcoming environment, and has it helped to engage groups that you perhaps might not have been able to approach so early on after the formation of the group? 

JL: Having ambassadors always helps and amplifies that positive message and gets Rainbow Blades out there. Having Tony Currie on board is amazing. He’s a club legend, he says yes to everything! I message him all the time when something Rainbow Blades comes up, I say “Ooooo, Tony, do you want to get involved with this?” And he says yes to absolutely everything. It’s great to have Ellie Wilson on board because it opens [us] up to those fans that are going to the Sheffield United women’s matches. She gets involved with absolutely everything as well.  

The whole point of being an ambassador is to amplify that message and be a positive voice. Because they’ve got that stature, when we do promotional films or photoshoots (most recently, we were up at Shirecliffe having our pictures taken with the players for the birthday event), people will pay more attention as soon as a high-profile player or ex-player is involved. It’s always going to catch people’s attention as soon as Billy Sharp pops up in a film or Ben Osborn does likewise. It’s very positive and we continue to look to see how we can build that ambassador team because we don’t just want to stop at Tony, Ellie, Sam Badger (daughter of Len Badger), we want to continue to grow this team of ambassadors so we’re always looking and working with the club to try and identify more. 

Who would be your dream ambassador? 

KL: Someone who’s passionate about it! We’ve spoken about how we’d love to have a first team male player onboard. I hope I’m not going out of remit saying this, but we wouldn’t want someone to do it just for the sake of doing it. We need someone who actually cares about the cause because we are all so passionate about it! We want whoever comes on board to also feel that way, to be a strong ally if they’re not LGBTQ+. 

JL: Those conversations are happening with the club, we catch up with the club every six to eight weeks and on the agenda is that discussion around a senior player becoming an ambassador. But as Katey said, we get that message across to the club that you can’t just go into the dressing room and go “right, ok, Oli Norwood. You’re a Rainbow Blades ambassador now, crack on” – they’ve got to want to do it as well. 

Within the first year of your creation, everything went into lockdown How did you adapt? 

JL: To start, it was a bit frustrating because it was January 2020 when I went to the club [with the idea]. Obviously, in January 2020, we had no idea at that point we were about to go into lockdown! Part of the plans for Rainbow Blades was an in-person launch at Bramall Lane, pitch-side, a big firework launch [to say] we’re here! All that had to be put to one side because of lockdown. But we made the decision that it was the right thing to launch Rainbow Blades now and not wait to come out of lockdown because football at the time had been taken away. Not being able to meet before the match in the pub, not singing the Greasy Chip Buttie song as loud as you can in Bramall Lane – that was taken away. 

We thought this was the right time to launch because it’s going to give people a way of connecting – and it worked! Even though I wouldn’t wish lockdown to happen, it worked in our favour because by doing all these online socials, we were meeting people we might not have met straight away in person and managing to connect with other LGBTQ+ supporter groups. We built these networks and met all these people potentially faster and easier than if we had done an in-person launch. We had to adapt, but it also worked in our favour as well.  

KL: It definitely did. That initial core group of members that have stuck with it are often the ones who come forward when we need volunteers for things. There is a bond between those people because, like anyone going through lockdown together, it was a traumatic, unprecedented time and to share that with other Blades was special, if not very strange. 

After the roaring success of recent events like the Rainbow Laces Cup, have you got any further big plans for the rest of the year? 

JL: We are planning a couple of socials that don’t involve matchday. Every home game is a matchday social at Lykke, but not everyone wants to or can go to that. We’re going to look at a couple of other socials we could hold during the off-season that might bring some other members in. We’re looking at some point to do a Fans for Diversity event with the FSA at Bramall Lane. We don’t know what that could look like now, but it’s on the backburner. It just takes time as we’re all volunteers, so we do this alongside our full-time jobs.  This past couple of weeks, we’ve had the birthday, we’ve got promotion to plan, and Katey is trying to get something sorted for Wembley. 

KL: And Pinknic! We’ll be there, like we were last year, last year was great! We had Tony Currie and Ellie Wilson come down. Sam came with her partner, it was lovely, we had a lovely time, got to speak to lots of different people so hopefully more of the same!

JL: We’re also part of IDAHOBIT this year, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, organised by SayIt, our charity partner. The best way to find out what’s on is to follow us on social media. And if you sign up as a member, you’ll get our newsletter! 

645 members – it’s fair to say that’s a lot of people! Has this exceeded your expectations? 

JL: Yes! (laughs) It grew a lot faster than I could have ever, ever expected. In my head, I thought in the first twelve months if we could hit 100 members, we’ve done well. In the first 3-4 months, we passed 100 members. Then on the back of the club doing their launch of Rainbow Blades in June 2020, after our soft launch in April 2020 to coincide with Pride month, we saw a massive spike in membership because the club has a much bigger reach than we do on our own. At that point, I was completely on my own and I thought, I need to sort out a committee! 

It’s unbelievable how fast we’ve grown. If you compare us to Gay Gooners, Arsenal’s LGBTQ+ group (the first ever LGBTQ+ supporters’ group), they celebrated their 10th birthday back in February and they now have 1,300 members. In three years, we’ve got to 645. So, yes, we might not be the biggest LGBTQ+ supporters’ group in the country, but I would say we are the fastest growing. It’s unbelievable really! 

KL: I think our goal is to have more and more allies because it’s so important they have your back! There are more people out there who are potential allies than there are LGBTQ+ people, especially open LGBTQ+ people in the football environment, so getting more allies involved is a big goal for us. It’s our target to become the biggest LGBTQ+ supporters and allies’ group in the country.  

JL: We’ve set ourselves five goals. One of the goals is around membership, we’ve said within the next four to five years we’d like to get 10% of the capacity of Bramall Lane as members (around 2,200 members). That’s one of our big goals. I’d like us to be the largest LGBTQ+ football supporters’ group in the country. In regard to why we set up in the first place, [having] more open LGBTQ+ Blades coming to Bramall Lane, being their authentic selves, not having to hide certain aspects of their lives because they think they are going to be taunted or face discrimination. That’s why Rainbow Blades was set up, because we want Bramall Lane to be the most inclusive stadium in the country for our fans. Hopefully, in five years’ time, we can sit here and say 100% of Sheffield United fans are confident in reporting discrimination and 100% are confident to be their authentic selves at Bramall Lane. They are the ultimate goals. 

Compared to a decade ago, do you feel like there has been a marked improvement in LGBTQ+ inclusion within the game and amongst supporters within the football stratosphere? 

KL: There have definitely been positive changes within the football world, the fact we’ve now got players coming out whilst still playing professionally is amazing. There are now openly gay players, there are lots of lesbian/bi players, especially in the women’s game and that’s fantastic! I think there have been huge improvements in the reporting of homophobic/transphobic language and there is probably less of that, although recent research did show that 42% of people still feel like there is a problem with homophobia at football games and grounds in the UK. Generally, there are huge improvements from where we were, but there is always more work to be done. 

JL: I agree with what Katey just said, I think for me, even though positive strides have been made, we are heading into a dangerous time. There’s a couple of things that are holding the good progress back or even starting to push some of it back. One’s the media. I think the media have a lot to answer for when it comes to homophobic behaviour, especially transphobic behaviour – you can’t go a day without reading an article from a publication about transphobia. I think that’s really hurting the positive progress we’ve made; people are believing everything that’s said by the media, and they jump on that and use it as ammunition to attack us.

We saw that with the Rainbow Blades birthday post. When it was posted on Sheffield United’s Facebook page, there was huge amounts of negative comments. Not necessarily direct homophobia or homophobic words but lots of negativity. When you read them, you could tell it was people jumping on the whole “this is too woke” or “stop ramming it down our throats” or “stop being political”  

KL: Someone mentioned the Drag Queen Storytime, which doesn’t even happen at Bramall Lane for starters. 

JL: I think governing bodies need to do a h*ll of a lot more and not just do it as virtue signalling or ticking a box. Sheffield United are fantastic, they do it for the right reasons. They work with us all year round, they work with us on campaigns for trans-visibility, for Pride month, they work with us in LGBTQ+ community events like Pinknic. That’s why they won that national award for Football vs Homophobia because it’s not a tick box exercise to them. But then you look at governing bodies, like the FA, like UEFA, like FIFA, and they’ve got a lot more to do because they do come across like it’s a tick box exercise. It’s like “Oh! It’s Pride month, we best do something quickly for Pride month or we’ll look bad”, and how they dealt with the OneLove armband during the World Cup was horrendous. Every governing body folded like a deck of cards, “we can’t possibly risk one of our players getting a yellow card”. 

KL: It takes Alex Scott, an openly bisexual woman, to come and wear it whilst on TV. It’s us fighting for ourselves. This is why we need allies, and we need allies who actually care. 

JL: That’s absolutely right, yes, we are in a better place than we were 5, 10, 15 years ago, we obviously are but, for me, over the past 6-12 months, I can see us as a society heading into a new dangerous area because of this narrative in the media and people jumping on that narrative and it’s something we’ve got to fight against because we do not want to go backwards in what we are doing. 

Could you tell us more about the Proud Allies Campaign? 

JL: The Proud Allies campaign does what it says on the tin – if you’re not from the LGBTQ+ community but you want to be a voice for us, stand by us, be visible and spread the positive message of Rainbow Blades and LGBTQ+ people being welcome at Bramall Lane, that’s why you should get involved. It’s no different to anyone else getting involved in Rainbow Blades, there’s no separate criteria or separate sign-up form, you sign up as a proud ally because you want to stand by a minority group that needs that voice. If people want to find out more about the Proud Allies campaign, there’s a whole section on our website ( There are resources that can be downloaded for people to read, educate themselves, and build up awareness. 

KL: There’s the video campaign on there as well for Proud Allies. That was a huge project, one of the first big projects that was undertaken. 

We’ve come to the end, final question from me is, who are the frontrunners for the Rainbow Blades Player of the Season award come the end of the year? 

JL: There was one clear frontrunner! (laughs) I’ll say who the top three were, but in no particular order so people might not be able to guess: Anel, Jack Robinson and Iliman. 

A huge thanks to James and Katey from Rainbow Blades for being our first interviewees at YPP. You can find out more information about Rainbow Blades and all the good work they do at the links below! 

Website: Rainbow Blades

Membership Form: Become A Member (   

Facebook: Rainbow Blades | Facebook  

Twitter: Rainbow Blades (@rainbow_blades) / Twitter   

Instagram: Rainbow Blades (@rainbowblades) • Instagram photos and videos          

TikTok: Rainbow Blades (@rainbow_blades) | TikTok