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.