For those of us not well acquainted with the Highland League, the name Gregg Carrol might not mean a great deal.
However, for those in the know, Carrol is a legend – and one of the most successful managers in Highland League history. He has won the league four times – with Deveronvale in 2003 and 2006, and more recently with Buckie Thistle, who he guided to successive titles in 2010 and 2011.
Earlier this week he resigned from his post as manager of Huntly FC for personal and private reasons, leaving the club “in a far healthier state than when he arrived”. Given his achievements in football management, it might come as a surprise to know Carrol is only 44 years old.
It might come as even more of a surprise to know that he is openly gay.
Of course, Carrol would undoubtedly prefer commentators to reflect on his football achievements rather than his sexual orientation. But, after stepping down from his responsibilities at Huntly, he opted to speak frankly about the problem of homophobia within the game and why football culture needs to change to make it a more inclusive, safer environment for gay and bisexual players to be themselves.
Speaking to the Daily Record, Carrol bravely talked about his own difficulties and hopes that being honest about his own sexual identity will not only help others to come out, but will help break down some of the taboos that arguably force players to keep their sexuality well hidden.
He told the Daily Record: “Football needs to break the taboo, I believe everyone should be allowed to live their life the way they want to live it.
“I’m beyond all of the criticisms, it’s going to take time and I accept people have their own views on it and that’s fine. I also believe it’s better to stand up at the forefront of trying to break that taboo and declare that is how you want to live your life. That’s the better option.
“If people don’t like that they don’t like it but that’s the way it is.”
Carrol believes that attitudes are changing, but admits there was a time when he was afraid of coming out. He clearly understands why, given the “culture” of football, many might find it easier to remain in the closet. However, if he has any regrets at all, they’re in relation to his inability to be open about who he was, something he regards as a “deception”.
He said: “I haven’t experienced any difficulty as a gay man in Scottish football. I’ve had no problems with that whatsoever. Everyone I’ve worked with, the players and the club are all aware of my situation.
“I was honest with them when I came out and it’s never been an issue with them, I’ve enjoyed their full support. I have never conducted myself in any other way than being completely professional.
“You can’t live your life as a lie, I’ve hurt so many people by living a lie. You can’t continue to do that, you need to address the situation and sort it and that’s what I have done. I never actually made a point of walking into the dressing room and telling the players this was this and that was that.
“When I first came out I received a lot of text messages of support from managers and players. There is a huge fear factor which goes for anyone who makes the kind of massive decision in life in the way I did. It was a massive decision as I have two daughters as well and they were at the top of the list as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t changed, I’m still the same person.”
Carrol is convinced that football has helped to support him to be honest to himself and to accept his homosexuality. While this may have been tough on a personal level, his experience is one of being accepted rather than excluded and he has never encountered hostility. He hopes his decision to be open about his sexuality, and the positive response he received from within football, will help convince other gay or bisexual people involved in the game that there is no need to lead secretive lives.
He said: “There has been no one who has been either indirectly or directly involved with me who hasn’t shown me complete respect and praise for what I have done.
“Everyone should be able to live their life as they wish and not fear criticism. The statistics are clear that there are others in the game who were in the same predicament I was on and times have changed. Social media has come into things and few people can live their lives behind closed doors any more as everything is open.
“I kept my private life to myself for 40 odd years and I hurt people when I came out. That’s something I’m not proud of but at some point you need to do what’s right for yourself.
“I’ve reached a turning point in my life, I’ve done what I wanted to do and had 16 great years in the Highland League. Deveronvale, Buckie and Huntly, all of these clubs were unbelievably good to me. There has been the odd jibe but it’s about how you address that and take it on the chin but you’ll get that in any walk of life.
“I have so much appreciation for all these clubs and the players for the backing they have given me.”
Carrol admits that walking away from football is extremely difficult, espeically given the support he has personally received from it. However, he strongly feels the time is right for new challenges.
He explained: “Walking away from the game leaves a huge gap but there are other things which are far more important in life than football. That’s certainly the case for me, I can still go and watch games but I didn’t think I was able to be at the forefront and the sharp end of the game now.
“I’m not the same person I was five or six years ago, I need to go and find myself again for my own sake and football will have to take a backseat.
“I also believe I have done my bit in the Highland League. Football has changed and I have to admit that I’m finding it hard to change with it.”
It’s hard to disagree that Carrol has more than “done his bit” for the Highland League, and the clubs he has served so effectively. As for whether the game is changing, we should all hope that – at least as far as attitudes towards sexual orientation are concerned – his optimism is well-placed.