The Glasgow Community and Cooperative League, whose first round of fixtures were played earlier this month, was established to allow “sides from across west central Scotland to take part regardless of age or ability, but more importantly, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.”
The league aims to be inclusive and insists that violence, intimidation and unsporting behaviour – something it claims is sadly common in amateur football – will not be welcome or tolerated.
Martin Tocker, one of the co-founders of the league, explained to KaleidoScot how the new league came about. “It was an idea I had at the back of my mind for around 18 months”, he said. I was previously involved with the running of a charity league in Glasgow, but my own side were not enjoying the atmosphere at many of the matches.
“I found a friendlier league with a lot of very impressive football teams who had proper aims and aspirations outside of the football field. Unfortunately the good elements were outweighed with a real lack of organisation, but myself and a few others thought we could revisit the previous plan and have a real go at it. We found the support this time around was almost overwhelming and we spent the summer piecing together something we all hope can be very positive on and off the park. Not just this year, but hopefully for long into the future.”
Tocker clearly has a vision for the league to facilitate greater inclusion and tolerance, but how easy is it to create a league which is a genuinely “safe” and inclusive place? “That’s a tough question” he admits, “and it would be foolish to say we’ve achieved the aim, so early on in our venture. What we have done, though, is provided a platform, put our aims out there and invited a real cross-section of football clubs who we believe will all mix well.
“It’s easy to say we’re inclusive. The real proof will be how the league progresses over its first year in existence, how well we deal with any problems that come our way and ultimately how all the individual teams and players feel it went once the first season draws to a close.” It’s evident that while the league has been driven by a determination to ensure football is for everyone, it is also highly aware that it is a work in progress. The involvement of clubs such as United Glasgow FC, Saltire Thistle, Glasgow Diverse and Glasgow Corinthians – clubs with a record of facilitating diversity and reaching out to minority groups – provides authenticity and gives reason for optimism.
Alan White and Euan McLeod, who are involved with United Glasgow FC, have also helped to drive the vision forwards and were key to turning an initial idea into a reality. Their experience in running one of the most inclusive clubs in football gives the project real credibility. Roddy Cairns of Glasgow Corinthians has been another key man, and has for several years held aspirations for the creation of this kind of league.
The league recognises the problem of homophobia in the amateur game, and this looms large in Tocker’s thinking. While he believes football is no more prejudiced than society itself, he accepts that often in the “heat” of competition homophobic or racist insults can be used. “Of course, that in no way makes it any more acceptable” says Tocker, “but most of these flashpoints are never truly challenged because people aren’t often presented face-to-face with the particular group they may have been offending. I’ve found that when they are, guys think about their actions and their words a lot more. That can only be a positive thing, especially when they invariably refrain from insulting anyone. Prejudice stems from ignorance and football, our league in particular, brings various groups together and allows people to meet and converse with others with whom they wouldn’t ordinarily interact.
“The biggest problem related to this subject is homophobia. It’s pretty much universally accepted at all levels of football nowadays that racist comments or actions are abhorrent and will be met with the full force of whatever organisation is appropriate. Believe it or not, football at grass roots level has next to no sectarian problems whatsoever. In 8 years of Glasgow-based amateur football I can comfortably count on one hand any sectarian abuse I’ve overheard. Homophobia, however, is still a huge problem. This is partly because it has never been challenged properly. The tide will only turn properly when more professional footballers are openly gay, it is surely only a matter of time?”
In its anti-homophobia objectives, the league is already working with Football v Homophobia – Alan White in particular has used his contacts from all United Glasgow’s positive work to create a relationship with the anti-discrimination organisation – as well as organising its own events to raise awareness. The league’s main cup competition, which will kick off in January, will bear the name of the charity and there will be a “display” at each of the first round matches. Tocker thinks this will send out a powerful message: “it’s not often in football that homophobia is met with a challenge. On the opening round of this cup we’ll be effectively forcing the issue on over 200 guys from the Glasgow area [and their supporters] and it can only provoke them to think about what is and isn’t acceptable. It might well be the first time some realise that something said in jest on the football park actually has the potential to insult.”
Interestingly, the league believes that referees have a key role to play in challenging homophobia. For any “zero tolerance” approach to work, the cooperation of referees is vital. However, as Tocker explains, referees have often been a problem in the past when they turn a blind eye to homophobia – even if it’s been directed against themselves: “I’ve talked a lot about abusive language and insults …. well these guys have been called everything! It’s asking a lot of one man to control the behaviour of upwards of 22 young men are competing in a full blooded sports match.
“I’ve witnessed some horrible incidents in the past, indeed some against the referees themselves unfortunately, but we like to think we’ve invited 16 teams who do not encourage or tolerate violence or intimidating behaviour. We will use the knowledge and reports from each referee to weed out any individuals or clubs who, or are likely to, cause problems.”
The new league is a welcome addition to the Glasgow amateur football scene and in a year’s time will hopefully be able to look back at a successful first season. But what does “success” mean to the Glasgow Community and Cooperative League? For Tocker it’s simple – while it will run events and use various other channels – including social media – to combat prejudice, ultimately the real test of how inclusive the league is will be experience of the teams. “If teams don’t enjoy themselves, they’ll look elsewhere or – worse still – stop playing. The measure of success will be kicking of next season with the teams we already have, because each of them will have felt welcome to play football.”