Sport 'Messages from Mings and Gerrard mean so much to our group'
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"To be the best manager, you have to be inclusive."
Sam Timms, founder of Villa & Proud, is talking about Aston Villa's new manager Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard had overseen just one game at the club when he was asked about the Rainbow Laces campaign, at last Friday's press conference ahead of his team's Premier League victory at Crystal Palace.
"The club works extremely hard in the background to support a lot of campaigns," said Gerrard. "I know they work very closely with Villa & Proud, so we'll give it every support that needs be; me from a personal point of view, but also the club."
Timms was blown away by the fact that Gerrard had referenced the club's official LGBTQ+ supporters network and the presence they have at Villa Park. The former Liverpool captain's exceptional leadership qualities are already making a big impression.
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"You can't be a manager and be exclusive to people, otherwise you won't get the best out of your players," adds Timms. "You've got to make an inclusive atmosphere."
He is, understandably, very encouraged and motivated by the tangible support being shown at first-team level.
"We're three years old and I never thought we'd be at this point where we have Tyrone Mings tweeting us at Birmingham Pride wishing everyone a great and safe day," he continues.
"We have a motto at Villa & Proud: 'We are not LGBT exclusive, we are everyone inclusive'. We want to empower allies, people to stand up and challenge discrimination and be empowered themselves."
Timms' point about football management should resonate with us all. It is relevant to any walk of life. To be the best, why would somebody exclude any individual, any idea, or any path at the expense of increased knowledge and understanding?
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Lucy Keeling, Aston Villa's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, believes the club are at the start of an important journey and are being led by groups such as Villa & Proud.
"I was at a Pride in Football conference and I'd started speaking to West Brom's Proud Baggies, who are another fantastic LGBTQ+ group," she explains.
"I said, 'Look, our club needs this type of supporters' group. We need that visibility, that presence, do you know any Villa fans up for running something?'
"Luckily, I was put in touch with Sam and we had a meeting here. It started off with a really small thing, support with the logo, then a vision and the kind of ins and outs of what we wanted that group to mean within the club.
"The main thing I've learned is the value of having supporters' groups who drive diversity and drive the messages of inclusion on behalf of the club. One of our roles around inclusion is to create a welcoming environment at Villa Park.
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"These fans' groups are doing a lot of that work on behalf of the club, so it's really down to the club to facilitate that, to be sure that the messaging and relationships are strong and positive."
Villa & Proud has grown from an organisation comprising of one - Timms - to over 460 members.
"I founded it because, as a young Villa fan sat in the Doug Ellis Stand, I was questioning a lot about myself while I was growing up," he reflects.
"I loved Villa, it was the only thing I could really talk about without any sort of stutter. If someone asked me if I had a girlfriend, or anything like that, I just wanted to run away.
"It was really difficult. I didn't know who I was. So Villa & Proud, I wanted to do it for my younger self."Conversations and captaincy
Timms' ultimate ambition is for the organisation not to exist, because that will mean a job well done. But he acknowledges there is some way to go before that day comes to pass.
"We don't receive a lot of direct homophobia, biphobia or transphobia," he says. "We get the odd bit, but we have to accept that football and society is not the place where all people understand what LGBTQ+ inclusion is.
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"The challenges we have are finding a safe space for our members. The difficulty for a lot of our members is knowing that they can turn up - it doesn't matter about the result on the pitch - and can have a good day, instead of it being a position where someone might feel inferior or laughed at and made to feel unwelcome."
"There was an occasion where a fan had been homophobic to another Villa fan," Keeling recalls. "Villa & Proud picked that up and began a conversation with this fan and explained, human being to human being, why this was an issue.
"That person then went on to become a member of Villa & Proud, to become an ally. A huge portion of their membership is allies, which I think is really special. I think it shows that that fan-to-fan education is absolutely huge.
"We're all joined by this stadium, this badge, this football team, and it shows you the power that can have, that people reach a different understanding or empathy to other people different to themselves."
Timms has been pleased with the level of engagement from the highest echelons of the club. He has already had one meeting with CEO Christian Purslow and hopes to have further conversations with him in the future.
Villa & Proud have a huge flag that hangs on the side of the Trinity Road Stand, next to the Holte End, and their presence is increasing with each season.
Konsa on Gerrard and the art of defending
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Ezri Konsa shares his early impressions of Steven Gerrard's reign at Aston Villa."Once I saw that people were saying that, I knew they had got the wrong defender," Konsa tells Sky Sports. "It was Ruben Dias who caught me. They must have shown the wrong angle on television. It was Ruben Dias who kicked the back of my left calf.
What helps most of all, though, is leadership on the pitch. In that respect, Villa are blessed with a character to be proud of.
"We're very lucky that we've got a captain in Tyrone Mings who is very honest and outspoken about his own experiences and how much inclusion means to him," says Keeling.
"So, having Tyrone as captain kind of guarantees us that this subject will be at the forefront of the first team.
"It's the same on the women's side as well. We've had really strong player support on that front and in the past couple of days, we've had Steven Gerrard speak out about his personal support of the campaign.
"It doesn't have to be anything huge, just that nod, that visibility, that comment that shows our fan base, 'You are welcome in this stadium and we are with you'."
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, currently receiving its annual activation from November 25 to December 12. Your story of being LGBTQ+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game - please contact us here to discuss further.
Death stares and Sweet Caroline: How Gerrard is proving himself a Liverpool manager in the making .
The Reds icon returns to Anfield with Aston Villa on Saturday - but what is it like to play under him? Andy Firth will never forget the tap on the shoulder at the breakfast table, and the sense of dread as he made his way to the manager’s office. “I’m walking slowly, racking my brain,” the Rangers goalkeeper tells GOAL, smiling at the memory. “I’m thinking ‘what is it, what have I done wrong?’” Once there, he was confronted not only by Steven Gerrard, but by his coaching team too. Michael Beale, Gary McAllister, Tom Culshaw, Jordan Milsom and Scott Mason; all of them sat stern-faced, ready.