When Sheffield United fan James Laley set out on his mission to create the South Yorkshire Club’s first official LGBTQ+ supporters’ group in April 2020, he was faced with all the uncertainty of the COVID-19 lockdown and the question as to whether the launch should go ahead.
Over 500 members later, that decision has paid off two-and-a-half years down the line for the Rainbow Blades.
Despite concerns about establishing the group during the throes of a global pandemic, it proved to be the boost that fans of the Club needed, as football was put on pause for a period.
“It was around late May and early June – around two or three months in – we’d gone past 100 members,” the Rainbow Blades founder explained.
“I’d said in my strategy that if we got 100 members in the first 12 months, that would be fantastic.
“It was actually the right time to launch because football had closed down like the rest of society, people still wanted to have that connection to Sheffield United. People still wanted to be able to come together, in the virtual sense, and talk about football. Because of that, we saw a big group of Blades join very quickly early on.
“By August 2020, I needed a committee because it was just me doing this with the support of the Club. I was basically running a post office in my apartment posting out pin badges because the members were coming in that fast.
“I’ve got members coming up to me constantly saying that because of Rainbow Blades, they can now come to Bramall Lane as their authentic selves. That means everything to me.”
Described as a “three-way partnership” between the Club, Sheffield United Community Foundation and Rainbow Blades, the central aim of the group is to allow supporters to feel safe when visiting Bramall Lane.
And the Community Foundation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Amy Hood praised the work that James and the group have done in achieving that goal.
She said: “They’ve given them the visibility that they need, educating people on language use and working closely with James to support them in every way that we can. We use both our knowledge and James’ knowledge to see what the fans need to make Bramall Lane safe and inclusive and be welcoming. We’ll work together to try and achieve that.
“We’re very proud of Rainbow Blades. I get the privilege to work really closely with James and our relationship is really good. We’ve definitely set a great starting point. As long as keep our working relationship to the strength that it is, we’re always going to do more for those fans.”
Football is for everyone. ❤️⚽️— EFL (@EFL) October 25, 2022
🏳️🌈⚔️ As part of the #RainbowLaces campaign, @itvfootball visited @rainbow_blades to find out how they and @sheffieldunited are creating a fully inclusive environment for all LGBTQ+ Blades supporters.#EFL pic.twitter.com/BJivrZkqxZ
The change in attitudes at the Club is none more recognisable than to former midfielder Tony Currie who has noticed the “colossal change”.
Currie, who made over 300 appearances for the Blades between 1968 and 1976 before hanging up his boots and returning in a different capacity, has been in his current position as ambassador for over three decades.
“I’ve been involved since 1988 when I came back up after finishing my career, and it’s so much more forward thinking,” he highlighted.
“The Rainbow Blades are well respected, as are all of our supporters’ groups, but they’re doing fantastic work to be recognised. We want to do anything for this group and all of our other supporters’ groups. Anything we can do, we will. It is a great Club to be backed by. Everybody should be equal, and everybody should feel safe inside the ground.”
And having ambassadors such as Currie and current Sheffield United Women’s star Ellie Wilson bringing Rainbow Blades to the forefront has helped the group to progress.
“When I agreed to be an ambassador for Rainbow Blades and work alongside James, a lot of my colleagues identify as part of that community and it’s important that, as a collective, we show that we support that,” Wilson added. “That filters through to the fans and everybody as part of the wider Club as well.
“We’re there to play a game and it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. The more that we can filter that message through, the more it will help people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
“It’s one of things that will take time but the work that everybody’s doing now is the first steps towards that in the direction that we want to take. I’ve been proud to use my platform to support it.”
This month, Sheffield United have shown their support for Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign and Laley, who took part in the EFL’s very first LGBTQ+ Fans Forum last season, has been very much involved with the initiative.
He continued: “I got the opportunity during the last Rainbow Laces campaign to go to the training ground to chat to the men’s team, the women’s team and the academy team – players that I look up to every single week – about how they can be allies because they’re role models, and people look up to them.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes. I sit back and say, ‘Wow. Look what we’ve all done here. This is crazy.’
“I just hope that the story of Rainbow Blades resonates with other supporter groups in the EFL, and they can look to us and go, ‘We want to do that.’”