The first group
of 6 of us met just before the game in a bar near the ground and it’s gone from there.
Mick Ward worked in social care for 42 years. He started his career as a care assistant, helping disabled people with day-to-day tasks. He ended up as Deputy Director of Adults and Health at Leeds City Council. Mick had responsibility for commissioning a wide range of health and care services in the city – and he was one of the team responsible for securing the original funding for Time to Shine. “I was there at the start!” he says.
Mick retired in 2020 and spends his time working for different causes. One of the projects he’s passionate about is Marching Out Together, which aims to make football more friendly for people who are LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender). Mick has been a fan of Leeds United since the mid-1960s and is keen to change the air of “aggressive machismo” that surrounds the game.
Mick is known for his immaculate suits, natty scooter and his commitment to fairness. “For me, it’s all about equality,” he says. We meet Mick in his garden to talk about football, retirement, LGBT+ issues, being an ally, how Leeds has changed over the years - and much more.
If you’re doing
anything in life you
should be striving
Tell us about Marching Out Together.
It was started about 3 years ago by a couple of gay men who wanted to make Elland Road more inclusive to LGBT+ people. Just at the start of the season they put out a call for people to get involved and I responded for two reasons. One is that I’m a very big Leeds fan.
I love Leeds United, I’m a season ticket holder. The other is that I’ve always been supportive of equality stuff. The first group of 6 of us met just before the game in a bar near the ground and it’s gone from there. We’ve got around 200 members now. The first aim (and the main one) is about Leeds United being as inclusive as possible. The second is about being a social group for LGBT+ fans. The third is about campaigning on LGBT+ issues relating to football.
Why might a gay person feel uncomfortable at a football ground?
They’re incredibly machismo-filled, aggressive places. Although the world has moved on with regard to LGBT+ issues, it is still an issue. In football, everything goes to the Nth degree – whether it be sexism, racism, homophobia. It’s a very macho environment. There’s not a single “out” gay male footballer in Europe! The very few who are out are all retired. Robbie Rogers, who played for Leeds, came out when he went to America. It’s about the mocking from the crowd – and sometimes downright hostility. For me, we do it because it’s a difficult area. It’s tough. But when you do make some progress, the reach is incredible. I did an interview about this just before a game and it was watched by 2.4 million people. It was live on Sky! The profile of football is huge. One of our big successes is having the Marching Out Together flag at the ground. It’s a rainbow flag that sits under the scoreboard. So it’s not just the 32,000 people at Elland Road who see it. Every time Leeds are on TV there are lots of shots of goal celebrations and people see the flag. That’s international: some gay kid in Kuwait or Russia will see that. Visibility is a big thing.
How has football changed? When did you start going to matches?
1964 was the first game I went to. There are some things that haven’t changed at all – and others that have changed a lot. The main one is about just being able to turn up to a game. When Elland Road would take 40 – 50,000 people, you all just crammed in. There were very few season tickets. It was nearly all men in those days. The whole disconnect between the club and the community that’s happened. When I used to go, you would literally see the players in the fish shop opposite Elland Road. Don Revie had a nice house, but it was only on Alwoodley Lane. Eddie Gray went to the same church as my mate. They weren’t all living miles away. Clubs were much more equal. Clubs that won the league would change far more regularly. You’d have teams that dominated an era – Liverpool, Leeds United (whispers), Man United. But you would see Nottingham Forest, Derby – others. Obviously, there was less money in the game. It was very English – and Scottish. If you had a foreign player, it was quite a thing.
But Leeds had quite a bad reputation, didn’t they?
Dirty Leeds. What football fans always do is embrace the negativity around them and own it. When we were promoted 2 years ago, one of the first things that went on sale, made by Leeds fans, was a “Leeds Scum are Back!” T-Shirt. This relates to the last time Leeds got promoted, that was the headline in the Sun, after the fighting at Bournemouth. Leeds has historically been a violent city. It was a racist city – but also there was a big fightback against that too – in the 70s and 80s. Both the Club and through campaigning groups. Literally challenging National Front guys outside the ground. I remember chatting to a Londoner once. This was when the time David Peace TV series was on [Red Riding]. Leeds looked so dirty, so grimy. She said, “Is it really like that?” I said, “Yeah, it’s like a documentary.” But, in all seriousness, it was more edgy. I stopped going to the ground in the 1980s. Partly because Leeds were a bit rubbish, but mostly because I had a baby – that really slows you down a bit. But also because there was that edge to it. That new laddish racist-type stuff. You’d go to an away game and you’d be embarrassed by your own fans. I started coming back once my son had grown up because he liked going to the games. But it was still a bit edgy then.
How do you distinguish friendly banter from abuse?
We were just talking about this. The first home game of the season was on Sunday. We did a training session for the stewards – they have to manage the insanity at a match. Not an easy role. Very very drunk, often angry men. There are a few homophobic things you come across. Chanting - when Leeds play Brighton there are some chants: “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” Not the most abusive, compared to 20 years ago. But still. The big one is homophobic comments, even to your own players: “Get up, you poof!” That sort of thing. Potentially there’s downright aggressive and abusive behaviour. Most people are “out” to people sat amongst them, but you’d think twice about holding hands. But there is something about banter. Maybe when it’s witty, it seems ok? You can’t underestimate the level of swearing. It’s very extreme. The root is that it’s negative to be gay – and it makes people feel uncomfortable, so you do have to challenge it. We have said to the club that if someone had been banned, we would meet them to do some reconciliation instead.
How are things particularly different for older gay people?
It is different for older gay people. A lot of people were around when it was illegal. I remember when the gay club in Leeds was called Charlie’s. You’d go up these stairs and they’d open a hatch to decide if they wanted to let you in. One of the only gay pubs was the New Penny – it had all the windows blacked out. There was no way you’d see gay men on the street. It was very different back then.
Earlier you described yourself as an ally.
I am a white, straight, able-bodied man. My fundamental core belief has been about equality. If you’re doing anything in life you should be striving for equality. And I just put my energy into different things that do that. I have dabbled, I suppose, but I’ve lived with my partner Gill for 30 odd years. Life is more complex. It’s fluid. Now the world is a bit more confusing, a bit more grey – and I like that. The running joke in Marching Out Together is that I’m the campest one in the group by a long long way!
You stood down as head of Adult Social Care last year. How do you feel about retiring?
I was loving my work, but I wanted to go out at the top of my game. Selfish, I know, but I did. I always thought, “Fawlty Towers, 12 great episodes and out.” I just thought I might start to plateau. Also I thought, “Go before you mess something up.” You can do that in any job, but I was in the sort of job where that could happen badly. The other thing was I didn’t want to retire and die within a year. I’ve known people that’s happened to. I did end up staying a bit longer because of Covid. I’d never fully thought out what it would mean to be retired. I suppose Gill, my partner, is better at self-organising, going to things etc. I’m more like, “Whatever!” But I wanted to do 3 things. I knew I wanted to do a little bit of work. I’ve been doing some work around community development. I knew I’d do some voluntary work.
I’m a trustee at PAFRAS (Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers). For my retirement do I did a crowd-funder for PAFRAS and people were very generous. But really the plan was to do loads of holidays. But reality had other ideas! Luckily, I’ve not been ill with Covid. Like everyone I’ve been doing a lot of walking. But what isn’t the same as other people is that most of that has been around the Industrial Estates of Leeds. Cross Green, Seacroft, Rothwell. I love a bit of light industry.
You were around at the very start of Time to Shine, weren’t you?
The notion that people’s lives should be dominated by health and social care is a nonsense. Although my responsibility was in health and care I thought, “What can I do in the bigger world”. We tried to put a lot of energy and resource into the promotion of health - and living an active life in older life. The biggest success was in loneliness. Neighbourhood Networks already existed – other people had done the work on setting them up - but they weren’t across the city and they were only funded for a year or two at a time. A few of us began to realise how we could put a lot of focus and investment into that. You can use stories and older people can identify what needs to change to make things better – and do it themselves. When it became clear that there was a big pot of money available from the Government through the Lottery fund it seemed clear that Leeds would be the best place to host it. It would be taken seriously in Leeds: it wouldn’t just be a stand-alone project - it would influence other things. My contribution, as well as helping to write the original Time to Shine bid, was to make sure that happened. Time to Shine went way beyond anything I’d ever conceived of!
For you personally, what’s the best thing about getting older?
You’ve got more experience and knowledge, which is great - as long as you can still respond to new things.
What are you planning for Marching Out Together?
We’re doing a mural. I love football and I love art. There’s been a splurge of murals in Leeds. The Bielsa one in Hyde Park, the Calvin Phillips one in town. I thought it would be great to have a Marching Out Together one. East St Arts said they had a site on the side of Patrick Studios. And I got a grant from Leeds Inspired. We’ve got the artist – Jay Gilliard. We don’t know what the image will be yet. We did a session with LGBT+ fans and what is clearly coming out is the theme of togetherness and solidarity through sport. There’s something about being a fan and something special about going to a game. It starts when you get near to the ground. Walking to Elland Road. Or parking and getting a burger. The pre-match drinks, the atmosphere. It is like nothing else. It’s pure theatre. So the mural will hopefully reflect that.
For more information about Marching Out Together see www.marchingouttogether.co.uk