editor NOS Sport
editor NOS Sport
Truck driver Stuart Matthews (56), wearing a blue polo shirt with rainbow colors, drives a bus of football supporters into the green, misty hills around Brighton every week. To a gray block of concrete between the meadows: the Brighton & Hove Albion stadium, which actually doesn’t fit there at all.
But in the city of Brighton and at the football club, tonight’s opponent of Ajax in the Europa League, they often do things slightly differently.
Brighton is seen as the ‘gay capital’ of England. The student city also pursues a green policy that is unprecedented by English standards: not so long ago, The Greens had a majority in the city council. Seven in ten residents of the Brighton & Hove region voted against Brexit in 2016.
Matthews noticed that things are often slightly different at Brighton, for example in 2019, when Brighton was the first English football club ever to become one of the main sponsors of a pride event. From Pride Brighton, the country’s most popular pride celebration.
A warm gesture of inclusion for Matthews, founder and chairman of Proud Seagulls, Brighton’s LGBTI supporters’ club. The proud seagulls and the club have been working closely together for years. They danced down the boulevard in the 2022 pride parade.
Matthews has been driving buses and trucks across the country for more than twenty years and cared for injured British soldiers in the 1980s and 1990s. As a first aider with St. John Ambulance, he spent half his life on the sidelines of countless English football stadiums. He knows the smell of grass and mud, knows the pale faces, the hurtful chants.
“For decades, Brighton fans have been the target of vile and hostile slogans, even more so than the big London clubs,” says Matthews. “Yes, Proud Seagulls is needed.”
Matthews saw the need years ago when a well-intentioned video appeared on the big screen in the Brighton stadium in which players said something about the Rainbow Laces campaign, the annual campaign in which the Premier League uses rainbow laces, among other things, to draw attention to equality and diversity in the football.
“Then I thought: we need an LGBTI group that understands not only our fight against injustice in football, but also in the community.”
Matthews saw promotion to the Premier League in 2017 and consultation at Pride in Football, a network of more than fifty LGBTI fan clubs in the United Kingdom, as the ideal moment to establish the supporters group. “In our first year, Brighton immediately asked for our help with the Rainbow Laces campaign. Since then, the friendship has grown.”
With forty members, Proud Seagulls is not the largest fan club in England, but the figures do not interest Matthews. Mugs, pins, polo shirts, even the website, he opened his own wallet. “It’s about giving the LGBTI community a voice in football.”
Progressive football club
Brighton realizes that. The club wants to be visible to the less fortunate in the Sussex region through all kinds of activities and sets clear rules in the charter for its own fans about racist, homophobic or other discriminatory language and behavior in the stadium. If you make one mistake, you will be subject to a stadium ban of at least ten years. The second time a stadium ban can become indefinite.
Close cooperation with local organizations such as Proud Seagulls is essential in this social policy. Brighton & Hove Albion is a progressive football club and that suits the southern English coastal town.
The progressiveness of the region is reflected in the football club within the chalk lines. Born Brightonian Tony Bloom (53) saved his childhood sweetheart from death in 2009 with a bag of money he collected as a poker magnate and runs the club using algorithms created by his gambling consultancy company Starlizard.
For example, Brighton scouts discovered the South American gems Moisés Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister, sold again in the summer for a total of 173 million euros. Don’t forget Japanese dribbler Kaoru Mitoma or young Irish talent Evan Ferguson. Or the three Dutchmen Joël Veltman, Bart Verbruggen and Jan Paul van Hecke.
Poker player Bloom, who is said to have spent hours as a boy in the arcades on the famous Brighton Pier, is not afraid of a gamble. After the much richer Chelsea tempted coach Graham Potter, much appreciated by Brightonians, into a transfer in 2022 after a summer flirt, Bloom quickly plucked the unknown Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi away from Shakhtar Donetsk.
Praised by Pep
‘RDZ’ led Brighton into Europe for the first time in its 122-year existence. Even more valuable was the way it was done. Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola is a big fan.
“No team plays like Brighton. They hold the ball for a long time, their goalkeeper is a controlling midfielder. It is unique. Like a star restaurant. I learn a lot from it. Brighton is a master at capitalizing on the free man. Especially the moment “They are the best team in the world in that regard,” Guardiola praised De Zerbi at the end of last season.
“One of the most influential trainers of the past twenty years.”
Matthews is proud of how his club plays football. And to trainer De Zerbi. “Don’t touch it, Chelsea!”
“The club’s playing style and progressiveness have had an impact on the city, and vice versa,” says Matthews. “The fans are a good mix of young, old, gay, straight, men, women, boys, girls and have a great ethnic diversity.”
“The atmosphere at all football clubs in England has improved over the years for people who identify as LGBTI. Still a long way to go, but we are in a better position than we were ten years ago.”
When Matthews has dropped off the last supporters at the stadium tonight, he proudly takes his seat on the North Stand. Knowing that De Zerbi or the newest star will leave sooner or later, but that no one deprives Brighton of its identity.
The post first appeared on nos.nl