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Dem Blades: Q&A with... James Laley, Rainbow Blades

Earlier this month, on 22 June to be exact, Sheffield United Football Club released a statement celebrating pride month by introducing Rainbow Blades as the "official and affiliated LGBT+ and Allies supporters' group for Sheffield United Football Club." The Blades' CEO Stephen Bettis said: "It is great to see the new Rainbow Blades supporters' group taking shape, with the help of our staff at Bramall Lane. Our aim is to be fully inclusive and ensure football is a game for everyone."

The club's announcement was just another step in promoting LGBT+ causes for James Laley, one of many steps he's taken to raise awareness and promote LGBT+ inclusivity in Sheffield. First, as an organiser for Sheffield Rainbow Laces, an organisation who host community football events to support LGBT+ inclusivity, and now as the founder of Rainbow Blades, James had lots to tell us about his experiences in setting up SUFC's first LGBT+ and Allies supporter's group.

How did you get Rainbow Blades started?

Rainbow Blades first came about back in November 2019 when Sheffield United Community Foundation watched the Sheffield Rainbow Laces Cup match, which I organised. After that, we met to see how SUFC could work closer with Sheffield Rainbow Laces. The conversation naturally led to my passion for LGBT+ equality in football and being a Sheffield United fan. One of the reasons Sheffield Rainbow Laces started was because I did not want supporters to have directly or indirectly to experience LGBT+ phobia while at Bramall Lane, something indirectly I have experienced, and that football should be enjoyed by anyone without fear of discrimination.

We spoke about a shared desire for a LGBT+ and Allies supporters group so that supporters who have a collective motivation to ensure the football club is fully inclusive, that all fans can enjoy the game and also that players and coaching staff can feel fully comfortable around all fans. It is not inconceivable that the coaching staff or Players will have friends or family who identify as LGBT+

LGBT+ & Allies supporters’ groups are established for several reasons.

• LGBT+ fans & Allies can meet on match days, creating a safe environment and attracting new fans.

• Being a voice and establishing a dialogue with the club to focus on match day experience, stewarding, incident reporting, to name a few.

• Promoting visibility of the club’s LGBT+ fan base and commitment to LGBT+ equality through physical and online exposure.

From this initial meeting, I met with the Club Engagement Manager at Sheffield United in January about the first steps to get the group off the ground. Basically, from this it then skyrocketed to its inception. We decided on the name Rainbow Blades, we have created an online presence, we have an online membership sign up form, become an associated member of the Football Supporters Association and have worked collaboratively with other LGBT+ and Allies football supporters’ groups around the country.

I also would like to stress this is not just a supporters’ group for LGBT+ people. It is also for Allies, an ally of the LGBT+ communities and fans who care about Equality, diversity, and inclusion at Sheffield United Football Club. I always say that LGBT+ people should nit work alone, we should work together to achieve the one common goal. Basically, it is open to anyone.

What plans did you have before COVID-19 hit?

In the early days of Rainbow Blades, I had created a short and long term action plan and also a timeline which led to the start of the new season. This included a four-phased launch of the group.

Phase one was an online launch. Phase two was a physical launch at the next Sheffield Rainbow Laces event, an all-inclusive 5 a side football tournament due to be held on Saturday 6th June. Phase three was a launch evening at the club and phase four was a pitchside launch at one of the early home games of the new season around August/September. This was supported by the club and the Football Supporter's Association. Sadly, due to COVID-19, we have only been able to activate phase one. The other three phases are still very much the plan, but have now all been postponed to later in the future.

What is in the pipeline now?

The next few months will very much be around growing our online presence and our membership base. As I am writing this the membership form has only been active for around a month and we have almost 100 members signed up. Very pleasing to see it is a mix of LGBT+ fans and allies.

I will also continue collaboratively working with other groups as that has proven a success so far. Rainbow Blades got to the Quarter Finals of the Virtual Fans for Diversity FIFA e-tournament and we also worked on the IDAHoBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia) ‘Breaking the Silence video with Villa & Proud, which can be found on our social media pages and website.

I have a few exciting things bubbling away with Sheffield United around Pride month, also discussing with the FSA about sourcing pin badges for members and a banner/flag and t-shirts. Soon I will also be looking to expand the committee as currently, it is just me and as the group grows would need a larger core of people to help support. Ultimately the action plan has not changed. The four-phase launch is still the ambition and will happen when it is realistic and safe to do so.

How have the club taken to Rainbow Blades?

The club have been fantastic. Ever since I pitched the idea with my aims, ambitions and action plan they have been fully behind the group and what the group wants to achieve. I remember going to a supporters’ group meeting way back before Coronavirus happened where I had a slot on the agenda to talk about Rainbow Blades and got the full endorsement from Steve Bettis, Chief Operating Officer and Prince Musaad Bin Khalid Al Saud, Chairman of Sheffield United Football Club.

What does it mean when you sign up as a member of Rainbow Blades?

Signing up as a member of Rainbow Blades you are saying you stand for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at Sheffield United Football Club. You can sign up purely to show support and be kept updated with what is happening or you can play a more active role in the group. We do encourage current and new LGBT+ blades to sign up and very much encourage allies to sign up.

Rainbow Blades aims to be a friendly, welcoming, and inclusive Sheffield United supporters’ group. We want to help make Bramall Lane and Football in general inclusive spaces where everyone feels safe to be themselves.

What is in it for the supporters?

  • A group for likeminded fans to meet up prior to a match and socialise if they wish.

  • A safe and welcoming space for LGBT+ fans.

  • A forum for LGBT+ fans voices to be heard and influence change.

  • Attract new fans to the club, speak proudly and highly of the club.

  • Be part of a step change for the club.

  • A group to be consulted with on club and stadium changes, improvements, and direction of travel.

  • Re-engage fans who may feel a lost connection with the club.

  • To be involved in campaigns with the club.

For more information, see the links below:

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