New diversity initiative

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Thanks to Jon Colman and the News and Star for allowing us to reproduce his feature

How diverse is Carlisle United’s fanbase? Are there pockets of potential support the club is missing? Could more people be included, and made to feel like this is their club?

These are questions which, according to those behind a new initiative, require not just answers but fresh and relevant action.

Fans for Diversity is a national campaign run by the Football Supporters’ Association and Kick It Out, the English game’s leading equality and inclusion organisation. It encourages supporters and groups to ensure that clubs are reaching out as much as they can, as well as railing against discrimination.

Brunton Park may not feel like a place where the latter is a significant problem but the feeling among the fans leading the campaign in these parts is that United’s support could be expanded through more pro-active efforts.

There is work to be done, they feel, to engage the LGBT+ community, as well as black and minority ethnic groups. The first major part of their campaign will be a six-a-side football tournament at Brunton Park in April where diversity of teams is encouraged.

Nigel Davidson, of supporters’ trust CUOSC, is on the Fans for Diversity guidance group and believes it is time to open up United to more people from different backgrounds.

“We have a very standard look to our support,” he says. “It is very white, and of certain age groups. There are people out there from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, different sexual backgrounds, that maybe don’t feel represented.

“We are hoping to follow on from the tournament to widen out the football club, and the package of what it is, to the wider community, and see more people coming who maybe haven’t been before.”

Nigel cites anecdotal evidence about individuals from a certain background who have been reluctant to come to games – not because of any tangible hostility, but an uncertainty of whether a football ground is the place for them.

This feeling may have been nurtured by, for instance, abusive comments on social media, or higher-profile incidents where discrimination has stained the game. Again – there is no suggestion or evidence that Carlisle are particular offenders in this regard. It is about doing more to change inbuilt perceptions.

Nigel and others with CUOSC, as well as working with United’s community sports trust who cater superbly for a range of groups, have met the club’s chief executive, Nigel Clibbens. They say he stressed the club does what it can, with what resources allow, but is positive about the need to do more.

They have met Maria Ryder, Fans for Diversity campaign officer with the FSA, and also sat down with Cumbria Pride, who campaign for the recognition and celebration of the county’s LBGT+ community and who are also eager to work with the campaign and the club.

“It’s supposed to be a family game, open to everybody,” Nigel says. “If you are hearing or are aware of abuse, or something racist or homophobic, you are not going to have LGBT or BAME people listening to that and feeling comfortable. They are going to feel completely unwelcome.”

There is no doubting that some clubs are more naturally positive about this area than others, considering the work done by, for instance, United’s recent FA Cup

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opponents Dulwich Hamlet in the embracing of LGBT people and refugees. It’s also the case that many boardrooms, and dugouts, could be much more diverse places.

“We are not in an area that’s got any particular ethnic tensions, or are a club with a big ethnic background,” Nigel adds. “So there’s nothing to spark any real problems in that respect. The only barrier we’ve got is the risk of thinking everything’s alright and as a result not getting to these communities.

“In my experience on the guidance group so far, there has been some really good work done at clubs like Tottenham, Aston Villa and West Brom. They might be in more diverse areas but just because we’re not as highly diverse, doesn’t mean we’re not diverse. There are a lot of LGBT people here, BAME people, immigrant workers, Polish people working here.”

At the tournament, on Sunday, April 26, there will be leaflets and promotional material supplied by Kick It Out, the FSA and Cumbria Pride. Football supports people who may associate with the latter group, through its rainbow laces campaign.

But why not, Nigel argues, think bigger? “What about the option of having a team play a league game in a rainbow kit?” he suggests. “Laces, flags…yes, some people see it. But play in a rainbow strip and everyone sees it. It gets top billing on the Football League show. It would send a brilliant message.”

If these efforts make lasting impact, Nigel says, it could lead to LGBT and BAME representatives on CUSG, and hopefully another positive assault on any discriminatory attitudes in the game.

Organisations like Kick It Out, he adds, prefer to educate. He cites one fan, who had written a particularly unpleasant comment on a banner, who agreed to go on an inclusivity course and subsequently had his season-ticket returned. “If you just ban, it puts a lid on it but it still simmers. If you bring it out into the open, you have a better chance of helping people understand.”

Teams are invited to enter the six-a-side tournament, ‘the CUOSC Cup’, which was the idea of CUOSC’s Jack Oddie, with Nigel introducing the diversity aspect. It is backed by CUSG and the club and, Nigel says, is open to all supporters of the Blues.

“The idea is to have the pitch split into four,” he adds. “The main tournament will take a World Cup format, with groups, over three pitches. We have definitely got one LGBT team coming from Newcastle. Cumbria Pride are going to put at least one team together.

“The fourth pitch will be a showcase pitch. On that one, we want to get walking football and disability teams, for example. If people on the day want to have a go at it, they can.”

Only the prejudiced would imagine they have anything to lose from such ideas. “Even if it brings 20 extra people to the first home game of next season, and their experience is positive, everyone’s a winner,” Nigel says.

“It benefits the club, and it’s the right thing to do.”

For more details on the tournament visit www.cuosc.org.uk, and for further information go to https://thefsa.org.uk/our-work/fans-for-diversity/ and https://www.kickitout.org/pages/category/fans-for-diversity.