Millwall Community Trust – Millwall Romans FC: How Lions came to adopt an LGBT+-inclusive team

  • 27/07/2020

Romans FC – one of London’s gay / bi-friendly and inclusive football clubs – have joined the Millwall family. Community Trust CEO Sean Daly and Romans player-boss Paul Loding explain to Sky Sports why it’s a perfect partnership. 

Paul Loding and his Romans FC players have been welcomed into the Millwall family by Trust CEO Sean Daly and the whole club

 

It’s 30 years since Millwall’s two-season spell at the top table of English football came to an end.

Club legend Teddy Sheringham, who formed a feared strike partnership with Tony Cascarino in the late 1980s, has described those glory days as “a crazy, exhilarating time”. For a whole generation of Lions fans, memories don’t come much better.

Recognising heroes and history matters – but as a famous literary quote says, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. The focus is on the future at The Den, and amid the ongoing quest to deliver Premier League excitement to this corner of south-east London, there’s a strong, forward-thinking outlook off the pitch too. This is now a thoroughly modern Millwall.

Through the club’s Community Trust, people making a difference to local life are lifted up and celebrated, such as NHS workers, disability football coaches, teachers and educators, those providing hot and healthy meals to kids, mental health advocates, and more. In a development announced late last month, there’s a new addition to the family – an LGBT+-inclusive team, to be known as Millwall Romans FC.

Reputations can be hard to shake in football, and such a move by this particular club might still raise a few eyebrows. Yet in terms of representation, Millwall’s vision is clear. The Trust’s services are predominantly focused on two of London’s most diverse boroughs in Lewisham and Southwark. Estimates from 2017 suggest around four per cent of Lewisham’s population identify as LGBT+, while the most recent data available from the Office for National Statistics placed Southwark and its neighbouring borough Lambeth as the top two local authorities in the whole of the UK by gay or lesbian population.

While the Millwall of old may not have traditionally engaged with this part of their community, Sean Daly – who joined the Trust in 2018 and became CEO last October – has taken action to show that the times are indeed changing. In his previous role at Charlton Athletic Community Trust, Daly helped to set up Charlton Invicta, an LGBT+-inclusive club who were Bexley Invicta before being brought under the wing of CACT in August 2017. The success of that ground-breaking partnership was something he was keen to replicate on the other side of the Isle of Dogs.

“My big thing is, we’ve got to give opportunities for our community to play football,” Daly tells Sky Sports. “As a professional club, we’ve got a platform, so let’s use that to engage with our community – and in the two areas that we service, Lewisham and Southwark, we’re probably even more diverse than Charlton have in Greenwich and Bexley.

“We’ve been working with our supporters associations to look at how we can embrace that, not just as a community trust but also in the stadium. That should be what a football club is about – using its power to engage people to play football, and be involved in it.”

The Den has proudly shown its support for Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign in recent seasons

Daly is no stranger to shake-ups and taking on new responsibilities. A year ago, Millwall’s women’s team split away to become fully independent, taking the new name of London City Lionesses and also their FA Women’s Championship status with them. A new Millwall Lionesses FC side was soon formed, beginning life in the fifth tier.

“The Community Trust now runs our Lionesses team in association with the supporters club,” explains Daly. “We’ve got a pathway for young girls from five years old to right up to senior level to play football.” Once those opportunities were established, he began to address other parts of the inclusion picture. “I wrote to the London FA and said, ‘look, what was very successful at Charlton was our women’s team, our LGBT+ team, and our disability team – and I want all of that here at Millwall.'”

‘Our community is changing’

Through his involvement with Invicta, Daly understood that as far as LGBT+-inclusive football is concerned, it makes more sense to reach out to an existing club than to attempt to start a team from scratch. “I asked the London FA if they had any clubs they would recommend that we could possibly do a partnership with, or even adopt? They suggested London Romans – and that’s how it really started.”

“They’re really trying to reach out to the whole community… we absolutely jumped at the chance of joining a partnership. It’s an exciting time for us.”

Paul Loding, Millwall Romans FC player-boss

Like Invicta, the Romans play in the London Unity League (LUL) – a competition for LGBT+-inclusive clubs in the capital – and are members of GFSN, who administrate national competitions. Founded in 2006, the Romans were still based on their home patch of Wood Green in Haringey when player-manager Paul Loding took a call from Daly in January and was asked what his club is all about.

“Ever since Romans started, we’ve always said it’s football for all – we want people to come along, to feel comfortable in themselves, be who they want to be, and play. It’s all abilities, all backgrounds,” says Loding.

“We don’t just work with LGBT+ players – if someone wants to join us and they like what we do, that’s great, come and play. We’ve got players that just come along for the fitness side of things, and some for the social side. As well as being a football club, a lot of what we do is social.”

The Romans have regularly marched in the annual Pride in London parade in recent years

Daly invited him south of the river for a meeting and a tour, taking in the Lions Centre next to The Den with its indoor pitch, gym, and futsal centre; and just up the road in Rotherhithe, St Paul’s Sports Ground, a proposed venue for training and matchdays. To ease the strain of getting to away games, he learned a Trust minibus would be made available; and there was also the prospect of brand-new kit, and sessions with senior coaching staff. A first-team player might even pop by from time to time.

“With the facilities they’ve got, and how they’re really trying to reach out to the whole community, it’s just so impressive,” says Loding. “Of course, we absolutely jumped at the chance of joining a partnership. It’s an exciting time for us.”

He admits he had previously looked at Invicta’s Charlton connection with a touch of envy, as well as the ‘big brother’ agreements enjoyed by Bristol City Panthers and Newcastle Panthers, two other LGBT+-inclusive sides that are well supported by their local professional clubs’ trusts. Closer to home, the Romans’ fellow LUL side London Titans have a developing link with QPR, having first announced a partnership back in 2016.

Charlton Invicta FC, launched in summer 2017, were previously Bexley Invicta before partnering with the Charlton Athletic Community Trust

Any grassroots outfit would relish such patronage, but Daly says the Romans can offer something unique to Millwall in return. “Our community is changing – it’s so diverse here – and I’m fortunate that I’ve got a great CEO in Steve Kavanagh who understands this.

“We take both our Lionesses and our disability players into schools, to meet young people and do workshops around inclusivity. For example, some of the Lionesses talk about how in the past, they could never play football with other girls because it wasn’t seen as the right thing to do.

“I’d love for Paul and some of his players to come into schools with us, talk about their journeys and their resilience of who they are and where they’ve got to. I see it as a benefit to us, because it will support us in our diversity and inclusion work, but it will also help us educate younger people that we work with as well.”

Action and acceptance

Providing education is a fundamental Trust role, but Millwall are going beyond the basics. When Loding first visited the Lions Centre, he looked in on a class of 30 children who had all been previously excluded from school. “For each pupil, that could be for any reason – gang-affiliated, anti-social behaviour, or school’s just not for them,” says Daly. “Our CEO offered an environment away from school, next to the stadium – and it works.”

Facilities at the Trust’s Lions Centre home include a 4G indoor pitch, sports hall, and classrooms

It’s an example of how a conviction to make change can be turned into decisive action, and it’s given Daly confidence to forge ahead with the Romans partnership despite the current uncertain times. He’s pleased to say that there has been no suggestion from any quarter that an LGBT+ link might not be considered right for Millwall. “Not one person has put their hand up and said, are we doing the right thing? If anything, it’s the other way around – they’re saying this is what we should be doing. It’s the same with the Lionesses – we should be offering girls football, and we should be providing disability football too.”

It didn’t take long for Daly to be convinced that the Romans were the right match for Millwall. “The more I got to know Paul and the guys, the more you could see that the ethos of his club – why they play football, and the social part of it – is what our Community Trust is also about. For us, it was a no-brainer. It’s a great step for us, and it’s been received very well.” They will kick off next season in September as reigning LUL champions having clinched the title shortly before lockdown. There is also the prospect of hosting a future tournament on the Den pitch, and at Pride in London next summer, they hope to march as part of one big Millwall family.

Loding and his Romans players are the reigning champions of the London Unity League

For Loding, who has been Romans manager for the last three years, the partnership means a great deal personally. “I came out relatively late, around the age of 24. If I’d had seen this when I was younger, it would have helped me accept being gay – it would have ‘normalised’ it, for want of a better word. There is that connotation of football being such a straight, ‘macho’ environment.”

By day, he’s a lettings manager for an estate agent firm. “I work in a predominantly straight world, in terms of what I do for a job. When I say I play for a gay and inclusive football team, the reaction is often that it must be a bit ‘fancy’ somehow, that everyone’s sort of dancing around each other! It’s just not like that at all, so it’s about getting that perception out of people’s heads.”

The Romans are now enjoying training sessions at their new home in Rotherhithe

He explains the attraction in being part of a football club that’s founded first and foremost upon a welcoming culture. “We are truly open to everybody and we’re sensitive to what they need – such as our Muslim players during Ramadan, or for someone who’s trans.

“Some have been very uncomfortable with who they are when they’ve joined us. A few of our LGBT+ players weren’t actually out to their families so couldn’t be in team photos. It’s such a shame for anyone still in that environment.” However, being part of the Romans has helped them all grow in confidence over time.

Loding wants other professional clubs to appreciate the impact they could have by more strongly supporting grassroots sides who state that they are LGBT+-inclusive, of which there are over 30 in the UK. “It’d be great for the other LGBT+ teams across the country, if they can work closely with their local clubs just to get the message out there.”

Millwall are hoping to provide an example to other professional clubs in how to engage with local LGBT+ people through their trusts and foundations

Daly and the Millwall Community Trust have already demonstrated their adaptability in recent months as a result of the shutdown – instead of football sessions, there have been food deliveries to the homeless and elderly. He believes inclusion work is more important than ever. “It’s a big step for every Trust, because they’re all being pulled all over the place to deliver work. But you have to look at what your community is like, their needs, and how you can be supportive. Trusts and Foundations do an unbelievable job and sometimes it’s about making steps to reach out and meet new people.”

For Loding and his players, making the move to Millwall is a milestone moment. Meanwhile, they’ll be invited along to cheer on the first team as they look to push for promotion once again next season. Will it convert the Romans into Lions supporters? Loding smiles. “I don’t think we’ve actually got any Millwall fans – yet! We do have a couple of West Ham fans though. Maybe that’s a touchy subject…”

Daly chips in. “They can come too! They’re welcome!” Frankly, you can’t get any more inclusive than that.