Inclusive Football: Charlton Invicta helped Nick Coveney change his perceptions of game
Nick Coveney from Bexleyheath once associated football with some of the homophobic incidents he encountered at school, but all that changed. He now plays for Charlton Invicta - a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer and others inclusive team formally affiliated to Charlton Athletic - and rows with LGBTQ+ inclusive London Otters Rowing Club.
In the gay community there are many visible, obvious cliques which dominate our culture, but there are not that many openly gay people who are also openly football fans.
I started dating a guy and realised, on top of all his 'good attributes', he was a football fan. Which meant that I had to challenge some of my own prejudices.
I'd had an allergic reaction to football growing up.
I associated football with a very present form of toxic masculinity at secondary school. I focused my energy and attention on things I enjoyed; books and computer games.
'I thought football was idiotic'
Both my brothers were really keen on football as a sport, but the more they tried to get me into it the more I didn't want to.
I found there was an unpleasant after-taste with football at school: kids were obsessed by it, and everyone needed to be seen as a fan of it.
I felt turned off by it. It didn't excite me. I wasn't interested.
Of course, I still had a few enforced interactions with football, being forced to play it in PE, which spiralled into me deciding that it was stupid.
I adopted the cultural snobbery that some people develop, where you look down on a sport (or several) because you don't get it - embellishing all the negative feelings you have - so it morphs into your head into something worse than it is.
I also associated football with some of the homophobic incidents I encountered at school after being outed as gay at 15. I had some particularly nasty experiences in PE - footballs chucked at my head when I was getting changed, that sort of thing.
But then six years ago, when I was 25, I met and fell in love with Luke and gradually things changed. Football was a big part of his life so I realised either I had to adapt, or he did.
'I felt the magic'
It wasn't an instant journey, my relationship with football started evolving when I started going with Luke to watch matches - and that was where I felt the magic of it.
As a kid, I didn't get into the football cards, sticker collections, or having the latest kit or following a club as if it were a religion. I never got that.
But, when I went to watch Charlton Athletic at The Valley, what struck me most was the community atmosphere, the family friendly vibe at the stadium.
It wasn't hostile. It wasn't any of the things I had experienced when I was younger.
I didn't feel in any way uncomfortable being there. To be honest, I didn't really understand what was happening or the rules; and no, I didn't know the offside rule!
But I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I felt the magic, I suppose.
Why try football now?
I have grown as a person and the older I've got I am more confident in myself - I'm more adaptable than I was as a kid. Back then it's easy to make arbitrary decisions in black and white.
When you're more mature and have experienced more things you become open-minded.
So, how did I go from hating football, to enjoying watching it live, to playing?
I saw an old flyer in our local supermarket for Bexley Invicta, as they were then, promoting themselves as an inclusive football club.
I mentioned it to Luke, because he'd expressed an interest in getting into sports, but he said: "Look, you're keen to learn more - I don't really have the time for it. Why don't you give it a go and see what it's like?"
So I did that last summer and have been training with them ever since.
Now known as Charlton Invicta (CIFC), CIFC is an inclusive club open to anyone, but particularly welcome to the LGBTQ+ community.
It's the first team of its kind to be officially connected to a professional football club (as of last summer we are a part of Charlton Athletic Football Club's Community Trust teams).
But we are a mixed team in terms of sexuality; we are an inclusive club rather than an exclusive club.
'I wanted to go along and learn'
When I first joined, I was very fortunate that the player-manager, Gary Ginnaw, took me under his wing and was really considerate and supportive. Gary is a key driver in the huge successes the club has made this year, including winning our league.
I told Gary that the last time I was forced to play football was when I was 15, I didn't know the rules beyond what I've learned from watching matches and I wasn't sure if I would be able to play it. I had no idea what kind of position I would play or how challenging I would find it.
I wanted to go along and learn and said 'if you take me, I'll give it my best shot'.
Since then I've progressed a long way in terms of general fitness and certainly in my understanding of the game.
'I used to hate team sports'
I used to hate team sports - that hierarchical thing that can creep in sometimes - you've get weird social pecking orders that can come along with a football team.
My fitness activities before joining Invicta were mainly quite solitary things - going to the gym a few times a week, swimming, doing a bit of running. I'd always done sport on my own and found it isolating and challenging to find motivation.
I'm an outgoing and friendly person who loves spending time with my friends, and I wondered what team sports are like as an adult and whether I'd enjoy that more than I enjoyed going to the gym on my own.
Why I now love playing football
Everyone volunteers for the club in their free-time and CIFC is part of a Sunday league called the London Unity League (LUL), which is comprised of LGBTQ+ inclusive clubs.
One of my favourite memories of Invicta was completing a technical shooting drill in the middle of a hailstorm in February - exercising in minus temperatures and being able to get the ball into the top corner was something that I would never imagine doing growing up. To achieve something like that in terrible weather conditions was exciting.
More recently, we held a #CharltonvsHomophobia tournament which we co-hosted with Proud Valiants (Charlton's LGBT fan group) held at The Valley.
Being able to play in matches at a proper stadium under the floodlights was another incredible experience I'll always remember.
And then there's when we won the Unity League back in March. We spent over six hours clearing snow off the pitch during the 'Beast from the East' so we could play the game where we were eventually crowned LUL champions.
Most teams would have called off and rescheduled, but we're not most teams!
The lads rallied around. We were undefeated in the league back then, seeing that match take place despite all the odds was incredible.
Next stop? The Gay Games in Paris
Joining Charlton Invicta has also opened up other opportunities for me…
I always wanted to learn to row but at university I found the rowing teams intimidating.
But, having joined Invicta and bonded with the guys, I felt more confident with my general fitness and thought whether or not I take to rowing, I'm probably fit enough to keep up with them.
So, in late September last year I joined the London Otters (LORC), which is an LGBTQ+ inclusive rowing club and now I'm going to be competing with them at the Gay Games in Paris this August.
Watch this space...