Yorkshire Terriers: Inside 25 years of the oldest team in Britain's LGBTQ+ league

Yorkshire TerriersGOAL

The 2021-22 Premier League season had long concluded and the international break had come to an end, but it was only on June 26, 2022, that the final national league title of 2021-22 was decided. 

In Leeds, Yorkshire Terriers defeated Nottingham Lions 5-2 in a final day, top-of-the table clash for the right to be crowned champions of the Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN) League.

Terriers had the advantage in the stats - three points clear with a superior goal difference - and they also had an emotional incentive. Founded in 1997, the club turned 25 years old this year, making it the oldest team competing in the division.

The GFSN League is a truly unique football competition, the only national LGBTQ+ league in the world. Teams from across the country play each other in a competitive league and cup competition, with the league also having the specific aim of providing a safe and inclusive place for anyone to play football, regardless of age, gender and sexuality. Being a mixed gender competition, it also provides an environment for trans people to play competitive football without issue.

The league turns 20 this year, and has made great strides since being founded in 2002 with just four teams - Yorkshire Terriers, Leicester Wildecats, Leftfooters (based in London) and Bristol Panthers. Now 13 teams compete across two divisions, with several more taking part in the international GFSN Cup.

Last month’s cup final made history; Village Manchester beat Dublin Devils on penalties at the home of Shelbourne FC, the first time the final has ever been played at a men's professional league ground.

Yorkshire could not win the cup for their silver anniversary - falling in the semi-finals - but marked this historic occasion with a third league title in five seasons. 

GOAL dives into the history of the Terriers by speaking to players and managers past and present, to find out more about a club with an important history in LGBTQ+ football, and one that today finds itself as relevant as ever…

Yorkshire Terriers 1Sam Hill

At the turn of the century, rampant homophobia in English football was accepted and commonplace. The suicide of Justin Fashanu in 1998, a player treated despicably by the media and let down by the game, was an incident that should have led to a root and branch review of attitudes, behaviour and language in professional football.

Yet football grounds remained a terrifying place for LBGTQ+ fans, and on the pitch things weren’t much better - Robbie Fowler repeatedly making homophobic comments towards Chelsea’s Graeme Le Saux being one of the more distasteful and memorable incidents. 

It was to this background that Rob Graham joined the Terriers as a player in May 2002  - a 21-year-old from Heckmondwike, near Leeds, unconvinced of his place within football.

Speaking exclusively to GOAL, he says: “I started playing pub league football in 1998 and did that for quite a few years, and I was very much in the closet. I didn’t fit in there, but I also didn’t fit into ‘the gay thing’, which I saw as very stereotypical, Julian Clary-style campness. I couldn’t be myself, and certainly not playing football in a pub league in West Yorkshire.” 

Rob then saw a gay football team on TV, in an episode of They Think It’s All Over where the blindfolded contestants touched the players to guess who they were, and did a Yahoo search online - “which I don’t think even exists any more” - to find the Yorkshire Terriers. 

He says: “Back in the 90s, there were local networks of gay football supporters, as it was still very taboo. Occasionally they would play matches, and then every so often there would be a national get-together.

“In 1997 there was a get-together in Manchester, and they were saying to Yorkshire, ‘we’ve got five of us, there’s five or more of you, shall we have a five-a-side game.’ That was how it started - two groups of fans having a five-a-side match.

“Other groups wanted to get involved after that. That grew to the point where in 2002 they decided, why don’t we expand this to 11-a-side."

Rob Graham Yorkshire TerriersGoal/Facebook

He went to his first training session in May 2002, and for 20 years has been part of the team as player, manager, chairman, and most other roles.

Now 41, he will be hanging up his boots at the end of the season, having wound down his time on the pitch during the 2021-22 season.

However, he has not left the game before having made memories to last a lifetime, including playing in tournaments across the world while representing his club, his country, and his people.

Terriers, he says, has changed his life completely.

“I’ve played with the Terriers in Paris, in the USA three times. I’ve got to walk out onto the pitch with an England flag, representing my country. None of my friends have been able to say that, it’s quite amazing.”

High points for Rob have included scoring a winning penalty in a match in Chicago [at the Gay Games] in 2006 and lifting the GFSN Cup in 2012. He also met his first long term partner through the Terriers.

He has played in every position for the club over two decades, he reckons - other than in goal.

Rob Graham TerriersGoal/Facebook

He is also proud of the way the club has changed attitudes in Yorkshire towards gay men playing football - not only from straight people, but within the LGBT community too.

He says: “We did a lot of work in the mid-2000s that gay men can play football, and that it’s not unusual. There was also a belief within the gay community, the jokes of ‘oh the showers must be fun’. It’s not about that, football is something we care about.

“I’m in my 40s now, so I don’t know what it’s like in football for younger people, however I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Yorkshire Terriers is a community club which supports people who don’t have somewhere else to go, who are looking to find themselves, who are looking for friends.

“That is not easy for a lot of people, especially young people when they are coming out - to have a place they can go which is not just about sexuality or gender, but a common interest, is essential.”

One of the greatest signs of progress as far as Graham is concerned, ironically, is how many of the Terriers players nowadays don’t necessarily identify as LGBTQ+.

“The fact we now have a lot of heterosexual cis players on the team, without it being an issue worth mentioning, is progress - having straight players in a gay team used to be taboo too.”

Yorkshire Terriers 2003Facebook

For a long time, Yorkshire Terriers were the nearly men of the GFSN. League success in 2004 and winning the cup in 2012 aside, they finished in the league’s top three a further six times, and were losing cup finalists in 2007 and 2018.

Then Josh Sedman joined the club. Since then, the Terriers have gained a reputation as the team to beat in the GFSN, thanks to back to back league titles in 2018 and 2019.

Those titles were won under the management of Sedman, a modest, sandy haired and bearded Yorkshireman and Leeds United fan, who made his reputation with the Terriers as a ball-playing midfielder before switching to left back this season. Josh admits he “stepped up because no-one else wanted to do it”, and only joined the team thanks to tuning in to a radio programme by chance.

The 32-year-old from Leeds told GOAL: “It was about eight years ago, I had just come out of a relationship and was looking for friends.

“This happened to coincide with the time Thomas Hitzlsperger came out; I listened to a piece about him on the radio where they spoke about LGBT clubs, so I looked into that and found the Terriers.

“From a personal perspective, it has been brilliant. I’ve met friends for life through the team. Footballing wise, I’ve played for straight teams and not felt like I belong.

“You need to surround yourself with people who are similar, who have the same sense of humour, like minded people. As soon as I came down I felt at home. I’d been part of the team for about three days and they invited me for a game in Glasgow.”

Josh Sedman Yorkshire TerriersGoal/Instagram

The GFSN’s Wikipedia page - not updated with league winners since 2013 - might tell you otherwise, but Terriers have emerged as a prime force in LGBTQ+ football in the last five years. It is something Josh is rightly proud of as he looks back on his best moments.

“On the pitch, the first league title win,” he says. “I’d taken a step back from playing to manage the team, and they were a really good group who got the reward they deserved. We’ve got an environment where people can be themselves.

“The away trips have been absolutely brilliant - I played in Miami with the Stonewall team through Terriers, I would have never got that opportunity in my life without joining this team. I managed the team in Paris - that was stressful, but a great experience.”

The honour of the oldest LGBT club in the UK goes to Stonewall, founded in 1991, with Terriers following on six years later. The world is now a very different place to when the clubs were started.

Being gay is no longer such a social taboo, and in football strides are being made, most notably earlier this year when Blackpool striker Jake Daniels became the first active male professional footballer in Britain for more than 30 years to come out. So, why do teams like Terriers still need to exist?

“Why not?”, says Sedman. “There is still the odd bit of what people call ‘banter’ which makes people feel uncomfortable, whereas here you can be whoever you are and there is no judgement. We are moving in the right direction, having Daniels come out is brilliant, but we still need this.”

Yorkshire Terriers 2022Sam Hill

One aspect of the Terriers, and other GFSN clubs, which many outsiders find surprising is the willingness to welcome straight, cisgender players. Any footballer, as long as they have the right attitude, is able to play regardless of ability or sexuality.

Many players for the Terriers are brothers, friends or colleagues of existing players, drawn in by good word of mouth and the promise of playing football all over the country, rather than in a local Sunday league.

Adam Knights is a 31-year-old father of one, Newcastle fan, vocal Geordie and utility player with a reputation for full-blooded tackles - even in training  - and even more full-throated remarks on his teammates’ performances.

Yet he admits having some reservations about whether he would be welcomed when he joined in 2020 just before the Covid lockdown, having been introduced to the team by a friend of a friend.

“I didn't really know what the Terriers as a team was,” he tells GOAL. “I went along, met the team, and I’ve stayed with them ever since.

“Before I came along, I asked if a straight person could come and play for this team. The response was that the team were looking to start opening up, taking the element of inclusivity further. That was my first question, and the answer was that they wanted to bring people in.

“Being straight has had no impact on how I am part of the club. For me, people are people, and everyone has been really accepting of me. I try to get involved in the club’s culture as much as I can.

“That is an important part of being part of an LGBTQ+ team, especially as a straight person, you can’t only turn up to training sessions and games, you’ve got to try and embrace the culture of inclusivity and being part of reaching out in the community.”

Yorkshire Terriers Dublin DevilsSam Hill

Adam has since joined the committee running the team, remodelling and running the Terriers website, and says his two years with the club has been an eye-opening experience both in terms of football on the pitch, and his views on people and society off it.

“Coming into a gay team, it’s great to see how accepting the team are to someone who is not a traditional part of that culture,” he says.

“Playing with trans players, it is a first in sport for me to be playing with a mixed gender team, it is definitely a new experience, and it makes you aware of why we play in the GFSN and why it exists - it makes you wonder why a league like this can’t be affiliated with the FA.

“I know early doors Terriers provided a really safe place for people to not only play football but to meet people in their community, and regardless of what happens in the future it’s ultimately a place for people to feel safe and grow as they want to, to either stay or join whatever team they feel comfortable in.”

But most importantly, he takes the opportunity to mention his finest moment on the field of play.

“In my first game with the Terriers I scored and got man of the match, it was great to be with a new team. Whether I’ve spectated or played, there have been some guys who have developed a lot over the last couple of years, and it’s great to see the friends you have start to achieve while being themselves."

Yorkshire Terriers DublinSam Hill

Being a gay footballer no longer carries the same stigma it did in the 1990s. Being a trans footballer does.

As toxic accusations continue to be thrown at trans people attempting to participate in sport, while governing bodies scramble to enforce bans amid waves of misinformation, it is tougher than ever for gender non-conforming people to find a place within the game.

Sam Hill, a versatile winger cum full back, joined Terriers in summer 2019 after moving back to her home town of Bradford, having played for London Romans, another LGBT team, for the previous 18 months while studying at university. In summer 2021, she came out to the team as transgender - an experience she describes as, within Terriers at least, being nothing but positive.

“At Terriers at no point have I had to hide any part of myself, ever thought I would get a negative response. No one is ever going to be against you - unless it’s on the pitch in a training match, in which case it’s every player for themselves.”

What about her best moments with Terriers? “On the pitch, it would have to be my only success in a match - away against Nottingham. We won which was good for two reasons; I’m a Derby County fan, so it’s always good to put in a performance against that lot. That was also the only match my parents have been to.

“Off the pitch, going to places like Dublin [for the 2022 GFSN Cup semi-final] or Blackpool [for a summer five-a-side tournament]; taking the whole team away and essentially having a holiday with this football team I’m really close with already. It’s such a good community.”

At 24, Hill is among a growing number of Terriers players younger than the team she plays for, and therefore views the role of the club in her life very differently to how those who came before her may have done.

Sam Hill Yorkshire TerriersGoal/Facebook

“I imagine the role it plays now is very different to that in ‘97,” she says. “It’s inclusive, but it’s not as important to protect, because being openly LGBT, while there are still problems, there are not as many as there were back then.

“However, trans people are experiencing a very hostile environment, especially within sport; there are a lot of people saying you shouldn’t play for certain teams, or someone is better than some else based on their genitals - which I can say from personal experience is not true. Cristiano Ronaldo and I have the same type of genitals, and I’m sh*t.

“It’s inclusion across all genders, which is hugely important for people who want to play without that being relevant. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to play you should play, and Terriers offers that to anyone.”

While she feels on the whole that the environment for LGBT people in football is better than it has been before, Sam says there is a lot of work to do, a lot for the Terriers to be involved with - and that any suggestion of a rainbow takeover of the sport is a long way wide of the mark.

She says: “People seem to think that overnight, people will be happy with gay and trans players being everywhere.

“It’s not; there are villages of 200 that can have two straight football teams, yet there are around 20 LGBT clubs for a country of 60 million. It’s very much still a minority.

“The role of LGBT people in football is to be at the forefront of making it for everyone, for anyone who struggles to get into sport. No-one deserves to be left out for any reasons.

“That’s something Terriers does very well, which is to be a visible advocate for inclusion.”

Emma Smith Yorkshire TerriersSam Hill

Yorkshire Terriers is an important club to the people in this story - and to the one telling it.

I have played for Terriers since summer 2020, featuring regularly for the team through the 2021-22 season.

As a player, it has been great to play alongside my teammates all over the country as we battle for the title. As a teammate, it has been a pleasure to get to know some fantastic people with shared interests and experiences, and a similar love for football.

As a trans woman, it has been incredible to be able to continue playing football. To play for a team where I am the goalkeeper, not a culture war issue.

It is something I thought I would have to give up, despite loving the sport so much. Instead, I have carried on playing in an environment which is not only accepting, but vibrant, competitive, exciting and, above all, fun.

These are all things football is supposed to be. They are all things you can say about Yorkshire Terriers.

On June 26, watched by friends, family, and fans, Terriers beat Nottingham Lions to secure a hard-earned league championship on the line.

Football, of course, is a lot more fun when you win. It’s never just about taking part.

But the real victory is having such a team to call my own. That’s what really matters.