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Fan group in focus: Sheffield Wednesday’s Rainbow Owls

You wait ages for a feature on Sheffield Wednesday fan groups and then two come along at once! After recently speaking to SWFC Women’s Supporters’ Group, this week we had the pleasure of catching up with Rainbow Owls founder Chris Ledger – it’s a big weekend for them as tomorrow is a designated Rainbow Laces game, so it’ll be a busy day for Chris and co…

The FSA: Tell us a little about when the group formed?

Chris: Rainbow Owls was founded on 21st June 2023, as the independent and officially recognised LGBTQ+ supporters’ group of Sheffield Wednesday FC.

Having a coordinated launch with an LGBTQ+ charity partner, a matchday hospitality partner, four ambassadors and a website, all with social media backing from the club on the same day – was critical in swiftly reaching this milestone.

We secured more than 100 members by the end of September 2023, which is an incredible achievement for a new supporters’ group.

The mentorship from James Laley, founder of Rainbow Blades, was also imperative, as he has continued to regularly share advice and resources on how to best manage Rainbow Owls.

Our current growth wouldn’t have been possible without his kindness and support, including inviting us to become founding members of the seven-pronged Regional LGBTQ+ Football Supporters’ Group Alliance. We have already formed a really strong relationship with other LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups, particularly Rainbow Blades.

And what were the reasons behind your formation?

As the socio-political climate has steadily gotten worse in recent years, there’s an increasing need for football and wider society to have LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups, so that LGBTQ+ fans and allies can be active within the game and have a visible platform.

Football journalists have documented a number of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents throughout this year, particularly in French football, while Jordan Henderson’s move to Al Ettifaq of Saudi Arabia highlights just how glibly these issues can be promoted and then discarded in a tokenistic manner.

A key purpose of Rainbow Owls’ existence, therefore, is that we can assist Sheffield Wednesday’s genuine commitment in supporting the LGBTQ+ community and add credibility to their various awareness campaigns.

You’ve been an Owl since the late 90s – what were your reasons for kickstarting the group?

Chris (left) with his friend Ben Barlow-Cook.

Chris (left) with friend Ben Barlow-Cook.

None of my family members are football supporters so I always had to attend games on my own.

I took a complete break from attending matches between October 2014 and April 2023 after struggling to accept being gay – in addition to hearing racist abuse and encountering anti-social behaviour in the stands which resulted in exhaustion and a complete breakdown in mental health.

After getting back into football in general a few years ago, Rainbow Owls has acted as a way for me to become more connected with Sheffield Wednesday and befriend fellow supporters for the first time.

What are the group’s main goals?

Rainbow Owls is a very social group: we have a pre-match event before every home league game at Pangolin Craft Beer, a local pub who openly identify as allies of the LGBTQ+ community.

After all, even though Sheffield is one of the UK’s biggest cities, it woefully underserves our community when you compare it to the likes of Leeds and Manchester, due to the lack of gay bars and LGBTQ+ meet up activities.

Football is such a universal hobby and a very accessible way of bringing people together, which means that Rainbow Owls can give LGBTQ+ fans the opportunity to engage with their peers and find a support network.

This makes it easier for them to attend games as their authentic selves so, rather than isolating and segregating, we help our members to develop a stronger fan identity.

We also work together with Sheffield’s broader LGBTQ+ community, including the donation of items, namely LGBTQ+ books and Sheffield Wednesday’s branded rainbow mugs, to local groups, such as Peak Queer Adventures and our LGBTQ+ charity partner SAYiT.

Rainbow Owls logo

How have the wider reactions and club engagement been?

Engagement from Sheffield Wednesday has been consistent and excellent.

It is also really positive that around 30% of our members are allies, which shows how Rainbow Owls has struck a chord with the crossover fanbase.

As tackling anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime forms a big part of our vision, the club’s Community Programme hosted an LGBTQ+ presentation for Hate Crime Awareness Week on behalf of Rainbow Owls, which was delivered by South Yorkshire Police’s Hate Crime Coordinator with backing from Victim Support South Yorkshire.

The workshop was mentioned in a subsequent matchday programme and, for Rainbow Laces, the club’s official website will be publishing an online article on LGBTQ+ allyship that has been written by our ally member Dominic Stevenson, which includes quotes from our ambassador Martyn Ware.

Also, for this designated Rainbow Laces game against Blackburn Rovers on 2nd December, our group’s pre-match and pitchside photo opportunity with first-team players will be posted on the club’s official social media accounts.

We are supporting the Community Programme’s youth engagement work for Rainbow Laces, too, with joint matchday activities that will include young people attending an LGBTQ+ awareness workshop in the club’s Education Hub, holding our Rainbow Owls banner pitchside and then handing out LGBTQ+ leaflets to supporters in the club’s Fanzone.

Considering that this is Rainbow Owls’ first season, the club should be commended for delivering a diverse range of Rainbow Laces activities – which will celebrate our LGBTQ+ fanbase and raise awareness of the many issues that they face daily – especially as we will continue to work with the club’s Academy Support and Community Programme networks on relevant educational campaigns during 2024.

What are your hopes for SWFC this season? It obviously looks like a perilous time on and off the pitch…

(Editor’s note – this interview took place in mid-November.)

It has been a very challenging season, but the recent appointment of Danny Röhl is a real greenshoot for the club and is good for supporter morale.

Performances have improved from the off and we have been unlucky not to register more points under Röhl. Many fans have also been impressed by the assured vision and charismatic engagement of both Röhl and his assistant coach Chris Powell.

One of the primary reasons for Darren Moore’s success at Sheffield Wednesday was his calm and dignified professionalism, which helped to bring everybody together and generally put the club on a more even keel. The signs so far are that Röhl will emulate this, with a more cohesive and dynamic style of football to boot, if the club play the long game with this appointment and don’t make any knee-jerk decisions.

Join your local supporters’ organisation

Supporters’ groups across the country carry out fantastic work, and a lot of it is focused on the local community. We’d encourage all fans to join their local group – see a list of FSA member groups here.

You can find our more and join Rainbow Owls here.

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Funding partners

  • The Football Association
  • Premier Leage Fans Fund

Partners

  • Gamble Aware
  • Co-operatives UK
  • FSE
  • Kick It Out
  • Level Playing Field
  • Living Wage Foundation
  • Pledgeball