“He put me on the spot,” explains Aslie Pitter MBE. “‘Why are you playing in a gay tournament,’ he asked. I confessed: I’m gay. It just went quiet.
“At that time I was playing in the club's first team. But the guys weren’t comfortable playing alongside me after that, so I got dropped right down to the fourth team. It was a very dark time. And this was 1994.”
The problem was that life for Aslie Pitter wasn’t supposed to include football in the first place. Or, more accurately, football wasn't supposed to include him. Shorter than his peers, black, and, perhaps most obstructively, gay, he faced prejudice at every turn in the sport whilst living in south London throughout the 20th century.
Up until 1994 - the year England and France became connected by the Channel Tunnel, genetically modified food was first approved for sale and Simba lost Mufasa to the heartbreak of the nation - Aslie wasn’t fully accepted without deception by football clubs across the capital.
However, having joined a team of fellow gay men playing in London parks in 1991, the now 58-year-old discovered a pathway to inclusion. That pathway came from the group of players that later went on to form Stonewall FC - Britain’s first and highest ranking gay football side. Aslie was one of its most prominent founding members.
Though for three years after, he stuck by what he calls ‘straight’ clubs too, until one player found out that he would be joining Stonewall FC for a series of matches in New York against other gay football clubs. Then, he was put on the spot. Then, the support of those he’d shared hours on the pitch with ended. Then, he’d had enough.
“I remember playing one game where our captain kept targeting homophobic abuse at our opposition and at half-time I just said, ‘look, do you have to keep speaking about them like that?’. My own captain then turned to me and said, ‘what, is that your boyfriend?’ and far, far worse, non-stop, right in my face. I was so embarrassed. That was my last game.
“I thought, ‘you know what? Why am I doing this? Why am I getting up on a Sunday morning, freezing cold, just to get this abuse week in, week out?’”
So Aslie left ‘straight’ football and focussed solely on Stonewall. Whilst he was then safer, surrounded by people who wouldn’t shut him out, things didn’t improve overnight.
“The other teams stayed well away from us, but only us. They wouldn’t shower until we’d left the building.
“On one occasion, we were in the away dressing room and the opposition knocked our door down. They sang Buju Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’; a song about shooting ‘queers’, that they all need to be dead. For a few weeks, I lost my love of football.”
Having regained it, though, Aslie has now been playing with Stonewall FC for over 25 years. He hasn’t been made to quit a side like he was in 1994 and his inspiring journey through football even earned him an MBE in 2010.
“Today, we actually have trouble recruiting for Stonewall FC. At ‘straight’ clubs, player’s mates don’t care if they’re gay anymore, so why would they need to join us?
“In our first-team, there are five straight players. It’s because they’re here for the football, no one discriminates. They feel totally comfortable and we feel comfortable with them. Things have changed massively.
“I’ve lived in South London all my life and now it is definitely an inclusive place,” he begins to reflect. “Things have changed, you wouldn’t dare hold hands with a man in the ‘90s. In fact, if you left a gay pub, there would often be cab drivers there to get you home quickly and safely. Today, there’s even adverts about promoting inclusivity and places say that they’re openly friendly to gay people.”
Having previously lived with an identity hidden from those he spent spare time with just to fit in with the south London footballing scene - “we had end-of-the-season dos when people took wives along and girlfriends, so I’d just go alone” - Aslie now lives with his husband, Alan, still in south London, but now openly and comfortably.
Now, Aslie can truly love football whilst being the man he's always been with confidence and assurance. Now, Aslie can be South London and Proud.