A FORMER Cherries coach has revealed how he had “lived in fear” of his colleagues finding out he was gay.

Connor Natella, who is now assistant manager at Wessex League New Milton, joined AFC Bournemouth’s Community Sports Trust when he was 17.

He ‘came out’ three years later and said he had gained “a great deal of strength and assurance from the support” he had received, adding “nobody in the football environment took an issue”.

However, he also revealed how his father had shunned him and people he had counted as friends had now “distanced themselves completely” from him.

Speaking following the launch of a Football v Homophobia campaign, Natella said anyone who thought there weren’t lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people at every level of the football pyramid were “frankly kidding” themselves.

And he has urged people to be “brave enough to front the stigma and challenge the discrimination which currently blights the game”. He said he wanted to be “judged on my merits as a football coach, nothing more”.

This is Connor Natella’s story...

I fell in love with football before I even knew what love was.

I began coaching from an early age and gained my first badge at 14. By the age of 16, I had set up and was running an adult men’s team.

I arrived in Bournemouth on my 17th birthday, having gained an apprenticeship in AFC Bournemouth’s Community Sports Trust. I was then offered a permanent role within the Trust and the opportunity to learn from coaches like Shaun Brooks and Matty Holmes was a dream for me. It took dedication, work-ethic and passion.

At the age of 20, I began to come to terms with something that had plagued me for as long as I could remember – my sexuality. Nobody knew I was gay. Not my family, my friends and certainly not my colleagues. I lived in fear of them finding out and wondered if I would ever be able to tell anyone.

I would like to point out what a difficult process ‘coming out’ is. It involves telling the people you love most that you are not entirely the person they thought you were. It involves shaking the foundations of those relationships and simply hoping they don’t break.

I told my family and friends over the Christmas of 2013 and my work colleagues a month later. The response was mostly positive and I gained a great deal of strength and assurance from the support shown to me. Nobody in the football environment took an issue.

The confidence that coming out gave me was enough to see me set out on a new venture in non-league football. I met with Callum Brooks, who I’d met through working at AFC Bournemouth, and he was manager at New Milton. The meeting went without a hitch. It was clear we shared the same ambitions and had similar ideas in terms of coaching and management.

Eventually, Callum asked the question I’d been dreading, “are you gay?”.

For the first time, I felt I had nowhere to hide. I responded with a simple, “yes, I am”.

I half expected him to leave, but he didn’t. He did the opposite. He asked me whether I was worried if people would react badly and, when I said I was, he told me, “it’s your battle to fight and you have to stand up to it if it happens, but you’ll do it with myself and the club behind you.”

Fast forward to now and we’re in the thick of a promotion race. The players have been nothing but supportive and I’ve never felt more comfortable about my sexuality than I do now and that is largely down to the support given to me by those in the game so far.

I’ve been hugely fortunate in my experiences so far. But I haven’t eluded homophobia altogether. My father and I are no longer in contact and people I counted as friends have now distanced themselves completely. I’m glad I’m at a place now where I don’t feel upset or let down. I feel sympathy for them, as I feel we are living in a world which is evolving quicker than they can keep up with. Their outdated views have no place in modern society, let alone the modern game. I do not wish for them to be excluded from the game, I simply wish for their ignorance to be educated and to be judged on my merits as a football coach, nothing more.

Whenever people ask me now if I’m glad to have done things how I did, I say yes. But I shouldn’t have had to. I shouldn’t have had to spend three years in turmoil, living fear of being ‘outed’. I shouldn’t have had to consider my future in the game because of something completely irrelevant to it. I shouldn’t have had to hide my identity for so long. It is a real issue and it turns people away from the game all the time. If you think that there aren’t LGBT players at every level of the football pyramid, you are frankly kidding yourself.

The football landscape is changing. The game mirrors society and I feel with the examples provided by players such as Robbie Rogers, Casey Stoney and Thomas Hitzlsperger, homosexuality is increasingly being viewed as an aspect of society and therefore, an aspect of the game. I feel we are waiting for trailblazers, both heterosexual and homosexual, people brave enough to front the stigma and challenge the discrimination which currently blights the game.

I fell in love with football before I knew what love was. Now, I understand what it feels to love and be loved and my passion for the game has never shone brighter.

For more information on the Football v Homophobia campaign, go to www.footballvhomophobia.com