Matt Morton’s head raced with thoughts as he pressed the send button on Thetford Town’s WhatsApp group chat.
How would his team-mates react? Was he about to be cast aside? Would he have to find a new club? Had he done the right thing?
Eighteen months after realising he was gay at the age of 31, Morton used social media to come out to his fellow players at the ninth-tier Norfolk club.
Within minutes of pressing send, his mobile phone pinged with replies.
“I’m massively proud of you for following your heart,” read one. Another player wrote: “It’s never going to change how we feel about you. We love you to bits.”
While Thetford’s players embraced the news one of their own had taken the deeply personal decision to reveal his sexuality, his parents were not so accepting at first.
“My mum was hysterical. She ran out of the room shouting ‘you’re not gay, you’ve had girlfriends. No, no, no,” he told BBC Sport.
Since coming out to his Thetford team-mates on 22 July 2019, Morton has been appointed player-manager at the Eastern Counties Premier Division club, who are away to Arlesey Town in the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup on Saturday.
By sharing his story, the 34-year-old hopes it will give confidence and strength to others in similar situations, like defender Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, who revealed last month to his Sheppey United team-mates he was bisexual.
‘It freaked me out’
Growing up, Morton was not short of female attention and spent his 20s in and out of relationships.
“The longest was probably one year and that happened twice,” he said. “I cared for my girlfriends. I had affection for all of them, but I never actually fell in love.”
Morton first questioned his sexuality in January 2018 after being attracted to someone on Instagram.
“When we met face to face, it was the feeling you have growing up when it’s your first love, your first date,” he added.
It was another three months before Morton came out to his personal assistant at work.
“I was processing the whole thing and asking myself questions like, ‘Am I gay or is it just this one guy?’ ‘Why hasn’t this happened before? Is this a phase?
“To be honest it freaked me out a little bit.
“The only reason I ended up telling anyone is because the relationship had ended and it was driving me insane. It was the lowest moment of my life.”
It was another year before Morton felt confident about telling a female friend and best friend, then his brother, sister, cousins, and team-mates.
Last on his list to tell were his parents, Kelvin and Olga. It was deliberate. “They are both quite old fashioned,” he said.
The conversation did not go well.
‘I didn’t speak to my mum for three months’
Morton’s father, Kelvin, was a Premier League and Football League referee from 1986 until 1995. In 1989, he awarded five penalties in the space of 27 minutes in a match between Crystal Palace and Brighton.
His mother, Olga, is from Belfast and “very religious”. Growing up in the family home, Morton – the youngest of three children – said comments would be made if a gay person appeared on television.
“Elton John is one of my dad’s favourite artistes but he’d say something like ‘I really like his music, it’s a shame he’s gay’.”
When Morton told them about his sexuality, both parents struggled to come to terms with what they were hearing.
“Mum said ‘I can’t accept it, I won’t accept it, I’ll never accept it’,” he added.
“My response was ‘well you will never accept me’. My dad said ‘I love you but I’m struggling with this’.”
Morton did not speak to his mum for another three months. “I thought I’d lost them,” he added.
Since then rifts have been healed and Morton’s fractured relationship with his parents has been fixed.
Lorenzo, Morton’s partner for the past 18 months, has been invited to stay with Kelvin and Olga.
‘Chairman cried when I told him’
Morton is a rarity in the men’s game – a gay footballer who has come out.
Three decades on, Justin Fashanu remains the only male footballer to reveal his sexuality while playing professionally in the top tiers.
Morton plans to continue telling his story but believes a Premier League player coming out would “impact so many lives and reduce suicides”.
“Suicide is the single biggest killer of UK men under 45 and sexuality is a contributor to that,” he added.
“My advice to anyone struggling is to talk to someone you trust. I’m a strong character, I have a big personality but I had to talk to somebody. Nobody can deal with everything on their own.
“People have reached out to me on social media and I have responded. I’ll continue to do that.”
Morton has been touched by the many kind messages of support since coming out.
“I am vain, I pay attention to how I look, I go to the gym and I worry about my hair,” he said. “I actually had more homophobic comments aimed at me before I came out than I have since.
“We played a match against Needham Market last season and one of their forwards, Jose Santa de La Paz, came up to me on the pitch and said ‘you’re Matt Morton, right? I just want to shake your hand’.”
|Assistant manager John Taylor, who played with Dion Dublin at Cambridge, came on as a substitute against Lakenheath on Saturday – at the age of 56.||New West Brom signing Quevin Castro scored five goals in 40 appearances for Thetford Town at the age of 17 in 2018-19.|
|Thetford’s players donated their wages to Mulbarton Wanderers forward Adam Plumstead who fractured his tibia and fibula during a match in April.||England T20 cricket fast bowler Tymal Mills played for Thetford Town at Under-18 level. Other former Thetford players include ex-Norwich forward Ian Henderson, now at Salford.|
There has, however, been the odd negative comment from outside the club.
“I’ve been told one player from another club said ‘I wouldn’t play for Thetford because Matt is gay’. It annoyed me,” said Nigel Armes, Thetford’s 62-year-old chairman, who cried when Morton came out.
“Matt’s a well-mannered, well-spoken and determined man. I admire him. I was a bit emotional. I told Matt he has this club’s full support. It’s his business and his life.”
A director for Amplify – a new health, wellbeing and fitness app – Morton describes himself as “happy and content” and “getting on with life”.
“I spent 18 months from the moment I realised I was gay to the moment I told my family, friends and team-mates,” he said.
“If I have one regret it’s that I could have told them all sooner, but we’re all different.”