Referees share tips for good gay mental health on Football v Homophobia Podcast

Published by Jon Holmes on

Match officials Dan McFarlane and Mikey Connor from the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective are guests on new episode of FvH Pod; chat released to coincide with World Mental Health Day and Coming Out Day; refs stress importance of opening up, reaching out and benefits of exercise…

By Jon Holmes

Referees Dan McFarlane and Mikey Connor are from Aberdeen and Liverpool respectively

Getting your pulse racing, and letting others speak while you listen – that’s part of the advice being shared by two football referees on a new episode of the Football v Homophobia Podcast.

Released on World Mental Health Day, and in the week of Coming Out Day, the conversation between Scottish category 1 official Dan McFarlane, Merseyside man-in-the-middle Mikey Connor and pod host Jon Holmes is available to listen to now.

Both Dan and Mikey are members of the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective, the industry network group for people from the community who are working in roles across the game.

The group, which started up during Pride Month last year, is co-ordinated by FvH and Sports Media LGBT+ and now has over 40 core members, offering useful connections, support and a sense of belonging.

Dan, 29, started refereeing back in 2010 and was promoted to category 1 level two summers ago. He now takes charge of games in the Scottish Championship – he was on duty at Inverness vs Partick Thistle last weekend – and Leagues 1 and 2, and undertakes fourth-official duties in the Scottish Premiership.

Mikey will be familiar to viewers of reality TV dating show ‘I Kissed A Boy’ which aired on BBC Three back in May and June. The 28-year-old moved into officiating after a stint in semi-pro football with Prescot Cables FC, and currently refs matches at Liverpool FA grassroots level, with ambitions to rise up the divisions. He was also a guest speaker at FvH’s recent Football Pride event in Manchester.

During the pod chat, Dan was asked about men’s mental health and the importance he places on physical activity.

“Sport is a great place in which to try and escape the stresses of your day-to-day life,” he says.

“I know that being a referee, you maybe then put yourself under some more stress! But whether it’s going out training or for a run or walk, or whatever it is, I always come off it feeling so much better than I did earlier in the day.”

In the last few years, the Aberdeen-based official has seen an increasing amount of awareness placed on wellbeing in men’s football, with initiatives designed to encourage players, fans and those in other roles to open up.

“Around football, it’s almost like if you admit you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s going to be perceived as a weakness,” he adds.

“That’s a part of it that I really disagree with. Whether it’s stresses in your home life, your job, being LGBTQ+ or anything, it’s a good thing to open up.

“It’s all about having that ear to listen to. I think football is still seen as that stereotypical type of activity where you fear you’ll be seen as weak by your teammates and I’m sure that’s not the case in a lot of clubs.

“In Scotland, Back Onside has done a lot of positive work in this area. For instance, some of the players they work with have long-term injuries and they can’t do the thing that they love – they’re there to support them through their rehab.”

‘Power of talking is immense’

Reacting to a health scare and the subsequent recovery are both topics that Mikey has helped to raise awareness about through his appearances on TV and radio this year.

When he came home from travelling abroad in April 2022, he was hit by significant pain and a trip to his GP led to a shock diagnosis of testicular cancer.

Within weeks, he was undergoing surgery and he spoke about the experience while filming ‘I Kissed A Boy’ in Italy later that summer. After the shoot wrapped, Mikey received further news from doctors that there was a 25% chance that the cancer could return, resulting in his decision to have chemotherapy.

Reflecting on the experience, he explains on the pod how it affected his mental health more this year than at the time he was at risk.

“It wasn’t until the show had aired and I watched myself talking about it, that it really hit home – and since the show, I’ve been talking about it a lot more,” he says.

“I realised I’ve actually been through something that’s quite major. It’s now coming up to a year to the day that I had my chemotherapy.

“There’s a mix of emotions that you go through and then everything settles down. But I think I suppressed everything for a lot of that time. I didn’t realise the impact that it would have.”

He underlines the importance of dialogue with someone you trust who’s a good listener, even if you don’t think you’re the sort of person who might need that conversation.

“Talking about feeling down or having bad days, people see that as a weakness but it’s really not,” he adds.

“I’ve had those sad times and it’s helped me so much to talk because unless you do, you’re not going to move on from it and that’s in any situation, not just the bad things.”

Mikey cites the impact made in football in July by Dele’s revealing interview with Gary Neville, and applauds Ivan Toney for discussing the gambling addiction that led to him being handed an eight-month ban.

“The shame is that a lot of people don’t go and get the support that’s there,” he says. “They let that shame fester inside.

“Some people even take their own lives and no one wants that to happen. The power of talking is immense and I can say that from personal experience.”

Sending the right message

Dan says that for anyone in football who might be struggling from an LGBTQ+ perspective, there are avenues available to you, such as reaching out to someone in the Collective who you know will be able to relate.

“In a refereeing context, your colleagues are there for you – we’re all part of a team,” he says.

“For me, I’m extremely happy with who I am and how I’m living my life as a referee in Scotland that’s openly gay and proud of it. 

“A lot of my best friends have come from refereeing, they’ve listened to me when I’ve been struggling or maybe had an off day or I’m second guessing myself on who I am – we all get those days.

“There’s such a positive camaraderie among refs, a good spirit – it’s probably very much like some football teams. Maybe people who aren’t within refereeing don’t realise that.

“I‘d encourage anybody who’s struggling from a mental health side or who maybe hasn’t come out yet to speak to someone. There will always be an ear there to listen.”

Dan took charge of Inverness Caledonian Thistle vs Partick Thistle last weekend

Both Dan and Mikey are open to receiving messages from those looking for help with coming out in football, with the latter also keen to offer advice relating to testicular cancer.

“I sometimes hear from people who have checked themselves and they’ve said they’ve only done that because they’ve watched the TV show,” says Mikey.

“If they get checked and they found something, that’s a job well done for me and my message got across – and of course, it’s potentially saved somebody’s life.”

Mikey’s day job is in insurance and coupled with his busy weekend refereeing commitments and being an influencer, he’s in a new chapter of his life after his time spent hanging out in the masseria with the boys and Dannii Minogue.

That brings its own challenges too. “People ask, how do you deal with the pressure of being on TV and then going back to normal life? 

“It is a bit strange. One day, I’ll be on a red carpet event and the next I’m back in work! It’s a hard balance. I sometimes think, what life am I in? 

“But once you’ve got the balance, it’s fine and again, it’s all about talking and having good support around you.”

There’s much more from Mikey and Dan on the podcast episode – listen in full to hear the guys share their coming out stories, talk about their experiences of being out and gay in refereeing, and the benefits they’ve had from being part of the Collective network group.

You can reach out to them directly through social media (find links on the Collective website) or email for all enquiries about the LGBTQ+ Professionals in Football Collective.

Sports Media LGBT+ is a network, advocacy, and consultancy group that is helping to build a community of LGBTQ+ people and allies in sport. We’re also a digital publisher and can help with your content requirements. Learn more about us here.

We’re interested in your news and stories. Share with us and tap into a worldwide audience through our Google News affiliate website which attracts thousands of visitors, and our popular social channels. Contact us to discuss how we can help you.

Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor