Review: ‘Target Man’ (Sliding Tackle Theatre Co)

Gay footballers take center stage in a new production playing at the King’s Head in Islington. Network lead Jon Holmes went to watch…

While British football waits for an out professional gay player in the men’s game, a new theatre production in London this week gives us two.

Sliding Tackle Theatre Company’s ‘Target Man’, written by Mark Starling and directed by Laura Jayne Bateman, and which can be seen at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington at the close of their Queer Season this week, tells the story of Joel (Mateo Oxley) and Connor (William Robinson), and the decision they make which changes how they are viewed in the game.

However, neither of these characters wants to be defined by a label, which makes for solid drama; and in truth there’s much more to them beyond the fact they’re both… goalkeepers. For starters, there’s a cagey, competitive dynamic between the two protagonists, and along with the supporting cast – breezy agent Emma (Sian Harris), and a series of roles played with versatility by Edward Wolstenholme – there’s a lively 70 minutes of action that offers a fresh take on the topics of homophobia and hypermasculinity in football.

Joel is an established number one – reliable, happy enough, and already a role model to talented youngster Connor before the latter’s transfer into the club. But although the understudy is animated and awkward – as seen early on in a clunky joint media interview alongside Joel – there’s a fiery independent streak under the surface too. Connor’s coming to the Premier League with no significant baggage about his sexuality, while Joel’s carefully squirrelled his secret away for years.

It takes a suggestion from the opportunistic Emma to make Connor consider coming out. When Joel and Connor then confide in each other, a proposition is put to the old guard and the new – to join a collective of gay players going public. It’s a scenario that’s been mooted in real life but here we see how the stakes would be higher for a player who knows the score like Joel than they would be for the wide-eyed Connor.

One of the game’s greatest-ever ‘keepers Peter Schmeichel built his reputation on the pitch on ‘making himself big’. Can Joel take on an entirely different challenge that feels bigger than keeping a clean sheet on a Saturday, bigger than his World Cup dreams with England, bigger even than himself? And if he fumbles, can Connor pick up the gloves and better handle that new kind of pressure?

Speaking to London Live last week, Oxley said: “It’s not just a play about football, and it’s not just a gay play… it touches on themes of the generation gap [and] the pursuit of your dreams.” While there have been several other books, movies and plays about gay professional male footballers in recent years (such Ross Raisin’s ‘A Natural’, the Swiss film ‘Mario’, Rhys Chapman’s ‘Wonderkid’, and ‘The Pass’ by John Donnelly), there is new ground trodden in ‘Target Man’.

In one scene, Joel is alerted to the commercial opportunities that an out gay footballer might be offered, and he’s surprised by who’s asking him to pursue that. Oxley impresses as a man of routine suddenly struggling to find his place again. In another scene, Connor grapples with being a spokesman when he’d much rather just be a shot-stopper; Woodhouse is particularly watchable when his character’s emotions are being tested.

Since the oft-cited trailblazing but tragic tale of Justin Fashanu in the 90s, the closest we’ve come to having an out gay player in British football has been Robbie Rogers. In his acclaimed autobiography ‘Come Out To Play’, Rogers writes about how during a loan spell at Stevenage in December 2012, he heard a coach say “you guys are passing the ball like faggots”. He wanted to call it out there and then but felt he simply couldn’t, as he was still closeted at the time (Rogers quit English football and came out publicly soon after, later finding a supportive dressing room and achieving MLS success at his hometown club LA Galaxy).

Six-and-a-half years later, has the UK game really changed much? Barring Thomas Hitzlsperger, even retired players who are gay or bi choose not to come out publicly, let alone active ones. What ‘Target Man’ shows us is that while there may be a wind of change off the pitch – a younger, freer generation coming through, and agents, media and even club officials wanting to tap into LGBT+ positivity (and profitability) – it must still be an exhausting, daily mental battle for any gay footballer who fears ending up in the eye of a storm they can’t control.

I’m reminded of that famous quote from a philosopher and goalkeeper…

All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.

Albert Camus

We love to look at the world through the rose-tinted lens of football, with all its artistry, sense of team ethic, and unifying qualities. The game gives us so much joy. But for us gay guys – young and old – who don’t yet see ourselves reflected among the ranks of the Premier League or EFL, we’ll inevitably keep holding out for someone to make a hopeful punt into the unknown. Until he makes the breakthrough, stories like the one told in ‘Target Man’ will provide entertaining and thought-provoking rounds of fantasy football.

‘Target Man’ is playing at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington until Saturday 24 August (all performances start 9pm, with an additional performance at 5pm on Saturday). Use discount code TARGET3 for £3 off tickets.

Further reading…

Learn more about Sports Media LGBT+

Podcasts: Gay footballers share their stories

How to help a gay footballer

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