The Great British weather is beginning to turn as Jake Daniels sits down with me on a grey and miserable-looking September evening. The Blackpool FC player – recipient of the Gamechanger Award at the Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar – has been in a training session before a match against Nottingham County the following day. Calling in from his Blackpool home, the 18-year-old striker would probably like to put his feet up, but instead, I’m asking him to reflect on the past 17 months since he came out as gay. After taking a deep breath, he says, “Last year was kind of a whirlwind.” And in a statement that shows he has no regrets, he adds, “Coming out was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Daniels made his announcement on 16 May 2022, the same month that he made his professional debut for his League One club. He told Sky Sports, “For a long time I’ve thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be, and now I am, a professional footballer.” Months before, Josh Cavallo had done the same, then becoming the world’s only out-gay male professional footballer playing at the top level.
After his frank confession, Daniels became the first gay male professional in British football to come out since Justin Fashanu. “It was just a nice feeling for me to be able to come out and live my life how I wanted to and kick on with football.” And his actions sparked something of a domino effect. Since he opened up about his sexuality, Scottish League footballer Zander Murray, referees Craig Napier and Lloyd Wilson, and Czech Republic player Jakub Jankto have all followed suit.
“I think the biggest thing is my maturity — I’ve grown as a person” – Jake Daniels
Not only does being open seem to have been the best outcome for Daniels, but in providing yet another ripple in a wave of change, it also marks a significant step forward for football and even sport more broadly. Football has long been seen as unwelcoming — even at times outright hostile — towards the LGBTQ+ community. But if people like Daniels now feel able to be themselves on the pitch, it’s a promising sign that the beautiful game is finally catching up with the rest of society. If only we could count on our supposed allies in the sport. I’m looking at you, David Beckham!
Although Daniels was nervous about how the public would react to his news, he needn’t have been. He laughs slightly as he recalls seeing his Instagram followers grow rapidly, and his DMs flood with messages of support, including ones from high-profile footballers he could only dream of being in contact with, like Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson.
Tom Daley and Cavallo — both figures who inspired Daniels to come out — congratulated him. Cavallo added, “It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that my story has helped guide Jake to be his true self”. Daniels’ old school, Montgomery Academy in Bispham, North Blackpool, also commended their former pupil for his “inspirational bravery”. He even received congratulatory letters written in “posh English” from Prince William and Boris Johnson.
“I was scared and didn’t know what the reaction was gonna be” – Jake Daniels
Now that some time has passed, Daniels is able to see how coming out has moved his personal development forward. “I think the biggest thing is my maturity — I’ve grown as a person. I’m able to handle different situations better than I feel like I would if I hadn’t come out,” he observes.
“If I hadn’t come out and had that experience I would have been a bit shy — in my shell. It’s definitely brought out a mature side of me. I feel like I’ve grown up quicker than I would have expected.”
Daniels certainly appears cool and collected on the call, seemingly unfazed by it all. There’s almost a casual dismissiveness, which is impressive given the rate at which his profile exploded. It’s something he has taken in his stride. “Obviously, football is my main priority at the moment, but I do as much as I can off the pitch to try and help people. It’s just gone in with my day-to-day life, but it will always be a massive thing for me.”
Daniels’ story is one that will be familiar to many gay men. He figured out that he might be gay early on — at around five or six years old. At school, he knew very few queer people. When I was growing up, I often heard ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the playground. It was also used to refer to something that was ‘stupid’. Daniels’ experience is similar and it’s something that confuses and frustrates him in equal parts. “It’s just something that so many people that I know [use], or I’ve heard [use]. It just rolls off their tongue as being an insult. And it shouldn’t be,” he says, with an exasperated sigh.
“I was getting injured at football because of the stress. I wasn’t eating; I wasn’t drinking properly” – Jake Daniels
He shares how difficult it was to hide his identity. “I was scared and didn’t know what the reaction was gonna be, so [my life was spent] just trying to be a person that I wasn’t as much as I possibly could, day-to-day.”
He convinced himself that all would be fine and that he’d get a girlfriend when he was older. Although he’s had girlfriends in the past, he has conceded that this “was just a massive cover-up”.
Eventually, it got to a point where Daniels couldn’t carry on pretending. Playing football “24/7” had helped keep his mind off his internal struggles. But it began to work less and less. His mental health took a serious hit. He’d moved out of the childhood home he had shared with his mother and sister and, having joined Blackpool FC, was living in football digs. He remembers that when he did speak to his mum, he was blunt and moody. At the same time, he found the football environment a difficult one to be in, with guys asking him and talking about girls.
“I wanted to experiment, and I couldn’t,” says Daniels. “I didn’t want to do that secretly; I didn’t want to get found out. It was a lot of things that built up. And I was getting injured at football because of the stress. I wasn’t eating; I wasn’t drinking properly. Then I was out of football, so it was even worse. It became a cycle that I wanted to get out of.” Other people also noticed something wasn’t right. “I was getting told to go and do tests for depression and anxiety, when inside I knew what the problem was. I was like, ‘I can’t miss any more football time’; I had to come out.”
“If they would have kicked me off the pitch, then it would have been there for people to see what I’ve done” – Jake Daniels
Seeing the positive reception Cavallo received in October 2021 when he came out as gay “was a turning point”. Daniels spoke to Cavallo as well as Thetford Town FC’s Matt Morton and rugby player Keegan Hirst, who both came out some years ago. Daniels says his “biggest fear” was the reaction he would get from Blackpool fans and what he might encounter on the pitch after coming out. Fortunately, he has yet to experience any negativity, either on or off the pitch — something he rightly celebrates as “amazing”.
While modest about his position as one of a handful of publicly gay men in football, Daniels wants to use his platform to effect change. He’s been contacted by schools who want him to come and do talks, and this is something he’s keen to do in a bid to avoid anyone else going through what he did. Although he can’t say much about it, he’s also involved with a documentary that will reportedly look into the differences between men’s and women’s football and how they relate to coming out. He doesn’t reveal much about specific conversations he wants to have and with whom, but he hints that it’s the culture of football he wants to change, as he refers to already seeing an improvement at Blackpool FC since the club introduced more monitoring of homophobic and racist abuse.
“Talking was definitely the best thing that I ever did” – Jake Daniels on coming out
Daniels also voices disapproval at Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. He guessed players wouldn’t be able to wear the OneLove armband, a small signifier of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. FIFA banned teams from wearing it and threatened anyone that did with a yellow card. Daniels praises teams like Germany, who protested by posing for a picture with their hands over their mouths. England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark had also planned to wear the armband. But in the end, despite England captain Harry Kane’s prior promise, none of the England squad wore the armband. When it came to it, the England squad weren’t there for us.
“As bad as it sounds, if you were a footballer and you weren’t gay, doing stuff that might sacrifice your playing chances… they wouldn’t risk it — which is obviously not a nice thing,” Daniels reasons. Asked what he would have done had he been on the England squad, he shrugs. “I’d be pretty stubborn about it and just wear it. If they would have kicked me off the pitch, then it would have been there for people to see what I’ve done. That’s my life — I can’t change that. And I’m a footballer, so I’m going to play football. I’m going to be gay; no one’s going to stop me from doing that.”
“It’s an amazing thing” – Jake on his Attitude Award win
His defiance is admirable. It’s a stance we as a community could have done with on a stage as prominent as the World Cup. We then move on to discuss the absence of openly gay Premier League players. Speaking to Attitude in 2022, former England star Rio Ferdinand decried the “witch-hunt” as the wrong way to go about it. Daniels agrees with him. “It’s their decision; they just need to feel comfortable and able to come out — which is what I’ve done to try and help that happen,” he says.
If he could, what would Daniels say to a gay Premier League player thinking of coming out? “There’s no pressure, but talking was definitely the best thing that I ever did. Obviously, you might not feel ready to talk to someone about being gay. But when I spoke to my mum and sister, the literal weight I felt off my shoulders was incredible. Since coming out, I’ve lived my life for me; I don’t live it to please other people.” And if it came to it, it’s no surprise that Daniels would love to be the first active Premier League player to be gay. He can’t quite hide the smile. It would, as Daniels puts it, be a “massive win” for him and for football.
“I wanted to show him off and show people I was in a relationship” – Jake Daniels on his partner Mark
On a personal level, Daniels’ story comes with a happy ending. On Rylan Clark’s How to Be a Man podcast earlier this year, he opened up about his relationship with his 46-year-old partner Mark. It sparked another online frenzy, with many casting judgement on the pair’s age gap. He admits he wasn’t prepared for the reaction, but freely shares that he’s always been attracted to older men and isn’t ashamed of it.
“Once I met Mark, I knew he was the love of my life, and I didn’t want to hide that. I wanted to show him off and show people I was in a relationship. And obviously, a lot of people had hurtful comments about that. Not only just for me, more for Mark. I didn’t want to put him through that. But it died down, and we were able to kick on. It hurt him for a few days. But we have each other, and we knew it was gonna come out eventually.”
Before we wrap up, I ask Daniels what it means to win the Gamechanger Award. It’s another title placed upon him that much like “inspirational” he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He’s as unruffled by it as he is by everything else. Humbly he says, “It’s an amazing thing,” with a visible sense of pride. Although he genuinely appreciates the recognition, he says, he’s just trying to live his life.
Words Alastair James Photography Azazel Creative direction & styling Joseph Kocharian Hair Sven Bayerbach using Damon Barber Make-up Maya Czarnecka using Benny Hancock for Men Fashion Assistant Aaron Pandher
The Attitude Awards issue is available to order now.