Two Welshmen grabbed the headlines in the weeks leading up to Christmas: Gareth Thomas publicly declared himself to be gay, and Mark Hughes was dismissed from his post as manager of Manchester City Football Club. To most rugby and football fans in Wales and beyond, these were the worst kept secrets in sport.
There's no doubt that Gareth Thomas is an icon of the oval ball with his one hundred Welsh caps and his appearances for the British Lions. He is a star player who has led his country on numerous occasions and has worn the shirts of Bridgend, Cardiff, the Celtic Warriors and Toulouse, and who continues to be a pivotal member of the Cardiff Blues squad. Life has never been simple for Alfie, as he is affectionately known, with a great deal of attention having been focused on his role leading up to national coach Mike Ruddock’s resignation following Wales’s 2005 Grand Slam victory.
He has gained a great deal of media attention in the weeks since making his clear and unequivocal statement that "I don't want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player— first and foremost I am a man." The statement is tinged with sadness that he had to hide his sexuality from his fellow players, his coaches and from the game’s supporters. It made one appreciate how brave Nigel Owens, the international referee fom Mynyddcerrig, was in declaring his sexuality at the peak of his career. It also made sobering reading to learn that both athletes had contemplated suicide at some point; but it was heartening to hear of the support both had received.
The great Australian rugby league player Ian Roberts could and should be an inspiration to many gay sportsmen, having been open about his sexuality as far back as 1995. With his clarion call for sportsmen to be "true to yourself", he led campaigns against homophobia while continuing to go from strength to strength in his sport. He was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for "his contribution to Australia's international standing in rugby league" in 2000. Gareth Thomas shared his aspiration that the sexuality of players should "not even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: 'So what?'"
"So what?" was the opinion of many when they learnt of the dismissal of Mark Hughes as manager of Manchester City Football Club. Welsh football supporters still feel the hurt from the defeat to Russia at the Millennium Stadium when "Sparky" failed to lead the national team to the Euro 2004 finals. Many feel that Hughes should not have undertaken his managerial apprenticeship at international level. There will, however, be some sympathy with him as he experienced a prolonged wait for the axe to fall after the Eastlands club was bought from the former prime minister of Thailand, Dr Thaksin Shinawatra, by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG).
Chief executive Garry Cook denied any discussions with Hughes’s successor, Roberto Mancini, before the Welshman was unceremoniously sacked following the four goals to three victory over Sunderland. Mancini, however, confessed to prolonged discussions before replacing the Welshman, and most pundits felt the whole sequence of events to be undignified and ruthless. With an investment worth a reported £200 million and huge transfer fees, it wasn’t surprising to find that Hughes’s time was up when he failed to take City into the elite of English football.