Hand-dyed kits, LGBTQ+ solidarity and phenomenal footy. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Brighton Seagals.
By Clara Heffernan. Images by Sof Petrides
Out of an LGBTQ+ sports event in Brighton in 2018, the Brighton Seagals were born. Since then, the team has been a true labour of love. From a desire to make a community surrounding a passion for football, the team has created an inclusive and open space where encouragement is the goal. I travelled to Littlehampton to catch up with the team and find out a bit more about their journey from one small five-a-side training session to placing fifth in the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League in just over a year.
As we sat pitch-side, huddled against the wind on a single picnic table, Justine Thomson (club chair), Corinne Wilson (vice-chair) and Karen Dare (manager) painted a picture of the Brighton Seagals’ origins. Back in the days of large sports gatherings, the players that would become the Brighton Seagals met at a BLAGSS event (Brighton’s LGBTQ+ sports society). Driven by an urge to play competitively, Justine started a five-a-side team. Armed with a pipette from a Calpol bottle, a bundle of Nike shorts and a spare nine hours, Justine and Corinne hand-dyed their kit “Seagals Teal” (not yet trademarked, but watch this space) to match the Brighton seafront railings. Corinne describes the scene at her kitchen table: “Until two o’clock in the morning, we were dying these shorts in this huge pot with a pair of marigolds on!”
It was clear from the beginning that this team was determined to stand out. A special emphasis was placed on accommodating the whole team when it came to the fit of these kits. “That was something we felt was missing at other clubs; you just get shoved with a bag of kit and whatever is available is what you have to put on,” explains Corinne.
The Seagals’ inclusive ethos extends beyond the team into their wider community, too. From their social media channels, they make sure to celebrate all religious holidays and create content for LGBTQ+ history month, plus they were the first football club in the area to sign the Kick It Out equality charter.
Affiliating with their local eleven-a-side league in the face of Covid presented another challenge for the Seagals. But while everything else seemed to be shutting down, the Seagals were only just getting started. By collaborating with the local youth team to create a pathway for girls to progress, the Seagals managed to form a committee. They soon registered with the FA and were able to secure more financial security. This collaboration proved to be the springboard that has allowed the Seagals to go from strength to strength ever since, even throughout lockdowns, Zoom meetings and cancelled matches.
As a team, the Seagals occupy a place in grassroots football that was previously missing from their league: they champion women and non-binary people not just as players, but as role models and leaders, too. Karen Dare, the Seagals manager, represents a rare sight in women’s grassroots football – a team managed solely by a woman. Justine describes how the club intentionally focused on providing what women want out of football: “We wanted to be independent; we don’t want to be run by a men’s club where you get hand-me-downs or not much budget … It was really nice to then bring another woman on board as a manager, because when you look on the sidelines on a Sunday, it’s very rare to see another woman coaching. We’re really proud that we’ve got that.”
Karen reflects on her own management style and how gender impacts on coaching technique, explaining that “attitude, tone of voice, all of that is really interesting.” Justine helps to fill in the gaps where Karen is too modest, describing a manager who never sends a player off the pitch for missing a goal; one who champions encouragement and support over harsh reprimands.
On a more personal note, it’s easy to see that this club provides far more than just a way for the team to stay active and win matches. Corinne described her initial hesitance to get back into football after a youth team left her viewing football as a chore rather than a passion. After watching an entire training session from her car, too afraid to join in, she finally summoned up the courage to go back and take part. Another player I spoke to recounts a similar story: “I hadn’t played in twenty years when I joined … I had England trials when I was fourteen and then quit when I was fifteen. Boys kept calling me a dyke, I was in the closet, I just didn’t want anyone to point at me and call me whatever they wanted. I was terrified to rejoin, but I really just wanted to get healthier and do something I enjoyed, and it’s the best thing I ever did. When I played with these guys, that fear just went; they were just so lovely and so supportive.”
It’s clear that Seagals represents more than just a club for enthusiastic players. It offers a pathway back to a sport loved but simultaneously feared by these women. Talking to these players off the pitch about their experiences helped to explain the enthusiasm I was about to witness on the pitch.
The grey and windy afternoon couldn’t deter the Seagals – a phenomenal 4-2 victory over the Rustington Raiders proved that this team is a force to be reckoned with, despite only having existed for less than two years, and demonstrated how they have come to boast the second-best defence in the league. But beyond some excellent play, the most heartening thing to witness on the pitch was the Seagals’ solidarity as a team. There were no barked criticisms for a missed goal or an unsuccessful tackle; instead, just rallying cries of “We’ve got this, Seagals!” Playing with an immense calm, Tara Barratt scored an incredible goal and rightfully secured the highly venerated beach spade, signifying Player of the Match.
It was evident that Karen’s ethos of “Calm at the voice means calm at the feet” permeates through the whole team and results in some excellent play. Watching the girls celebrate together, I heard one Rustington Raiders supporter cynically jibe, “it’s as if they’ve won the Premier League.” Funnily enough, I whole-heartedly agreed. To see the team celebrate together after a well-deserved victory, while it clearly irked some sore losers, was an absolute pleasure.
From their hand-dyed “Seagals Teal” kits to their inclusive and empowering ethos, everything about this club is a result of their passion and determination in the face of limited funds, facilities and a global pandemic. The Brighton Seagals represent the most powerful and inspiring elements of grassroots football – an authentic love for the sport that is driven by team spirit and enthusiasm.