AS commemorations go it’s understated – a soccer shirt with the name Albert and the number 72 emblazoned on the back. But there is no player with that number on gay football team the Sydney Rangers, nor is anyone’s surname Albert.

But this is the shirt coach Billy Kennedy (pictured above) will wear on Saturday at the Pride Football Australia tournament, being held in Sydney’s inner west. It will serve as reminder of his late brother who was born in 1972 but died 16 short years later after a brutal clash with homophobes

“I knew I was gay and Albert knew he was gay but I just went to school and left it in the background,” says Kennedy who, like his brother, grew up in Manchester UK.

“Albert reacted to himself in a different way – he ran away from home because he didn’t know how to cope with it.”

Ending up in children’s homes, Albert would abscond at night, meeting up with friends and exploring the city which is now widely regarded as one of Britain’s most LGBTI-friendly.

However, it wasn’t such a friendly place in 1989.

“A car pulled up and the people inside were screaming homophobic abuse. Albert and his friend tried to run away,” Kennedy says.

Albert sought shelter in a multi storey car park. It was a fatal mistake.

“They followed him and the stair well leading to the top was where they found blood and hand prints smeared across the walls; it was clear from the police he was dragged up those stairs,” Kennedy recounted.

Only two things are certain about what happened next – Albert fell to his death from the top floor of the car park and no one has ever been prosecuted.

“As far as the family is concerned those people caused what happened regardless or not whether he went over the top himself,” Kennedy says.

On Saturday, the Rangers and the men’s side of the Melbourne Rovers will battle it out for the Justin Fashanu Cup – named after the world’s first openly gay soccer player who ended his own life after years of ridicule and innuendo regarding his private life.

It’s one of the reasons Kennedy, who has lived in Sydney for more than a decade and married his boyfriend four years ago, is so passionate about the Rangers – a team of both gay and straight players where homophobic taunts are unknown.

“It’s so nice to play when the fans aren’t screaming abuse at you and it’s all about everyone coming together. You can forget about everything else and just do what you love,” he says.

“I think the mental health side is just amazing because if I had this when I was growing up and if my brother had this I’m pretty sure he’d have a life today because the pressure is taken away.”

The tournament is being hosted by the Rangers and Sydney’s women’s side The Flying Bats who will compete for the Julie Murray Cup.

Unlike many sporting championships, where only the best players are picked, the Ranger’s cup side has been decided by a lottery.

“Even though we want to win this game, the biggest game of our season, it’s not about doing anything to win,” Kennedy says.

“If that happened it would be a different tournament and we’re about every single player in the Rangers playing soccer in an environment that is accepting and friendly.”

In fact, according to Kennedy many of the keenest members of Saturday’s side are the straight players who understand the importance of the match for their gay teammates.

The tournament has received backing from the summit of the Australian soccer hierarchy with Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop giving the event his seal of approval: “We believe that no matter what a person’s background, they should all be entitled to enjoy our game with fear of discrimination.”

Meanwhile Sydney FC chief executive Tony Pignata said the A-League squad “whole-heartedly supports the work that Pride Football Australia does in promoting football as an accessible game for everyone”.

For Kennedy, the backing of the FFA and Sydney FC is an encouraging sign that the dark seam of homophobia that still runs through sport is being gouged out.

But he’s also immensely proud that his brother, a brutal victim of bigotry, is now remembered for the Albert Kennedy Trust – a UK charity dedicated to helping young and vulnerable LGBTI people.

“As much as the kid was only alive for 16 years, he’s done more than anyone of us to help people so no one else has to go through what we had to,” he says.

The Pride Football Australia tournament will be held in Sydney on Saturday, October 11 from 10am-5.30pmat Lambert Park, Leichhardt. The after party will be at the Midnight Shift on Oxford St, Darlinghurst.

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