Lucy Keeling is Aston Villa’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer who has always had a passion for supporting underrepresented groups. Lucy fell in love with football at a young age being an Arsenal fan and had a desire to work in the industry. Throughout this interview, Lucy discusses her sports career journey, her work at Villa and what more the sports industry can do to promote equal opportunities.
Q1) Lucy, thank you for joining me on this exclusive interview. Could you kick this off by sharing how your sports industry career began?
It all began about five years ago. I’ve always been an Arsenal fan, and I was the type of girl to be playing football in the playground, which was when my passion for the game started.
My career started after I went to University and I studied something completely unrelated to sport which was film and literature. I have a lifelong love for learning which I developed at University, but I went off on different tangents, including pursuing jobs in retail.
I eventually got a job as a learning mentor in education, where I worked in a secondary school with young people experiencing social and emotional barriers to learning. This inspired me to follow an educational path, and I enjoyed helping students get through their various obstacles to learn in a challenging environment. This opened up more opportunities to work in teaching.
But on the ‘back burner’, I wanted to work at a football club. Not necessarily at Arsenal, but I went for different roles in some of the Midlands clubs and an opportunity came up to be an administrator in the Aston Villa FC Foundation. I decided to go for it and enjoyed the role for four years before I became the Club’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer in 2019 after working closely with the local community.
Q2) At what point did you feel that promoting inclusion was essential for your career, also, why sport in particular?
Naturally working in the community department at a club like Aston Villa, in a city full of diversity would allow me to encounter different backgrounds, experiences and attitudes. Whether it be through religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation, football was the platform to have these discussions. Despite what environment someone’s from, I’d always be able to have a conversation with somebody about football.
I soon began to identify what opportunities there were in football to drive forward diversity inclusion. For example, in 2017-18, a fair amount of football clubs had an LGBT supporters network or group. However, Aston Villa didn’t have one at the time, which inspired me to have discussions with Villa fans who were from the LGBTQ+ community. From these conversations, I noticed that LGBT Villa fans wanted to feel comfortable and accepted in the ground and we helped to facilitate the beginning of ‘Villa and Proud’, who is now one of the biggest LGBT sports group in the country.
At Aston Villa, we’ve always had a robust community initiative, which is excellent. And when I first started, we had five staff working with the charitable arm whereas now we have over 30 full-time staff.
I started to incorporate equality initiatives into my role, which I was lucky to have as an opportunity. For example, I delivered a transgender session where we were one of the first football Clubs to do so. This was when I started to enjoy developing equality initiatives and work on various campaigns such as Kick It Out.
When Villa re-entered the Premier League again, it was a fresh impetus on the equality standard which all Premier League Clubs must follow. I was confident and passionate about enhancing equality at a community level. Still, I wanted to scale up to deliver this at a Club level which is what I’m doing now. Again, I’m massively lucky to have this opportunity.
Q3) What transferable skills have you picked up throughout your career that have helped you stand out in the football industry?
I’ve learned a lot from other people in similar roles across the industry. I’ve always been quite value-driven, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with making decisions at the start of my sports career. However, trusting your values is an essential part of the football industry, and it is an area I’ve developed in.
Communication is a massive one, especially for equality and diversity. When working in football, you need to make a case for your ideas, whether it’s a moral or business orientated. Learning to have conversations with a wide range of stakeholders is essential, such as fans, partners and players. My job would be difficult if I couldn’t clearly articulate my views about what I think we should be doing next and why. We also need to explain things from an economic perspective through a measured approach. It’s fundamental to showcase why something is important, why we need a particular element to our delivery, consider accessibility or changing our reporting mechanisms to empower those calling out discrimination.
Passion is another one. It’s a role where you must care about what you do. Networking has also been essential, in and out of football. It’s incredible how much we can learn from other industry’s.
The only other thing I would say is project management. There’s a lot of different departments in a football club, and they all have equal value in embedding equality. Plus, from my experience as a business administrator, being able to prioritise is imperative in such a fast-paced sector.
Q4) You’ve had a variety of roles throughout your time at Villa, from Team Support Coordinator, Community Administrator to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. What values have been integral to your career development?
On a personal level, having trust in the direction I want the club to go for equality and diversity has helped me to progress alongside gaining the confidence I have now. Naturally, working in the same place for a few years but learning about the broader issues there are around discrimination has led me to trust my initiative more.
We’ve made good progress this season under our three-year equality action plan and will continue this work moving forward.
Q5) From your experience at Villa. How far have the club come with promoting equal opportunities across sport? Plus, how does your role at Villa contribute to the bigger picture?
The National game dictates the bigger picture and where we are in society as well; football reflects society. We’ve had a very turbulent year, and currently, there’s a massive spotlight on football to drive inclusion forward, and I’m very proud to work where I can have open conversations about diversity and contribute to this.
That broader picture is about holding difficult conversations about race, homophobia and sexism that we still see, unfortunately. I’ve always got one eye on what other stakeholders are doing in response to societal injustice. Inequality had always interested me since I was younger, so it doesn’t take me long to start talking about it. I also grew up in a small town with my grandparents, who I love dearly, but occasionally had quite outdated views about things.
Q6) On top of the essential work the sports industry is doing currently to tackle social injustice, what more do you believe could be delivered by the sector to enhance further inclusion?
It’s something I ask myself, and I have conversations with people within football and different sports to understand if they can work together. Sport England and The FA are doing a lot of fantastic work which I try and have a look into as much as I can.
Sports is massively influential, and it has the power to educate in innovative ways. Educating at a community level is essential as it utilises the power of the badge. The Foundation puts on anti-racism days and awareness sessions around Rainbow Laces for example. So what we always like to do is when we engage with a campaign, we want that to be entirely holistic. So we’ll run workshops in the community, we’ll do staff awareness and then fan-based interventions.
Q7) In your position, what challenges have you faced with promoting inclusion at the club? Also, how have those adversities benefitted you in the club long-term?
Generally speaking, I’ve been supported well, for example, our kit supplier designed us with some fantastic player warm-up tops to support the Rainbow Laces campaign. The challenges I face are similar to the broader societal challenges I mentioned around discrimination and perception. Being able to open up these conversations with the community and fans has been really important in driving inclusion.
Q8) The final question to wrap this up, what is your key piece of advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in the sports industry?
Follow your passion and enjoy it; it’s a massive privilege to work in football. Know what your values are, understand who you are and follow those through. Talk to as many people as you can and don’t stop learning.
Wow, this interview with Lucy was just excellent. So many themes resonated with me about her sports career journey, particularly with how she came from an external background and still managed to pursue her primary passion for utilising football for societal development. The sports industry has come a long way with its diversity and equality remit, and that’s thanks to its invaluable industry staff like Lucy Keeling.