THOMAS Hitzlsperger coming out as gay once again begs the question why players don’t come out while they are still playing.

Of the four professional footballers in the world who have said openly they are homosexual, three of them played in England.

Of those, two waited until they had retired before doing so. The other was Justin Fashanu in 1990. He took his own life eight years later.

While society’s attitudes towards homosexuality have changed, unless football’s has his story is a warning sign to any players in this country who are thinking of coming out.

A big-name striker of his day, he got crushing treatment from his Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough for visiting gay nightclubs and bars several years before he came out.

After he did so, his career went on a downward spiral. The only English Football League club he played for after that was Torquay United where he played 41 games and scored 15 goals between 1991 and 1993.

And his experience as the only openly gay player to play for an English league club is disturbing.

Yesterday I spoke to a football reporter who covered Torquay during that period who had nothing but good things to say about Fashanu and the response to him by everyone connected to the Gulls during that time.

As for opposition supporters, however, the story was very different.

He said Fashanu was loved by Torquay players, staff and fans alike. He got changed alone in the referee’s room daily, but only because he insisted on it to take any awkwardness out of the situation.

When the team played away from home he got a lot of abuse from opposition supporters. West Brom and Fulham were two clubs where it was particularly relentless and disgusting, and although Fashanu had a strong character it got to him in the end.

The overriding impression I got from this first-hand experience was that a gay player would have to be extremely brave and have mental strength bordering on granite to come out while still playing in England.

That, as I said earlier, is if the culture has not changed in football. And while many who attend football matches are more understanding and inclusive these days, they don’t always behave at football matches the way they do in ordinary life.

On top of that, there are very many people who go to football whose attitudes still belong in the Dark Ages.

It is a shame that out of around 3,000 British professional footballers, none feel they can come out.

Even more startling is that there are around 10 times that many around the world and only two have come out, Swedish lower league player Anton Hysen and Robbie Rogers in the USA.