A quarter of a century on from the public announcement of his homosexuality, and almost two decades on from his tragic suicide, Justin Fashanu remains a man ahead of his time

By Daniel Tickner 
Photography courtesy of Getty and George Herringshaw  

This article first appeared in Issue One of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2010

Eloquent, jovial and handsome – sketchy footage from early nineties Scottish TV programme Trial by Night shows Justin Fashanu undefeated and on the front foot. Ominous title aside, it’s a rare artefact in as much as it offers a glimpse into the second, spirited phase of Fashanu’s British public life and, therefore, life as a gay footballer. It’s also an indicator of the burgeoning media career he was building in parallel with his playing duties north of the border. Far from being crushed by his tabloid coming-out in 1990, Fashanu was busy pursuing multiple opportunities and making new friends. By the spring of 1994, however, he had walked away from the British game forever.

It was never intended as a scouting trip but it turned out to be arguably the biggest deal of all their lives. When the then-Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor watched the striker dominate their central defence back in 1980, they were sufficiently worried to pay Norwich City handsomely for his services. Forest defenders Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd were celebrated old-school bruisers that few got the better of. That afternoon, Fashanu did. A footballer who would shortly become the first £1m black – and, later, the first openly gay – player could look after himself.

Sent to a Barnardo’s home at an early age with younger brother John, both were later fostered and brought up together in the more idyllic surrounds of Norfolk. The elder sibling’s career rise through the ranks at neighbouring Norwich City proved meteoric as he went from humble apprentice to a Match of the Day regular by the turn of the decade, thanks to a wonder-goal against the then-dominant Liverpool.

If his rapid ascent had seemed effortless, then his switch to the big-time came fraught with problems. Taylor was ultimately responsible for bringing Fashanu to Forest, but the move ensured a gulf existed between Clough and the striker from day one.

That Fashanu had already been widely feted for scoring the goal of the season probably irked Clough from the start. Famously a self-proclaimed “big head”, the manager would go to great lengths to ensure his team weren’t about to follow suit. Trevor Francis, the first £1m player and Fashanu’s predecessor, had been signed for fractionally under that record figure, ensuring his bank balance wouldn’t upset the Forest dressing room.

A generation apart, with Fashanu raised in north-east London and Clough in the north-east of England, their differences were many, but it was their similarities that tore them apart. Prior to working together, neither had been a shrinking violet. Clough had established himself as one of football’s most powerful orators, taking a narcissistic delight in every subsequent television appearance. Fashanu was supremely articulate and had enjoyed the wave of press attention surrounding that goal.

ITV’s footage of Norwich imploding 4-0 the same season demonstrated a remarkable ease in front of the cameras, a dejected dressing room lit up by Fashanu taking the team to task. Amusingly, Canaries manager Ken Brown could only nod and agree while he was told how to do his job by the beguiling youngster.

It’s unlikely – rather, impossible – that Clough would have stood for this and, by the time their career paths intertwined, they were two peacocks strutting on the same turf: Fashanu used his newfound wealth to indulge in faith healers and masseurs while Clough gleefully revelled in the autonomy granted to him through successive European Cup victories.

The manager had smoothed the edges off many a rough diamond over the years, emerging with the conformity and control he craved. He’d battled haircuts, outfits, smoking, gambling. He’d stopped some drinking habits, started others. Yet, just as the striker had been too powerful for Lloyd and Burns the afternoon he caught Taylor’s eye, he was too strong an individual to acquiesce in a Clough dictatorship.

Beyond the personality clash, Fashanu and Forest were wrong for each other. The goal against Liverpool that triggered the flashbulbs had also lumbered the striker with unfair expectations of exotic flair. Thought to have been blessed with more natural ability than his brother John, his game was still primarily based on the physicality the latter would successfully employ at Wimbledon. The unconventional training regime at Forest never offered him the chance to develop the talent he badly needed: a morning run through stinging nettles might toughen up a player mentally, but it was unlikely to improve their first touch; an impromptu team drinking session the night before a game may have built moral, but it was coaching Fashanu needed, not a hangover.

Despite Clough letting the feud descend into homophobic taunts – for which he apologised in the brief period between the striker’s death and his own – it was Taylor and Fashanu who would pay for the costly signing with early exits from Forest. The former never recovered his reputation for spotting players and, unable to forgive himself for such an expensive error, took early retirement. Fashanu would not go so quietly, determined to make it work in a city where he’d established himself on the gay scene and, paradoxically, among the Christian right, who would influence his conviction that staying on was indeed God’s will, perhaps forgetting it was Clough who walked on water in Nottingham.

Luckily for Fashanu, on the other side of the River Trent, neighbours Notts County were slowly strengthening under the thoughtful stewardship of a young Howard Wilkinson. With a river now running between him and his tormentor, the striker contributed 20 goals for the Magpies before a knee injury saw his career stall. He finally left the city in June 1985. Despite enduring a turbulent time, the four years he’d spent there had offered him a stability he would rarely encounter again in his career.

Next followed a wilderness period away from the English game – not uncommon in a career that would eventually take him to Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others. More glamorous globetrotter than jaded journeyman, the barrister’s son from Barnardo’s was well-travelled by the time the eighties drew to a close, and ready to return to home for another shot at the big time. Waiting for him was the future manager of Nottingham Forest.

Frank Clark, ironically, would be hand-picked by Clough to take over at the City Ground following his rapid, alcohol-fuelled demise some years later. In 1990, however, he was more concerned about getting some money on the gate at lowly Leyton Orient and, despite Fashanu not yet being a tabloid fixture, he sensed box office. Almost a decade had passed, though, since Clark had seen the striker play, during his time as reserve team coach at Forest, and the years had not been kind. Despite paying a small fortune for a knee operation in the US, Fashanu would never be quite the same player again.

Justin Fashanu

“Far from being rejected by football, he was invited for trials and was embraced by fans looking for a cult hero.”

Off-the-field problems were also taking their toll. Unlike Clough and Taylor before them, Clark and assistant Billy Saunders were sensitive to Fashanu’s personal situation. They knew he was gay and sensed his terror, not so much of coming out, but having the news leak at any moment. Unconcerned by the initial headlines and encouraged by the player’s huge popularity in the dressing room, the forward-thinking management duo persuaded the player to free himself from torment. Later that year Fashanu told the world, “I’m Gay”, the news breaking on the front page of The Sun.

That October morning in 1990 through to early 1994 marked perhaps the most prolific and colourful chapter of Fashanu’s career, and his last significant period in the UK. Despite the initial blows dealt to him – his brother disowned him, as did large segments of the black community – he seemed to pursue opportunities with a renewed vigour.

Far from being rejected by football, he was invited for trials and was embraced by fans looking for a cult hero. Argentine legend Ossie Ardiles briefly brought him to a pre-Keegan Newcastle United, while the terraces sang affectionate anthems about their new number nine. And, while the tongue-in-cheek homophobic undertones sailed very close to the wind, they were perhaps preferable to the fear-laden silence of twenty-first century football.

Fiercely intelligent, Fashanu came from the old football world but saw the possibilities of the new. The kid whose post-match analysis outshone the boss’ at Norwich all those years ago was now actively pursuing his management dream. Frank Clark had been forced to move him on from Orient due to his growing influence in the dressing room and by 1991 Torquay United had made him player/coach. Two years later, with the side in choppy relegation waters, Fashanu applied for the vacant manager’s position. Neil Warnock got the job instead.

With many players still retiring to the pub trade, Fashanu was one of the first to attempt both a management and media career. Knowing only too well the power of his own story, the latter came easily. In some ways you could argue his bizarre tabloid romance with UK soap star Julie Goodyear (aka Coronation Street’s Bet Lynch) in 1993, whilst hardly Posh and Becks, was certainly a forerunner to the money-spinning faux-celebrity couples omnipresent now. A few OK! exclusives in today’s terms may even have saved him from forgettable stints at non-league Leatherhead and Swedish minnows Trelleborg.

When he attempted to sell false stories about sleeping with male UK Conservative MPs, however, it was a media manipulation too far. In the spring of 1994 he was sacked by his then club, Scottish outfit Hearts, for “improper conduct”. Speaking to the Gay Times before leaving the UK once again, he confessed to being unprepared for the backlash and the damage done to his career by coming out.

He had, however, faced the spotlight as an openly gay player – even basking in it at times – and football had not wholly rejected him. Fashanu would return to the UK one final time in May 1998, back to the place where he was born, taking his own life in east London.

Between that last interview and the May morning when he was discovered, he continued to coach football abroad, building an impressive CV. It was while in the US in one such role that he was accused of sexual assault at a party by a 17-year-old. This time, for Fashanu, it seemed the trial would be for real. Rather than risk arrest, he opted to return home for the last time. Four months after his death, an inquest heard there had been no warrant, the case having been dropped due to lack of evidence.

It’s fascinating to think what Fashanu could have achieved had he flown home under different circumstances. Would it have taken another 10 years to see Britain’s first top-flight black manager? How much could a gay coach have helped closeted players in the game? Alternatively, might he have carved out a role for himself sat alongside the likes of Charlie Nicholas – a Scottish striking contemporary the same age as Fashanu – as a football pundit?

All these things were possible because it’s important to remember that through all the tormented times of Justin Fashanu’s life, he never gave up on football. And, importantly, football never quite gave up on him.

This article first appeared in Issue One of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2010

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