Justin Fashanu: The Tragedy Of Football’s Tortured Soul

Justin Fashanu: The Tragedy Of Football’s Tortured Soul
12:01, 06 Jul 2019

On May 3, 1998, Justin Fashanu was found hanging in a disused garage in Shoreditch, East London, about a mile away from where he had been born in Hackney, 37 years prior. The suicide note he’d left for his friends and family said: “I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me home.”

Justin Fashunu was a talented English footballer, tall, rugged and strong who would become the first ever black player to be signed for a million pounds when he moved to Nottingham Forest from Norwich City in 1981, he was also openly gay – something which in the 1970s and ‘80s was simply too much for people to accept.

Fashanu, the son of a Nigerian barrister and Guyanese nurse, was born in London on February 19, 1961, but an absconding father and a mother unable to make ends meet meant he and his younger brother, John, were both sent to a Barnardo’s children’s home where they would await a family prepared to give them another chance.

A promising boxer in his teens and a two-time British Amateur Junior Heavyweight finalist Justin’s life could have taken a very different path if it hadn’t been for the persistence of a scout at Norwich City – not far from where the Fashanu brothers lived in Attleborough with foster parents Alf and Betty Jackson.

He was eventually persuaded that his future lay in football rather than boxing and signed as an apprentice at Carrow Road as a schoolboy, spending holidays training with the pros before making his debut as a 17-year-old on January 13, 1979 against West Bromwich Albion.

Ironically West Brom were pioneers themselves when it came to black players in the English game with the prominence of not just one, but three regular starters; Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham who, themselves, had been subjected to prominent racial abuse at almost every ground they graced.

After a relatively quiet start to his footballing career Fashanu announced himself to the masses by scoring a wonder goal which was broadcast to millions on national television at a time when football on the box was pretty scarce, only enhancing its impact.

Facing Liverpool at Carrow Road the reigning champions were 3-2 up and heading for victory, that was before the young forward flicked the ball up, swivelled, and then smashed an unstoppable volley into Liverpool’s net from 25 yards to level the scores at 3-3; a strike which was later voted Goal of the Season by ‘Match of the Day’ viewers.

Fashanu’s celebration was almost as iconic as the goal itself as he stood alone in the middle of the pitch, finger raised in the air as if to confirm his genius and though Norwich eventually lost 5-3, the goal all but overshadowed the result while the reaction created the perfect television image at a time when a generation of black footballers were attempting to break into the top tier of English football.

35 goals in 90 appearances for Norwich City over three seasons placed him among the most promising talents in England and his performances at club level were rewarded with England under-21 honours; where he found the net 5 times in 11 under-21 international appearances between 1980 and 1982.

It was this accomplished record that persuaded Nottingham Forest, who had broken the transfer record in 1979 by signing Trevor Francis from Birmingham City for £1 million, to make Fashanu the first black player to be transferred for a million pounds two years later.

But Justin failed to live up to the incredibly high expectations that came with being one of the most costly footballers on the planet; scoring just three times in 32 appearances in his first and only full season at the City Ground for a side who had just won back-to-back European Cups. 

Their outspoken manager, Brian Clough, wrote in his autobiography that Fashanu’s goal against Liverpool back in 1979 had “conned him out a million pounds.”

Just over a year after his marquee arrival, Fashanu was sold to arch rivals Notts County for a fraction of the fee Forest had paid Norwich City just 15-months before in one of the most high-profile falls from grace the game had seen at the time.

But it appeared his footballing failures weren’t the only reason for his poor showing at Forest, something which again was illustrated in graphic detail by Clough in his book. “’Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘ A baker’s, I suppose’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poof’s club?’”

He scored 20 times in 64 games for the Magpies, though was unable to prevent them enduring back-to-back relegations and on December 31, 1983, he suffered a major knee injury which would all but end his top-flight career.    

After signing for Brighton & Hove Albion in 1985 he would spend the next three seasons flitting between clubs such as the Los Angeles Heat and Edmonton Brickmen and anyone wishing to offer him a game here and there on both sides of the Atlantic.  

His CV read like a who’s who of football as he turned out for West Ham, Manchester City, Leyton Orient, Southall, Newcastle, Torquay and Airdrieonians to name just a few; but the biggest battle of Fashanu’s life wasn’t resurrecting his playing career, it was dealing with his sexuality. In October 1990 he became the only prominent player in English football to publicly came out as gay in an interview with The Sun and although he claimed that he was generally well accepted by his fellow players, he freely admitted that they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation while he also became the target of constant crowd abuse.  

When his playing days finally came to an end Justin eventually made the switch to coaching and was offered a job with the Maryland Mania franchise and it was while he was there, in March 1998, that he was accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old male. Homosexual acts were illegal in Maryland at the time and though he denied the accusations he fled the country fearing he would not get a fair trial if arrested. Two months later, he was found hanging alongside a note proclaiming his innocence and stating whatever sex there had been was entirely consensual.  

His brother John, himself a successful player who won the FA Cup with Wimbledon in 1988 as well as playing for Aston Villa and representing England, later revealed: “Just before he committed suicide, there was a telephone call to my mobile phone that night and the person wouldn’t speak.  

“I could hear breathing, I could feel that it was somebody from my family. I could feel that it was Justin, but I didn’t reach out. I just put the phone down and thought: “Oh, it’s him again”. The next day he committed suicide.”  Some years afterwards John revealed that he had paid Justin £750,000 to keep his sexuality a secret and put his own actions down to a “lack of education” while admitting that he was a ‘monster’ to his brother.    

“I was a monster to Justin then, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “I paid him £75,000 not to say that he was gay. I was looking at the situation around us and my mother had cancer and was dying, and the rest of the family couldn’t understand the situation. We didn’t know what to do, the best thing I thought to do was to keep it quiet."  

In the same way that John Barnes, Luther Blissett, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, Clyde Best and Laurie Cunningham would all become pioneers for black players and all ethnic minority groups in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s, Justin Fashanu should have been a beacon of hope too; a top class footballer whose ability and talent meant he would become one of the most valued talents around.  

But sadly, he will best be remembered for his tragic personal life, his off-field struggles and the reaction to his sexuality rather than anything he could do on the football pitch and for that reason, the game of football, and society as a whole should be eternally ashamed.