BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
If you’re British football fan and of a certain age, there’s a goal that’s bound to be burned eternally into your memory. It occurred in 1980 at Carrow Road against a team in Liverpool who had cruised through the early part of that decade like it was their divine right. Trailing 3-2, Norwich City seemed to be just the latest victim in Bob Paisley’s marauding charge for the league. But in the 74th minute on a pitch that resembled a docker’s liver, one player was to cause interference to their crusade. Receiving the ball over his shoulder from a pass from John Ryan, Justin Fashanu brought the ball down like it had a parachute on it, flicked it back up and arrowed it into the top corner with his left foot in one great athletic explosion.
It left not only Carrow Road stunned, but a nation too. On television sets all over the country, people were open mouthed at the sheer visceral nature of it. It would end up as goal of the season and cement a name into the public’s consciousness. For a short while after, Justin Fashanu was the man everyone on the school playground wanted to emulate.
To cut through the Justin Fashanu story is to cut through a layer cake of prejudice and shame in the early eighties, especially in the echelons of top level English football. In many ways it was still suffering a hangover from the previous ten years. If the cold eyed seventies had been football’s Altamont, then the following decade was hardly laying rosy foundations down either. In many ways the game was still in the dark ages, a long way off from its eventual Premier League makeover; its terraces and dressing rooms still operating with a cruel hand in their acceptance of those different in both philosophy and culture.
For a sad eyed, insular boy like Fashanu that world must have seemed both alien and thuggish. It took a strong will to line up as a black player at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were still racial hisses in the background where the appreciation should have been. Although the treatment of black players had improved in England, the draconian FA weren’t overly keen to either highlight or punish past misdemeanours when it came to race. Fashanu, like virtually all black British footballers at the time, was socially aware of the abuse. When picking up the award for his goal of the season at Carrow Road, he’d tellingly dedicate it to all the other black footballers in Britain. He’d read the stories about Clive Best running down the wing to a cacophony of monkey chants at Elland Road and Goodison. He’d witness racism both growing up in Norwich and on the pitch too.
Fashanu’s childhood had not been a good one. Abandoned by his birth mother, along with his brother John, he carried a chip on his shoulder that made him introverted. ‘He had an inability to let go of the past,’ his brother would recall. At least with a football at his feet, the past, for ninety minutes anyway, couldn’t catch up with him.
For the pair of brothers, the game would prove to be their means of escape. John, who would later go on to have a highly successful career in his own right and play for England, would look on in pride as his older brother scored that fateful goal against Liverpool, setting himself on the road to fame and fortune. For Justin, however, the validation of his own talent was extremely swift. A disastrous move to Nottingham Forest now loomed on the horizon; part of the million pound transfer club; a halcyon band of footballers who Fleet Street would write about like they were from another planet. Fashanu seemed perfect for the column inches. Young and good looking, he seemed a million miles away from your archetypal British footballer staring from posters with all the exoticness of a stale malt loaf. Even the usually artisan Brian Clough had been mesmerised enough by him to get his cheque book out. Clough wasn’t a man whose head was often turned by flair but the centre forward role had always tempted him into the transfer market. What he couldn’t have foreseen though was the unmitigated disaster the Fashanu signing would become.
Unbeknown to Clough, the repaying of a huge transfer fee was the least of Justin’s concerns. He had more private issues. He was struggling to come to terms with the fact that he was a gay man in the spotlight of a high profile industry. In the early eighties the masculine coda of the game meant that such an admission would have been a PR disaster for both player and club, a potent fact that still remains to this day. Fast forward to nearly three decades later and a Fleet Street campaign to out a gay footballer would play out in the high courts of London proving the vainglorious nature between the game and press sensationalism still remained. To Fashanu’s credit in his time at the First Division club, he made no secret of it with his social activities in Nottingham, regularly frequenting its gay bars. This got back to his manager who was alleged to have asked him in a packed dressing room ‘why do you keep going to that bloody poofs club Justin?’ With a string of poor performances added to the mix, his career at Nottingham Forest by then was pretty much over anyway.
Fashanu’s departure from the City Ground seemed to coincide with any lofty ambitions he carried in the game. He would soldier on however. Over the next decade he would lurch from one club to the next, but each seemed a step down from the previous one – almost as if he was disappointed with football but didn’t quite have the heart to quit it altogether. It echoed the contradictory nature of his character in many ways. Justin was a complicated soul; brash and narcissistic at times only to become introverted and vulnerable at others. It was the assertive part of his character that would eventually threaten to inflict damage on others, especially his brother John. By 1990 he had carved out a football career that in many ways had eclipsed his brother’s. It was the antithesis really. As part of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’, John Fashanu was part of a madcap team who brought a brutalist edge to the top of English football. Their aggressive attitude may not have won over many purists but they were simply an extension of those on the terraces. For John however, his world was about to be rocked, first by a phone call and then by a newspaper exposé that would cut a deep rift in the Fashanu family that never really healed.
Although there had been rumours of Justin’s homosexuality within football for years, his brother was still shocked when he received a phone call from Justin telling him he was gay and that he planned to reveal all in a newspaper interview. ‘For me and my family it was like Nagasaki or Hiroshima in our lives. It knocked us dead, it was a total shock’ he would later recall. Such was the controversy in fact that John Fashanu offered to pay his brother £75,000 not to go ahead with his interview. In July 1990 it appeared in The Sun anyway. “Suddenly I had 40,000 people chanting ‘you’re big, you’re black, your **** is up for grabs'”, John would say. It would eventually lead to an infamous quote from the footballer that he would deeply regret later. In perhaps an ill advised attempt to save face with his peers, and angry with the embarrassment it had caused his family, he would say of his brother’s sexuality: ‘I’d not want to play or get changed in the same dressing room as one of them.’
Justin Fashanu would now spend the rest of the decade frequently abroad. First in Canada before trying to settle in Los Angeles in a coaching role he was too fragile to really take to. Inevitably, in a tempestuous life there would be one more inevitable scandal for him to deal with. In 1998 he was accused of molesting a seventeen year old boy at his rented apartment. He was subsequently investigated and charged by police for the offence but fled to Britain shortly thereafter, his reputation again about to be dragged through the mud as news of the incident broke.
The rest is too awful to contemplate. A broken man in a lock up garage in Shoreditch knowing there will be no third act to a life that’s closing in on him. What goes through a man’s mind in a situation like that? If your life flashes in front of you, maybe it illuminates that time at Carrow Road in the 74th minute with a sublime flick and volley that would be replayed on television sets for months afterwards. Something nice to hold on to, before the light faded and the night came for Justin Fashanu once and for all.
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