PAUL BREEN looks back at the short and turbulent life of English football’s first openly gay player and the way the culture of that time contributed to his misery.
“There are few things more dreadful than dealing with a man who knows he is going under, in his own eyes, and in the eyes of others. Nothing can help that man. What is left of that man flees from what is left of human attention.”
James Baldwin – The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985.
When I was at university in the early 1990s doing an English Literature degree, we had to read a book entitled Giovanni’s Room – written by American author James Baldwin. Black, gay, and constructively critical of the establishment, Baldwin (1924-1987) spent a large part of his life in self-exile in Paris. That was the setting for Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, which is the story of a young gay man who dies, adrift and on the edges of society.
Around the time of reading this book, the story of another gay man was making headlines in the English tabloids. Like James Baldwin, he was also black, and incredibly gifted at his particular craft. Added to this, each man shared the experience of being an outsider in childhood. Baldwin’s father died when he was young and his mother married a preacher who treated his stepson harshly. Justin Fashanu, born in February 1961, had spent a period of time in a Barnardo’s children’s home alongside his younger brother, John.
Unlike James Baldwin though, the boys were to find happiness in being fostered by a new set of parents, a couple from the rural Norfolk market town of Attleborough, named Alf and Betty Jackson. By all accounts, the Jacksons raised the boys as their own, even though they already had grown-up children, and gave them a settled direction in life.
Come the age of seventeen, Justin had signed professional terms with Norwich City, and it was from there he first came into the public view.
This was at a time when I was first getting interested in football, following Liverpool in those days before my later-life conversion to Charlton Athletic. One of the earliest times I can recall watching Liverpool was as a child in their era of dominance at the start of the 80s.
Those were the days when I was young enough to dream of growing up to play for Liverpool. Back in February 1980, they were one of the best teams in the country, top of the table at the time, a few points clear of Manchester United who hadn’t won the League since the year after England won the World Cup. Martin Peters was part of that England team, a versatile midfielder who’d scored in the final against West Germany.
In February 1980, Peters was still playing for Norwich City. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a gangly black teenager from east London was starting his career. His name was Justin Fashanu, which alone seemed to give him an air of panache, but compared to the star names scattered out across the pitch, he was relatively unknown.
Liverpool’s team sheet read like a greatest X1 of the 1980s. It started with Ray Clemence, sweeping across to Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy guarded in their attacks by Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen. Then a midfield quartet of Ray Kennedy, Jimmy Case, Terry McDermott and Sammy Lee created chances for the legendary Kenny Dalglish, and David Fairclough. That day the Liverpool super-sub, making a rare start, scored a hat trick but the memories belonged to somebody else stepping off the sidelines into centre stage.
I was a child watching, amazed, as the action unfolded, like comic book stories coming alive on the TV screen. On a muddy pitch at Carrow Road, the ball swept in from left to right and made its way to the young striker lurking lean as a panther on the edge of the penalty box. When the pass reached him, calm as you like, with his back to goal, he flicked the ball upwards on his left boot, leaving the red defence lost in its orbit. Defying gravity, the ball remained motionless for a split second on the edge of my TV screen. Then he loosened his hips, swayed around and sent a self-manufactured volley swirling towards goal. The rest happened in the slow motion of being a child when the world’s still new.
On my knees in front of the TV, I watched the ball curve above two streaks of chalk and curl in perfect symmetry past Clemence into the left hand corner, filling the terraces with steam as he stole the breath of 25,000 spectators. Turning away with none of that ironic hugging and kissing stuff that footballers did back in the day, Fashanu marked his debut on the scene – in one of those moments that remind you there was life, and glorious life too, in the world of football before Sky Sports and the Premier League was born.
It was a magnificent goal, a goal of the season, a moment they’d relive decades from now and wonder whatever happened to the scorer. It was a goal that sends the crowd home happy, regardless of who wins, and steals the headlines from a super-sub on the opposing team whose three goals are now as half-forgotten as Liverpool’s 5-3 win on the day.
This was a goal that when you’re seven years old, you think you’re going to score one day, maybe even every day that you go out onto the pitch as a professional footballer.
By the time you’re seventeen and playing your first game for Liverpool, Justin Fashanu will be almost thirty. You might meet on the pitch, at opposite ends, opposing strikers. You’ll swap jerseys, shake hands, and go for a beer as adults do. Maybe you’ll even get to meet his wife and kids. Then seasons come and go and you’re in your mid-thirties, and the closest you’ve ever come to Carrow Road is on work trips to Norwich, or watching their team playing in the 3rd division against Charlton.
And by then, Justin Fashanu’s dead – and the boy who won the BBC’s Goal of the Season award in 1980 seems like nothing more than a figment of childhood imagination. Come August 1981, that boy became English football’s first black £1,000,000 player when Brian Clough signed him for Forest as a replacement for Trevor Francis. Though Francis, as England’s first million pound player, had never truly lived up to expectations at Forest, the scene was set for Fashanu – seven years younger – to establish himself in a new environment for the nation’s black players. After several decades of being a feature in the professional game, the ‘colour barrier’ was coming down – slowly, but surely. There were other barriers though still in existence, and not just in football but in society as a whole.
Settling into Nottingham, Justin Fashanu was separated from his teammates not by his blackness, but by the shroud of secrecy, and possibly shame, that he was forced to live under. Though later regretting his actions, Brian Clough’s old-school attitudes made the young man feel very unwelcome in the Forest dressing room. Fashanu was loaned to Southampton where he did well, and then sold to Notts County, on the other side of the Trent, for just over a tenth of what Brian Clough had first paid for him. From there, the 1980s was pretty much a downward spiral from where he had once been positioned as possible heir to the England No. 9 jersey. Unlike James Baldwin, he never found the football equivalent of a mid-century Paris where he felt at home.
Drifting away from the Trent, in an age before footballers were paid ridiculous sums of money, he ended up as a journeyman in the lower leagues and North America. Sometimes he’d get a chance of resurrecting his career with a ‘bigger’ club, such as short forays at Manchester City and West Ham, but he’d always slip back into the shadows at smaller clubs and neighbours, as had happened with Forest and Notts County. Life mirrored football too as John stepped out of Justin’s shadow, rising up from the lower leagues, to become the more esteemed of the siblings, playing for England and Wimbledon.
Then in 1990, Justin came out as being gay – the first English soccer player to do so – using the tabloids as his forum – the very same tabloids whose coverage of gay issues was openly dismissive at best, and downright hostile beneath the surface.
As such, he was partly the architect of his own downfall, failing to see how they would portray his lifestyle – as seedy, salacious and sometimes tragically comical. Tales of such relationships as that with Coronation Street actress Julie Goodyear only served to make things harder for any serious discussion about his plight as a gay footballer.
Fuelled by comments from within his own family, his story seemed as much of a cry for attention as the highlighting of a serious issue. Manipulated, and blind to the agenda of others, he was becoming increasingly disconnected from those who could help him and from within the mainstream football world. Just as he had never found a space to truly share his skills on the football field, he failed to find the right forum for the story of his life. Maybe, just maybe, if he’d talked to the left or liberal press they may have presented his tale in a more balanced way, and though he wouldn’t have profited as much from it, the rewards for other gay players, in the 90’s and beyond, might have been immense.
If only he had tried to reach out to a different constituency, some of the sympathy he generated might have spread to the terraces and the dressing room. Then again, it may not. Talking to the tabloids was a cry for help, emitted on the wrong platform – not all that different to today’s urban poor appearing on daytime chat shows.
Like Fashanu, this is the only medium they seem to understand, that speaks their language, and offers them the illusion of a voice. Long before ever coming out as gay, Justin Fashanu had expressed a disinterest in the world of serious politics. Even though by the early 90’s there was an active social and political movement passionately advocating gay rights in the United Kingdom, Fashanu seemed as cut off from that as he was increasingly becoming from the crowds on the terraces. Trying to resurrect his career (yet again) with top clubs such as Newcastle United, he found reluctance amongst managers to employ him. Taking him on would inevitably draw attention to the club in all the wrong places – the dressing rooms and the terraces.
Every catcall, every whisper would be scrutinised, analysed and exaggerated. There seemed no place in top-flight football for an openly gay player and certainly not one in the mould of Justin Fashanu who was happy to share his stories on the back pages of The Sun. Though his career was on the decline anyway, and had been for some time, coming out in the tabloids accelerated his drift to the relative obscurity of the league’s bottom divisions. There, as in his time with Torquay United, he would be out of the limelight and not embarrassing anybody with his presence other than perhaps the lumpen proletariat of lower league defences.
After a reasonably successful spell on the south coast, where again he seemed to be most at ease in a smaller, more homely club, he moved to Scotland when refused the chance to become Torquay manager. Several years in Scotland followed amidst a fresh wave of lurid tabloid stories and stereotypes of the gay lifestyle. Tales of affairs with government ministers, hiding in the closet, blazed out from the pages of newspapers, one after the other, until finally they got the grand scoop that gave them their Oscar Wilde moment – of seeing the gay philanderer facing judge, jury, and execution of image.
At the age of 37, after a party in Fashanu’s apartment in the United States, a 17-year-old boy made an allegation of sexual assault. Faced with the threat of legal action and imprisonment in the state of Maryland, where homosexual acts with a minor were illegal, the former Barnardo’s boy fled for home, to England, the country that in another lifetime he may have represented in the No. 9 jersey.
Alone, and fearing for his future, Justin Fashanu spent the last night of his life in a gay sauna in east-central London, wrote a suicide note, and took his own life in a lonely and deserted lock-up garage in Shoreditch – a few short years before it, and football, would become incredibly, unbelievably fashionable.
And you hope, in those last seconds, as his life slipped away he went back to one night, when it was all going so beautifully right – the ball swirling towards the Liverpool net, out of reach and into a space where it stays suspended in boyhood dreams, as if captured in a GIF of what might have been.
As James Baldwin, and the very best of writers must have realised, it’s never the endings that define somebody’s story. It’s those rare moments along the way when they found their song, and saw their voices, or their shots, rise to Heaven. And if there is such a place those such as Justin Fashanu of a lost generation must be looking down marvelling at how far football has travelled to where it is now, catching up fast in places such as Euro 2020.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen is the Author of The Charlton Men available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X
This story first appeared in The Football Pink Issue 7 in print and digital form.