The Tears of a Clown

Now if there's a smile upon my face…

Justin Fashanu

This story about the late footballer and gay icon came to my attention recently. http://briandeer.com/justin-fashanu-1.htm Justin Fashanu’s life is a pretty sad story. The article above makes uncomfortable reading. He and brother John were brought up in a Barnardo’s home I understand and it’s interesting to see the way their respective lives developed in different ways considering their challenging start in life.

Justin Fashanu

I recall when Brian Clough splashed out £1m on Justin to buy him from Norwich City for Nottingham Forest. His reputation had arguably, largely been established by one long-distance wonder goal and whilst many big clubs were interested in him, Clough and Taylor performed a typical ‘smash and grab’ raid for the big, physical striker. Things didn’t work out at all for Fashanu at The City Ground. After the huge fee that Forest had paid, his performances were unfortunately mediocre at best and not punctuated by regular goal scoring. Fashanu was well known to be visiting a gay club or two around Nottingham at the time when football still lived in the past (and arguably still does in some ways) regarding more enlightened thinking about sexuality. Justin’s private life and more likely his lack of product on the pitch appeared to succeed in antagonising manager Clough, an d his intolerance to lacklustre performances on match day. Finally, one morning, Clough banished Fashanu from the Forest training ground as his patience ran out with Justin. My understanding is that Fashanu refused to leave the ground and at this point Clough called the police to intervene and escort the player away. A short time afterwards, neighbouring club, Notts County signed Fashanu for a cut-price £100,000. His outings for Notts however, were marked by the same ineffectiveness as displayed on the other side of the Trent. His time at Forest and Notts signalled his long descent into mediocrity, a career that never really began in some ways.

Justin had few successes as a player afterwards although continuing to play football until 1994. He moved to the United States in 1998 where he came under the scrutiny of the police after a seventeen-year-old boy accused him of sexual assault. An arrest warrant was issued for him in Maryland but he had already left his accommodation and fled to England.

Justin Fashanu took his own life in 1998 and was found hanged in an east London garage, The suicide note he left stated that he felt he would not receive a fair trial due to him being a homosexual, the note also claimed that the sex with the young man had been consensual.

It’s a matter of conjecture how Justin’s life and career would have shaped up if that one wonder goal had slipped the wrong side of the post.  Truly a sliding doors moment and a tale with a tragic ending.

August 11, 2007 - Posted by | Sporting Tales | , ,

16 Comments »

  1. JUSTIN FASHANU – HOMOPHOBIA DESTROYED HIM

    PETER TATCHELL says it was homophobia that ultimately destroyed the career and life of football star Justin Fashanu.

    Justin Fashanu was a trail-blazer. He was Britain’s first million pound black footballer, and the first (and only) professional player in Britain to come out as gay.

    But trail-blazing cost him plenty of heartache. In 1980, aged 19, he was signed to Nottingham Forest football club for £1 million. The expectations of Justin were huge. There was the pressure to deliver goals and to become a black spokesperson. He found his sudden celebrity-status both a flattery and a great burden.

    Back then, in 1980, Justin was not open about his homosexuality. Indeed, he didn’t come out until 10 years later. During that decade of closeted double-life, he found it immensely difficult to cope with the strain of hiding his gayness in the macho world of football – not to mention the stress of living a secret gay life while constantly in the media spotlight.

    Homophobia was not his only problem. Like many black footballers in those days, Justin suffered racism too. He was subjected to frequent racist taunts by fans from rival teams. They would make monkey noises and gestures, and throw bananas onto the pitch. But it was anti-gay prejudice that ultimately dragged him down.

    “A bloody poof!” That’s how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described his £1 million star player, Justin Fashanu. Homophobic attitudes like that unsettled Justin. Although he laughed them off, Clough’s sneers hurt inside, making it hard for him to concentrate on playing ‘the beautiful game’. No wonder his football career nose-dived.

    Justin and I met at the London gay night-club Heaven in 1981, soon after he realised he was gay. I had been selected as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, and he had recently transferred from Norwich to Nottingham Forest. We became good friends for the next ten years.

    During that time, Fashanu confided to me about the problems he was having at Nottingham Forest. “Clough doesn’t respect or support me”, Justin complained more than once. Although Fashanu was not at that stage open about being gay, Clough appears to have long suspected he was a “poof”.

    In his autobiography, Clough recounts a dressing down he gave Fashanu after hearing rumours that he was going to gay bars. “‘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 poofs’ club?”‘

    In that hostile, stressful atmosphere, anyone’s performance would suffer. Unsurprisingly, Justin failed to score goals.

    The pressure Fashanu was under from Clough made it extra hard to come to terms with his sexuality. When we first became friends, he was only 20 and just starting to realise he was gay. Justin had considerable difficulty in accepting his sexual orientation, but through our talks – often late at night on the phone from his hotel in Nottingham – he began to feel good about his gayness.

    Although he had not publicly declared his homosexuality in the early 1980s, I was already partly out. Despite the evident risk of his own exposure by association, Fashanu thought nothing of going out with me to night-clubs, parties, family celebrations and high-profile events where he was the guest of honour. He knew journalists and photographers would be there. It was almost as if he wanted to be outed by the press to end the pretence and pressure of leading a secretive double-life.

    All this was happening in the run-up to the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, when I was standing for election to parliament. I, too, was in the media spotlight; with prominent press reports about my advocacy of lesbian and gay human rights. Indeed, I was often tailed by tabloid journalists eager for a scoop on my private life. Justin was, to his great credit, determined that our friendship would not compromised by the threat of newspaper exposure. I was more cautious and protective. So, when we planned a night out together, I resorted to devious means to lose the tabloid reporters that often trailed me. They never did catch us.

    Around late 1982, Justin seriously considered coming out. He was fed up living a lie. We talked through the pros and cons many times. It was I who advised him to wait until he (hopefully) sorted out his problems with Brian Clough and got his football career more firmly established.

    Sadly, the clash with Clough was not resolved. Their relationship turned from bad to worse. Justin’s performance went into a tail-spin. With no long-term gay partner, he was desperate for emotional reassurance. He turned to evangelical Christianity. Although that did give him a period of stability, it didn’t last.

    Becoming a born-again Christian screwed up his life. With his Church damning homosexuality, he became very confused and unhappy about his sexual feelings. Desperate attempts at relationships with women failed. His longing for the love of men never went away. While publicly proclaiming Christian celibacy, he ended up resorting to furtive gay sex. That made it impossible for him to have a stable gay relationship. Caught between God and gayness, he suffered terrible emotional and psychological turmoil.

    The combined homophobia of the football profession and Christian fundamentalism was an unbearable strain, sending Justin’s career into free-fall. Things were made worse by a knee injury that would not heal (the pressure he was under may well have compromised his immune system and contributed to the lingering infection). He became erratic and unpredictable, on the pitch and off it.

    His major league football career was already over when Fashanu finally came out in 1990. He was distressed by the tragedy of a 17-year-old gay friend who had been thrown out of his family home by homophobic parents, and who subsequently committed suicide. “I felt angry at the waste of his life and guilty because I had not been able to help him”, Fashanu wrote in the book Stonewall 25. “I wanted to do something positive to stop such deaths happening again, so I decided to set an example and come out in the papers”.

    Justin was the first and last professional footballer to be open about his homosexuality. That took courage. Others have not shown similar honesty and bravery. At the time, he and I knew of 12 top footballers who were either gay or bisexual. None have followed Fashanu’s example of openness.

    Although he later said that he “never once regretted” coming out, the hostile reaction from many in the black community hurt him deeply. He thought that his fellow black people – who know the pain of prejudice and discrimination – would be understanding and supportive. Some were, but many denounced him for bringing “shame” on their race. Still, to this day, Justin is the only prominent black person in Britain to come out as gay.

    The manner in which Justin came out in The Sun newspaper was condemned by the black weekly, The Voice, as “an affront to the black community…damaging…pathetic and unforgiveable”.

    “We heteros”, wrote The Voice columnist Tony Sewell, “are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty”.

    “Even if Fashanu had chosen to come out in The Voice rather than The Sun, I doubt his reception would have been any more sympathetic”, noted Gay Times media columnist, Terry Sanderson. “Rejection by his own community was profoundly damaging to him”.

    Even worse was to follow. Justin’s own brother John publicly denounced him: “My gay brother is an outcast”, John told The Voice. Although John later apologised, Justin never fully got over what he saw as betrayal by a brother he loved. Who can blame him for confiding that there were moments during his coming out saga when he felt “incredibly, almost suicidally, lonely”.

    Fashanu’s sometimes bizarre, indefensible behaviour can only be fully understood in the context of a potentially brilliant football career cut short, largely by homophobia.

    There can be no denying that he progressively disappointed many people who put their hope and trust in him as a role model. He became trapped in a downward spiral of declining football performance, bad debts, false claims about sexual affairs with leading politicians, unreliability and desertion of long-standing friends.

    At the time of his death, Justin had embarked on a new career coaching the US football team, Maryland Mania. The team president, A J Ali, is quoted as saying that Fashanu was “happy here”: “He had lots of friends here. He was helping literally thousands of players. He had a tremendous amount to offer the soccer world”.

    Those hopes were shattered in April 1998 when a warrant was issued for Justin’s arrest on charges of sexual assault against a 17 year old youth. Fashanu’s suicide note denied the charges, claiming that he was being blackmailed by his accuser.

    Whatever the truth about these particular allegations, Justin had – like all of us – his share of failings. Without excusing these mistakes, they were the culmination of a lifetime of rejection. That rejection began when, as a young boy, he was given up by his parents and put in a Barnardo’s Children’s Home. It was compounded by the racist jibes he suffered on the football pitch, and by the homophobic abuse inflicted on him at Nottingham Forest by his manager Brian Clough. When he turned to the Church for solace, it piled on more rejection, condemning his gay lifestyle and demanding that he renounce his sexuality. Then, when he came out as gay, he was rejected by much of his own black community, including his dearly beloved brother, John. Not one prominent black leader supported Justin when he was being crucified in the black press.

    Nevertheless, despite all the rejection he endured, Justin had a remarkable, praiseworthy capacity for forgiveness. Talking of the hurt inflicted on him by others, and acknowledging his own errors of judgement, Fashanu wrote in 1994: “I don’t think you ever forget those mistakes, or the mistakes that other people make that wound you, but it is important to forgive”.

    Justin Fashanu was a bright shining star – not a flawless star – but a star nonetheless. And I am proud to have counted him as my friend.

    Edited versions published in The Guardian (“Star who was all played out”, 5 May 1998) and Washington Blade (“A bright shining star burned out too soon, 11 September 1998”)

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    Comment by jason hall | March 5, 2008

  2. I was an English student living in Atlanta in the US playing soccer on a scholarship around 1993. Struggling with combining the soccer/football experience with being gay was very difficult. In the college bookstore one day, while passing a section devoted ot African Americans, I saw Justin Fashanu´s face on the cover of a magazine. I thought it was a football magazine but on closer inspection, it was a black gay magazine. These were days before the internet and I´d all but lost touch with footballing events in England and so I was quite shocked myself to fine out Justin was gay, and reading his story that was a couple of years old, I was so happy that a player of such high profile had come out. This revelation certainly inspired me and I wrote him a short note of support and sent it off to a Scottish club, Hearts I think, who he was playing for. A couple of weeks later, working in a learning lab of the university, my boss told me one of my English friends had been calling to talk to me. I thought it was a mate from Reading, but when he tried again, when I lifted the receiver, he said, “Hi Tony, this is Justin.” I was so wonderfully surprised, more because I was talking to a professional footballer who´d played for England! Anyway, we spoke for about twenty minutes and the overriding feeling I got from him was his humility. He told me he was doing things with the BBC, playing for Hearts and in general things were going fine. I was so humbled that he´d taken the time, and he said that the note I´d sent him was one deeply appreciated. Events after that shocked and saddened me, and I really did and still do feel for what that man had to go through. I write this as his decision to take his own life, made me stronger as a human being and to go about life without stigma. I’m a teacher in London now and while I don’t shout about who I am from the rooftops, I tolerate zero discrimination in my teaching, and despite being the wrong side of 40 I still run rings round the kids in footbal!! So, whoever reads this, let the ripple effect of fighting for what is right always win, as there are some who’ve sacrificed more than we ever can. Cheers.

    Comment by Tony Dickenson | December 28, 2008

  3. Hi Tony

    Thanks for these fascinating comments regarding Justin. His was an ultimately sad story that seems to have touched many as evidenced by other comments here too. I’d like to hope that his would have been a slightly happier story in these slightly more enlightened times. One thing I remember about him was how well-spoken and intelligent he was. He would have made a superior TV football pundit I always thought.

    Best wishes, Stu

    Comment by Stuart | January 7, 2009

  4. In 1996 I worked for Justin as a soccer coach in Atlanta. He was running a large group of youth soccer clubs at the Y. I remember being surprised when I met him because he had interviewed me over the phone and I had expected this old british white guy (as an american had only a stereotypical british image.)
    I can only relate my personal experience of him which was that he was a really nice humble guy who all of the coaches I knew really liked and respected. We had a coaching clinic one weekend and the guy running it played a tape of the 100 greatest goals in premiership history and I was shocked to see Justin had one of the goals. He never mentioned he was a professional footballer nor did he mention he was gay.
    I was shocked when some years later I found out he had committed suicide and to hear of all the other drama in his life.
    My only impression of him back then was of a really good guy. Where ever he is now I wish him peace.

    Comment by Sean | July 3, 2009

  5. I have been very interested in the many heartfelt messages left about Justin Fashanu on this site. He obviously struck a chord with many people he came to know in his all-too-short life. Thanks Sean for your recollections of him, your memories back up a lot of other things I have heard about Justin’s story.

    Comment by Stuart | July 12, 2009

  6. From time to time I often think of the sad ending of Justin’s life on earth. I can remember reading of his suicide shortly after the event and I was truly shocked. Even to this day in 2011 I sometimes think of Justin and how he suffered in the final days of his life on earth. I am gay myself and some years ago when I was 19 I thought that a male friend of mine had nice feelings towards me. One evening I put my hand around his waist and he wasd shocked. We both worked for the same company and the next day he told everyone in the office that I must be gay. I can remember the terrible sensations during those days in which i truly suffered after being the talk of the office.
    But, eventually it passed and i lived a happy life thereafter as a gay guy.
    It is so easy to read the wrong message in other peoples words or action, i mean, this young guy as young as me seemed to exude more than just being friendly, i thought that he could be affectionate too, but I was wrong. Take care all you guys who might be gay, don’t try to do anything with a friend unless you are absolutely sure that your affection will be reciprocated.
    God bless Justin, and may he rest in peace.

    Comment by Ronaldo | June 11, 2011

  7. I am a British journalist and writer based in Canada who’s writing a biography on Justin Fashanu. The book is being published by a UK publisher next year and will be a comprehensive look at Justin’s life, both on and off the field. I’m hoping that the book will serve as a testament to Justin Fashanu, not as a football player but as someone who’s legacy still lives on today for what he stood for. As you probably know, Justin was not only Britain’s first million pound footballer but also the first professional player in the world to come out as gay. Justin’s brave decision to be open about his life continues to inspire others today even though he is, sadly, no longer around himself.

    I’m interviewing as many people as I can for this book to get an in-depth look at Justin’s life, including family members and former team mates. I came across this site and it is remarkable to hear your personal testimonies about Justin and how he touched your lives. He was certainly a special person and I aim to do him the utmost justice in his biography.

    Nick
    Vancouver, BC

    Comment by Nick Baker | July 13, 2011

  8. Thank you for your comments and kind words Nick and I wish you well with your project. I think it’s a very worthy one. It’s interesting to think back to those times when Justin appeared for both the Nottingham clubs and compare attitudes then and now. Perhaps most people here talk of Justin in the football sense, for that’s how he was primarily known, but his story had so many more layers to it than just professional sport and teaches us much. I’d like to think that he would be treated with a little more understanding nowadays.

    Good luck with your research and in writing up what is a truly extraordinary story.

    Stu

    Comment by Stuart | July 13, 2011

  9. I met Justin in New Zealand in 1997 and had a relationship with him for 6 months. He left NZ for Atlanta and sadly never returned. RIP Justin!

    Comment by S | September 25, 2011

  10. Nick, I am happy to share with you my insights and time spent with Justin when he was living in Wellington. We had a lot in common in terms of an upbringing in the church and subsequent rejection from the church. He was very good to me and I am thankful for the time we spent together.

    Stefan

    Comment by S | September 25, 2011

  11. Hi Stefan – a friend of mine is researching Justin’s life and would be very interested in the time from when you knew Justin. If you were willing to make contact then my e-mail is malcolm_black@hotmail.co.uk. Thanks

    Comment by Malcolm Black | October 12, 2011

  12. Hi Stefan,

    Sorry for the late reply. Would love to hear from you about your friendship with Justin. I wondered if you could possibly email me? My email is: nick@makebelievemedia.com.

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Nick

    Comment by Nick Baker | November 13, 2011

  13. Stefan – I never heard back from you! I am almost finished writing the book and would still love to hear about your friendship with Justin. This book is more about Justin’s life away from the football field and your own insights would be very interesting. Thanks,
    Nick

    Comment by Nick | March 12, 2012

  14. I’ve been meaning to respond to Stuart’s initial post for ages, well five years actually. I researched Justin’s life for my own book (which was eventually published in April this year) and have a different view about Justin’s famous goal. Although it certainly brought him to the attention of the football followers outside of Norfolk I don’t think it gave him his £1milion valuation or was responsible for his transfer to Nottingham Forest.

    Justin scored this goal when he was still 18 years old and in a season where his form was patchy. He was actually dropped from the Norwich team soon after. It was the following season when he really made his reputation. He scored 19 league goals even though the Canaries were relegated, a remarkable record.

    When I started researching the book I felt that many people knew about this goal, about Justin coming out and his suicide. My job was to write about these moments but also to fill in the bits in between, a task which I found fascinating.

    I tried contacting a couple of people who had contributed to this thread unfortunately without success. As their storied were in the public domain, I made sue of them anyway and hope that was OK.

    Jim Read

    Comment by Jim Read | August 20, 2012

  15. Please excuse my typos. The last sentence should have read: As their stories were in the public domain, I made use of them anyway and hope that was OK.

    Actually Justin did have a sliding doors moment or should that be a sliding tackle moment? It occurred on New Years Eve 1983, just over a year after he joined Notts County. Four days previously Justin had scored two late goals to secure a 3-3 draw away to Manchester United. But in this fixture, away to Ipswich, a tackle from Russell Osman left him with a serious knee injury. Although Justin was able to resume playing he was never able to reach his previous standard. I suggest that this injury had a bigger effect on his career than homophobia.

    Comment by Jim Read | August 20, 2012

  16. Interesting and well-informed comments, Jim. Thanks very much for them.

    Comment by Stuart | August 20, 2012


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