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Britain's first openly gay footballer, Justin Fashanu hanged himself earlier this month in a garage in east London. His was a life full of contradictions: the gay man in a macho game, the committed Christian who sold stories about his sex-life to the tabloids, the pioneering black sports star who had no interest in Nelson Mandela and `this kind of baloney'. At the time of his death, he was wanted in America on charges of sexual assault - charges that now will never be heard. And there are other questions still to be answered about this talented, tragic figure

"The only thing for sure is that you're free at last."

THE SMALL CARD attached to a simple wreath was written in Biro. Placed under a plastic sign reading "the late Justin Sonny Fashanu", the note was signed from his brother John, John's wife Melissa, and their children Akim, Amir and Amal. There were half a dozen wreaths and other floral tributes lying at the end of the lawn behind the North Chapel of the London City Cemetery, on the edge of Epping Forest. One bunch of flowers came from Ronnie Brooks, the former Norwich City talent scout who had spotted early promise in the precocious striker Justin Fashanu. Brooks was one of the many older men who were to serve as mentor throughout Fashanu's turbulent career; his card read "peace be thine, 'my son'."

It was an eclectic gathering of mourners in the heat of 9 May, all of them sharing the same numbing sadness at his sudden suicide. Boxer Frank Bruno was there, as was Garth Crooks, another trail-blazing black footballer from the Eighties. So too was Fashanu's natural mother, Pearl, a nurse of Guyanese extraction who gave him and John up to the care of the Barnardo's children's charity in the mid-Sixties, when their father returned to Nigeria. Some of Justin's fellow Christians from America, who claimed to have been praying with him only recently, were also present. The Tarmac was thronged with smart and vintage cars, the sunglasses and suits making the scene feel like something lifted from one of the Godfather films.

The irony was that this coming together and closing of ranks was a far cry from Fashanu's lonely isolation across the Atlantic, where he had lived and worked since 1994. There, anonymity had replaced the acclaim of earlier years; no one remembered the goals he scored for Norwich in the late Seventies and early Eighties; or his pioneering example as Britain's first openly gay footballer; or his appearance on League pitches at a time when black players such as Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson and John Barnes were still the exception rather than the rule.

Fashanu's career was an itinerant one, even by the standards of an itinerant profession. He played for a total of 16 clubs, rarely staying in one place long enough to become firmly established. After playing for Norwich between 1978 and 1980, he moved to Nottingham Forest, Notts County and then - as injury cramped his style - to clubs in lower divisions such as Brighton and Hove Albion, Leyton Orient and Torquay United. In the end he moved via Scotland to teams in New Zealand and Canada before settling in the States.

In the Nineties, as his playing career wound down, people were most often reminded of Justin Fashanu in those brief and embarrassing moments when he flirted with the world of tabloid journalism: he "came out" in the Sun in 1990 and, having been paid more than pounds 20,000 for the story, became hungry for further exposure (in 1994 his agent in Scotland contacted police offering Fashanu's insights into the suspicious death of Stephen Milligan MP; Fashanu was exposed when he asked for pounds 300,000 from a tabloid for his story, and later conceded that his allegations of sexual involvement with Milligan and other Tory MPs was pure fabrication). Recently, though, he was known simply by association with his high-profile younger brother John, the ex-Wimbledon striker and former Gladiators presenter.

His picaresque life was to end as a fugitive from American justice following allegations of "first- and second-degree assault" and "second-degree sexual assault" arising from an incident on 25 March this year. Penal codes in Maryland, where Fashanu was working, suggest the sexual charge entailed "forcible sexual contact". Had these charges been proven he could have faced a 20-year prison sentence.

The 17-year-old alleged victim at the centre of the case had been at Fashanu's house in Ellicott City, Maryland, with five others on 24 March, and has since admitted that alcohol and marijuana were consumed during the evening. The youth slept the night on the sofa, and it was at 8 o'clock the following morning that the incident is alleged to have taken place. "I woke up and found Fashanu attacking me. I was shocked and felt humiliated," he said.

Whatever the truth of the matter - and we may now never know what really happened - that morning's events were to shatter the peace and stability Fashanu seemed to have found in his new life in America. He was signed up to a coaching post with the Maryland Mania team, who were about to enter the American A-league, and was running a community coaching programme for children from low-income families.

The day after the incident, Fashanu voluntarily gave himself up for questioning. He wasn't detained; but when the police returned to conduct forensic tests a day later, on 27 March, he had cleared out and left his home in Ellicott City. He was formally charged in his absence on 3 April, and by 29 April Maryland Mania had officially appointed another coach.

Sergeant Morris Carroll, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, admits that it was possible that Fashanu, ignorant of the judicial process, had simply packed his bags and left: "He probably didn't even know there was a warrant for his arrest." Fashanu later claimed in his three-page suicide note only to have discovered his status as a fugitive when he saw himself on television: "The first I heard ... was when I turned on the news. I realised I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my family and friends."

Sometime in April Fashanu returned to England. His body was found on 2 May in a private garage in Fairchild Place, a leafy, cobbled cul-de- sac in Shoreditch, east London, a few hundred yards from the gay spa at which he spent his last hours. The post-mortem confirmed that Fashanu had suffered "death by suspension".

Four days later, on 6 May, the building managers at Fashanu's Maryland home called in detectives, and another farewell message was found, carved into the wall with a knife. The words, which police have yet to confirm as Fashanu's, read: "I can't help it. I'm gay. I'm sorry. Goodbye."

JUSTINIUS SONNY FASHANU was born on 19 February 1961, and taken as a toddler with his brother John into Barnardo's care in Barkingside, Essex. The boys were eventually adopted, aged five and six, by a white couple, Betty and Alf Jackson. (Betty died last summer: Justin returned from America, but John missed the funeral, away on business in Nigeria in his capacity as that country's "sporting ambassador".) "Mama Jackson", as Justin called her, was 45 when she took the Fashanus in, and already had grown-up children of her own. Years later she recalled: "When I went to see them, I didn't see black children. I simply saw children in an institution who needed a home of their own ... they both had runny noses. They looked just like a couple of poor kids who wanted looking after."

It was Betty's intervention which kept the brothers - who were later to feud and fall out in a very public show of sibling rivalry - from separation. "I was brought up in a loving environment," Justin recalled later. "I actually come from a more privileged background than most professional footballers."

Growing up in the comfort of Attleborough in Norfolk, Justin was always more boyish than his younger brother. Although strikingly similar physically, Justin's face was chubbier, his body less lean than John's. "He had softer features, and his charm was natural," says Tony Shepherd, an agent with the World Sports Corporation which managed Fashanu from 1989 to 1991 (along with other black sporting icons including Ian Wright, Paul Ince and Derek Redmond). "John was harder working, he had an enormous capacity for hard work. Justin simply had this feeling of superiority, of arrogance."

"John and I, we're chalk and cheese," Justin once remarked. "John is much more aware of Nelson Mandela and all this kind of baloney. I don't get into that because it's not really in me." But Justin looked out for his younger brother all the same, urging him on as they both tried to make it as boxers. At 16 he told his younger brother: "We can do it - we can both be sports stars."

Having appeared in two ABA finals as a junior heavyweight, the elder Fashanu swapped the boxing ring for the football pitch. His big break came early: Ronnie Brooks, a Norwich FC scout who had known Fashanu since he was 13, decided he was good enough to make it in the game. When Brooks went to the Jackson house to sign him as an apprentice, it was Betty who took control: "She laid down the ground rules, because she was that kind of lady," he recalls. "She kept a good eye on him."

Even as a junior, Fashanu would boast to the senior squad that he was the club's highest scorer. And when he was picked to play for the first team, at the age of 18 in December 1979, his impact was immediate: "He scored 37 goals for us in two seasons," says Brooks, "and we weren't a good side. He was an out-and-out striker. I really did feel that he would go on to great things."

Brooks also recalls another side of Fashanu, one which was increasingly to become evident in later years: his frustrating unreliability. "He was forgetful. One time he was going to fly to play for one of the England youth teams, and he didn't have his birth certificate. The only way he could play was if someone - a magistrate - could identify him as who he said he was. Luckily I had been a magistrate and could do it."

It was while playing for Norwich, in the old-style First Division, that Fashanu produced one of those sublime pieces of football that - as his playing days soured - was to hang around his neck as a reminder of the arrogance and audacity he had once shown in front of goal. Playing against Liverpool in 1980, he received the ball from John Ryan, who continued his run expecting the one-two. Fashanu feigned to pass, only to flip the ball over his shoulder, turn and curve an astonishing volley past a stunned Ray Clemence. He celebrated, milking the applause, simply by raising his index finger. It was the Goal of the Season, and was replayed for years as part of the opening sequence of Match of the Day. At 19, Fashanu had already been lauded and labelled.

Having displayed his prowess against some of the top teams, Fashanu was signed by Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough for pounds 1 million in 1981. That was another label (the first million-pound black player), and suddenly he was no longer, as Brooks puts it, "a big fish in a small pond". Speaking to the Independent in 1992, years after his career had gone into freefall, Fashanu said: "That move was the biggest mistake of my life. I had an inkling it was wrong, and told the Norwich manager, Ken Brown, I didn't want to sign. But I did, and if everything had gone correctly I might have been a very successful footballer."

Instead it was to prove one of the worst player-manager misfits of the modern era. The bullying Clough rode roughshod over the sensitive, still- boyish 20-year-old, who was separated for the first time from his brother John. In his autobiography, Clough proudly recalls the treatment he dealt out when rumours of Fashanu's sexuality were first heard: " 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?" Clough also spoke demeaningly of Fashanu's "shiftiness" and even banned him from the City Ground.

Football is a game in which psychology and confidence play an inordinate role, and under Clough's stern tutelage Fashanu's flood of goals slowed to a trickle: in 31 appearances for the club, he found the net just three times. "Justin wasn't the sort of chap who would be brow-beaten by anyone," says Brooks. "Justin told him [Clough] in no uncertain terms what he thought. Plus there were gay clubs up in Nottingham, which there weren't in Norwich. And I could no longer have any guiding influence in his life at all."

Even at this early stage in his career, Fashanu seemed to be flirting with exposure, often appearing to invite a public "outing". Peter Tatchell, the campaigner for gay rights (who had first met Fashanu at the gay nightclub Heaven in London), recalls the night in 1981 when the footballer came to collect him from a Labour Party meeting in Nottingham. Already a high- profile figure in Nottingham, if not elsewhere, Fashanu's arrival was a very public show of support for a gay campaigner. "He would dress very smart-casual in gay bars," Tatchell remembers, "and outside of them he was very flamboyant: a canary-yellow suit with a matching shirt and tie."

Justin inevitably got the "Fash the Flash" nickname (his brother, progressing more steadily at Lincoln and Millwall, was "the Bash"). He later collected other nicknames, including "Queen of Diamonds" (at Airdrieonians, aka "The Diamonds") and then, equally predictably, "Queen of Hearts" (at Heart of Midlothian). But his flamboyance, interpreted as that of the gay dandy, had much in common with that of other rich, young players - "spice boys", as they are now known. "All footballers like to dress up and be the cock of the north," remarks Hugh McCann, the assistant manager when Fashanu was at Hearts.

Despite the attitude, Fashanu failed to follow up his explosive start at Norwich, where he once scored a hat-trick (against Stoke) within 20 minutes. He left Forest after a single season, and played nine games for Southampton in 1982. He scored three goals for the Saints in a side which including the Yugoslav Ivan Golac, a man who was later to re-emerge in Fashanu's story in the role of mentor. Halfway through the season, however, he was tempted back to Nottingham, this time to play for County, in a deal which underlined his plummeting market value: pounds 150,000. He found a kinder manager in Howard Wilkinson, and scored 20 goals for him over a three-year period. "Howard was a real person with a brilliant mind," Fashanu recalled 10 years later.

But it was at Notts County in 1983 that his career suffered another setback - a gash from a stud which became septicaemic and was to hamper him for the rest of his playing days. He was out of the game for four years, having expensive treatments before unsuccessfully returning for trials with Manchester City and West Ham in 1989.

It was during this difficult period that the Christian faith which had supported him since the early Eighties came to the fore. Malcolm Doney, a fellow Christian and freelance writer, who was asked by Fashanu to ghost his biography, remembers Fashanu's religion: "He was involved in Charismatic and Pentecostal-type things. I remember when he was living in a damp, basement flat in Brighton [in 1985], he was still chirpy. A lot of that was to do with faith: his Christianity was the type which makes you think that God will bail you out, and you expect miracles and divine intervention."

This evangelical strand of Christianity was, however, in constant conflict with his sexuality. Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, who corresponded with Fashanu, recognised in him "all the hallmarks of a deeply conflicted gay man, which sadly is not that untypical". But his faith stayed with him to the end; A J Ali, the president of the Maryland Mania, said last week: "The church gave him inspiration and love. He was a regular at Bible-study classes."

From the moment he came out, however, Fashanu's life was to change irrevocably. In 1990, he approached the football agent Eric Hall to sell his story, claiming he needed pounds 20,000 to open a gay bar in Toronto. After the Sun's revelations, Fashanu was identified in the public imagination almost exclusively by his sexuality. Those close to him still wince at the memory. "John, like me, was unhappy about certain aspects of his private life, and that affected me," says Ronnie Brooks eight years later. "His coming out upset me; I wasn't happy that he made it public."

Justin later alleged that his brother John "offered me more money than the Sun" to keep quiet, and his refusal to do so led to a permanent rift between the two. Recently, when the American charges became public, John gave a terse statement to the press: "I haven't seen or heard from him for six and a half to seven years. No one knows where he is. I am greatly concerned and saddened by these allegations and pray to God they are not true." (John's "Tribute" to his brother, printed as part of the funeral service, read simply: "Even though we've had our differences, like all families, I have always loved you and always will.")

Justin's coming out also drove a wedge between him and what might have been another, natural constituency of support, the black community itself. As Peter Tatchell remembers it, "not a single leader of the black community gave him public support when he came out. Instead he was reviled in black newspapers like the Voice."

In the press coverage of the time, it was conveniently forgotten that Fashanu was always an aggressively physical player: "I get respect," he told the Independent. "I'm not a five-foot-two-inch effeminate stereotype. People say football is a macho business, but I think I'm very macho."

Fashanu, who was later to become patron of the Aids charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, defended the manner of his coming out in a 1994 essay, "Strong Enough to Survive": "I have been greatly criticised for coming out in the tabloid press. Many people thought I just did it for the money. I suppose they have never stopped to consider that my world is based around Sun and Daily Star readers: the football world has that kind of mentality ... "

But despite his populist protestations, Fashanu was always more of a media darling to the broadsheets than the tabloids - perhaps because of his undoubted eloquence and sexual honesty. In the run-up to the 1992 General Election, the Guardian invited him to share his political beliefs, though it's likely that its readers were dismayed by his Thatcherite leanings: "I was brought up in a Tory environment and always voting for Margaret Thatcher ... " he began, before concluding that he would still vote Tory.

Any gratitude felt by the Conservative party evaporated shortly thereafter, however, when Fashanu tried to sell stories of alleged sexual encounters with Tory ministers to the tabloids. The scandal led to his dismissal from Heart of Midlothian in 1993 for "conduct unbecoming a professional". As his world unravelled, he quickly lost touch even with his closest friends and family, leaving Edinburgh in such a hurry that his possessions were still in storage there until last week. "I saw that as evidence that he was spiralling out of control," says Peter Tatchell.

John Colquhoun, with whom Fashanu had played at Hearts, recalls a typical instance of his ever-friendly but increasingly flakey manner: "The last time we saw him would have been in 1996, when the team and I were in the Sidewalk Cafe in Hamilton, Ontario. Fash just jumped out of this big white car and told us to wait until he'd got changed. Needless to say, he never showed up later."

But if his old friends noticed a change, his new friends in America remember him with affection. "Everybody knew who he was, and what his life had been like, but nobody here had a problem with him that I know of," recalled Vincent Lu, the owner of the Atlanta Ruckus team, for whom Fashanu played 11 games during the 1995 and 1997 seasons, scoring two goals. Former Ruckus coach Angus McAlpine agrees: "He was a gentleman in every way."

Between his two stints at Atlanta, Fashanu also took on the role of director of youth sports at Buckhead YMCA in Georgia. Whether he wanted to cast himself as the paternal figure he had so often admired in others, or whether he was motivated by darker forces, Fashanu's attachments in the last three years of his life were largely to youth projects.

And since his death, further allegations about his conduct have emerged in the pages of the gay journal, the Pink Paper: a London man, Raphael Bouchier, claimed Fashanu had tried to assault him sexually in 1990, when he was 17. Bouchier had gone to a Devon hotel for an interview to become Fashanu's PA. A scathing editorial also spoke of the rumours in the gay community "around Fashanu and very young men".

CHARIOTS ROMAN SPA is a neo-classical gay rendezvous behind London's Liverpool Street station. Far from the sordid setting of the tabloid imagination, it is chic and immaculately clean inside. Around the pool which adjoins the massage parlours men lounge in chairs, crisp white towels around their waists. Some swim nude; others just relax, chatting and reading their papers.

Many come to Chariots simply to drink, either in the beer garden or the bar. Only the all-male clientele and the masculine torsos painted on the walls define it as anything other than an ordinary health club: there is a television, a pool table and Eighties music on the sound system.

The details of Fashanu's final afternoon in Chariots are hard to piece together - no one there seems prepared to talk - but it is known that he spent six hours in the club, between 2pm and 8pm on the day of his death, Friday 1 May. He had a shave and a massage, and according to one report spent much of the afternoon in the company of young "Oriental" man. When he left, he appeared to be in good spirits.

From Chariots, it was only a short walk to the garage in which he was to hang himself.

Many in the gay community suspect that the toxicology reports due to be announced at the inquest into Justin Fashanu's death will answer some of the question marks surrounding his final hours. But whatever the coroner's verdict, it is likely that we will never truly understand what drove this extraordinarily gifted and complex character to take his own life in a lonely garage in Shoreditch.

In the last week, friends who had barely seen Fashanu in recent years have been remembering a man who would drift in and out, dazzling momentarily only to frustrate and confound - just as he did in his football-playing days. Tony Shepherd says, "I just found him very, very good company. He was very charming - it was a case of the proverbial birds out of the trees. He seemed very enigmatic, he knew he had this X factor. But I don't know if anyone ever got close to Justin. He was a larger than life character, a loner: he never had a close circle of friends." Does this mean he never had a partner, a long-term lover? According to Peter Tachell, "He never had a long-term gay relationship at all."

Those who shared the changing-rooms with him have simply remembered a solid professional: "He was just the same as any footballer I've ever met," recalls John Colquhoun, his Hearts team-mate. "There were idiosyncracies: he used to bring his own lunch in Tupperware dishes. It was his health food. Footballers don't like shirkers, and he certainly produced enough effort to make him one of the lads. He was great company, he was funny, he was stylish. He used to go to team parties, and join in what we did."

Ivan Golac, the former Southampton team-mate who was later to become Fashanu's mentor and manager at Torquay (10 goals in 21 appearances in the early Nineties), says: "Justin was very brave. With his height and power, he was very special. I remember when we played Hearts when I was managing Dundee United, and Justin caused us so many problems. He could hold the ball up so well. He had become like a leader for the other boys, he was very disciplined and the boys liked him. If someone had given him direction over a long period of time, he might have been happier. He was a character, and very bright. You could talk to him, and see in him someone who wanted to learn."

But there were always those manifest contradictions which it seems he could never quite reconcile in his own mind. His charm (journalists speak of him remembering their names years after a short interview) was having to paper over ever-widening cracks. In his 37 years he was to veer between football maestro and football flop; between the machismo of the dressing- room and the campness of the club scene; between his Christianity and Conservative leanings and his tawdry boasts of sexual conquests.

It was a life of so much fantasy, bursting with make-believe soap-opera storylines. And as with those other recent icons who have died young - Michael Hutchence, River Phoenix and even Diana, Princess of Wales - it has already begun to take on mythological importance. But the reality behind the headlines was that of a charming man who had simply ceased to live a charmed life. As the Pink Paper wrote: "His life (like his football) became erratic: bravery alternated with stupidity, consistency was supplanted by transiency."

Fashanu had spoken of suicide before, only to dismiss it with the conviction of the born-again: "I was close to suicide many times ... then I realised I had this responsibility. Once you start realising that, you become strong again," he told another paper in 1992. His strength, though, didn't last.

"I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my family and friends," he wrote in his suicide note, which also suggested that he was being blackmailed by the American youth at the centre of the recent allegations. "I hear you say, 'Well, why run if you're innocent?' Well justice isn't always fair. Silly thing really, but you know what happens when you panic."

Unable to identify with, or gain acceptance from, the many contradictory cliques and special-interest groups which are now claiming him as their own fallen angel, Justin Fashanu hanged himself in the East End which had been his first home. The words of the gay poet Thom Gunn (in "The Corporal") seem perfectly to sum up his short life: "... his very health was dressed to kill. / He had the acrobat's love of self / -Balancing body was his skill / Against the uniform space of death."