A joke with a jab. Only the late Justin Fashanu could have possibly topped the gag and the litany: abandoned, adopted, black, born-again, gay and here we go, here we go, here we go, a prize footballer to boot.
Now we know: the centre-forward could not hold, as Yeats would never have said. Yet surely the wonder isn't that Justin Fashanu is dead by his own hand but that he kept going for as long as he did before hearing the final whistle in that seedy little lock-up in Shoreditch. A "former close friend" informs the tabloids "he was unstable", and sooth and nay sayers nod sage agreement. As if we didn't know, as if this tells us something: the unpaid debts; the claims to have slept with two Tory ministers; with Conservative MP Stephen Milligan; with Julie Goodyear; the bad knee; the suspensions; the failed bar; younger, Gladiator John banishing him the day he came out; the collapsed career; the escape to coach in Maryland and the charges of sexual assault on a 17-year-old male student. Unstable? Big time. Yet no one poses the obvious question. Which is, why? Perhaps no one gives a toss.
Certainly the insular, macho world of football doesn't. If it did the decrepit dinosaurs bunging up the directors' box and the hard men strutting the terraces might have to face their part in Fashanu's destruction. They might have to ask themselves how a game that could pour forth a flood of reasons for Ryan Giggs breaking his ex-girlfriend's nose, for Lee Chapman smacking Lesley Ash around and for Paul Gascoigne savagely beating his wife couldn't bring itself to countenance a man who merely loved other men.
Hear the excuses, excuses: "What talented footballers do in their private lives is not relevant". Unless it's that other sort of game where men score with men, obviously. Then it's fine, obligatory even, for a red- nosed troglodyte like Brian Clough to subject a player to public abuse, order him not to frequent queer dives and have him suspended and thrown off the premises for refusing to heed His Master's Voice. Fashanu could kiss, fondle, pinch and wrap his legs around any man he wanted... as long as he was on the pitch.
What rattled Clough so? What rattled everyone else in the stadium. The Premier League clash of cliche and contradiction.
The cliche: everyone knows homosexuals do not - cannot - play football. Happy, happy school days; the sissy kid is always the last to be picked and the first to be picked on. (Ah yes, I remember it well.)
The contradiction: Justin Fashanu.
The boy done bad. Worse, the very fact of him couldn't help but put nasty thoughts into empty heads, there to detonate narrow minds. Fashanu made the latent blatant - and amusingly disavowed homoerotica of football. This hallowed turf where one man can worship another man's beauty, grace and masculinity as long as the worship is careful to appear functional, not aesthetic, certainly not sexual; as long as it passes for straight. A nigh impossible task when one witnesses all those hairy blokes so clearly enamoured of their comrades, radiant with emotions usually suppressed:happiness,tenderness,sadness,joy.
Elton John could own an entire team but Fashanu committed an act of indecent exposure without even realising it. He tainted a pure love and was punished, transferred, shoved from club to club. After Nottingham Forest it was all over bar the baying; gay-bashing chants would go up the moment he stepped out of the tunnel: "You couldn't even score with your brother! You couldn't even score with your brother!" Repeat till fade. Fashanu joked that it didn't matter. Besides, it made a change from racist taunts: "Go, go gorilla!" Defeat declared, if anyone cared to listen. The figure once hailed as a pioneer, the first million pound black player - "tall, strong and blessed wih delicate skills" - was fast becoming a cheque-bouncing, publicity-seeking bore. Justin Fashanu was going, going...
Gone. Who will mourn him? Who will hail his bravery - the first "out" gay footballer - and forgive him his foolishness? Not black culture. Batty boys aren't role models. Not gay culture, as unwelcoming, white and ignorant in its own fashion as football ever was. Sure, Fashanu appeared at a few Stonewall bashes and turned up on Channel Four's Camp Christmas, chasing a media career that refused to be caught.
But the misnomer that is gay culture never quite recognised his vast symbolic importance - fags can think with their feet as well as their tackle - or grasped the daily cost of being a contradiction. If only he'd been a swimmer like glamorous, HIV-positive Olympic gold medal-winner Greg Louganis. Or an ice skater like John Curry. Even a tennis player like Martina. Or even a gymnast like...
Oops. That would be telling. Anyhow, someone more Us - a narcissistic solo turn - and a little less Them - tediously conformist team work. But how do teams change if not from within? If only he hadn't found God. If only he hadn't lied about his "bisexuality". If only he hadn't become a neo-Michael Barrymore. Sad queens: too retro. Sad queens committing suicide: too Fifties. If only...
If only. Suicide leaves the phrase to echo as we insist the dead bear full responsbility for their actions. Guilt makes for convenience. Try Julie Goodyear: "Justin Fashanu ran out of lies." True. And time, luck and hope. Until there was nothing left but the last own goal.