Justin Fashanu was still a teenager when he drove up to Norwich's smartest restaurant in a shiny red sports car – and he was still happy. Why wouldn't he have been?
He had recently scored what would prove the BBC's goal of the season – against Liverpool – and Brian Clough, the iconic manager of Nottingham Forest, was leading a chase which would end with Fashanu becoming English football's first £1m black player. A bright and friendly lad, he had a wonderful story to tell of how a white couple in Norfolk had fostered him and made him feel part of a family after the split-up of his parents – his father was a Nigerian barrister – and he had been placed in a Barnardo's home.
Now he was heading for the stars, he announced, before jumping back into that gleaming car and hitting high revs down one of the main streets of the sleepy city which had adopted him as an authentic young hero. As it happened, football history tells a rather different story. It is one of 17 clubs in as many years, a vertiginous descent into chaos and notoriety and suicide, at the age of 37, in an East End garage.
The decline was so sharp, so relentless, you didn't have to be callous to suspect that it was too simplistic to attach overwhelmingly significant blame to football's cruelly prejudicial reaction to his suspected homosexuality, and then its confirmation in a paid and, as it proved, disordered departure from the closet in the Sun newspaper. However, such complacency has surely been swept aside by the revelations of Graeme Le Saux in his new book, Left Field: A Footballer Apart.
Le Saux was falsely labelled gay and he tells us, with chilling precision, that it was a situation which quickly became nightmarish. Because of his intelligence, and resilience, Le Saux mostly seemed to be in control as he handled the baiting of the crowd and the abuse of fellow professionals – abuse of an intensity which the former Chelsea player lays bare, along with the tide of oafish pettiness which grew out of his announcement that he had spent a summer holiday with one of his team-mates, Ken Monkou.
He names some of those who contributed to his journey into brutishness – and an official reaction in the game so crude, so self-protective, you have to despair all over again at the mindset of an industry which seems to have the collective wealth of Croesus and the wisdom of a surly mob. No one who saw it will easily forget Robbie Fowler's nauseating taunting – with a proferred backside and a stream of obscenities – of Le Saux as he prepared to take a free-kick in a match at Stamford Bridge, but they will more easily have forgotten that the Liverpool player paid a much higher disciplinary price for aping a cocaine snorter after scoring a goal. Suggesting a drug habit, when the tabloids were bursting with stories of high life and gang-bang "roasting" and Cristal champagne and lighting cigars with £50 notes, might upset the fans on the terrace who sneered and chanted at someone like Graeme Le Saux, who when he pointed out to Fowler that his family was in the stands, and that he was married, was told, "So was Elton John, mate."
Reading Le Saux takes you back to the restaurant in Norwich 25-odd years ago, but this time without a blindfold. He says, "The sport has not confronted homophobia because the gay footballers who are playing in our leagues are too frightened to declare their sexuality and cope with the backlash. Unless there is a powerful voice for a minority group, football will never make provision for it.
"The abuse I had to suffer would be multiplied a hundredfold for a player who was openly gay. The burden would be too much. I think of the stick I had from the fans and it made me feel nervous before I got on the pitch. I knew I would be targeted in the warm-up. Every time I ran to the sideline there was a group of people giving me abuse.
"Sometimes you cannot blot it out. At Anfield once I went over the touchline to get the ball because a kid in the crowd was holding it. He was no more than 10 and his dad was next to him. 'You fucking poof, you take it up the arse,' he screamed at me. His dad joined in. I stopped and looked at him.
"Who do you think you are talking to like that?" I asked. Of course everyone else piled in. But sometimes you have to draw the line and say, 'That is wrong, you don't treat people that way."
Some fans, of course, will always be beyond the bounds of adult and civilised behaviour. When Wayne Rooney went back to Goodison Park in the colours of Manchester United, a well-dressed couple had their son aged around 10 sitting between them. He was wearing a blue shirt bearing Rooney's old number, but above it was emblazoned the word "Traitor". They weren't teaching the boy to be a homophobe and let's hope that wasn't going to be the next lesson. But as they got to their feet and hissed and screamed they were definitely providing a seminar in hate.
So was the folk hero and brilliant manager Clough, who prided himself on his socialist values even as he berated Derby youngsters who threw snowballs at his top-of-the-line Merc. In one set of memoirs he recalled a conversation with Fashanu which went like this:
Clough: "Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?"
Fashanu: "A baker's."
Clough: "Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?"
Fashanu: "A butcher's."
Clough: "So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?"
It would be nice to believe that some ground has been covered since then. Clough was superb at his job, drank too much, but above all was a creature of his times.
There is no such excuse for the likes of Paul Ince, who has passionately complained about racist attitudes restricting his management career, and Robbie Savage, both of whom are named by Le Saux as players whose on-field needling drew from him responses in the normal flow of invective he was mostly able to contain. When Fashanu's career began to disintegrate, when he lost his form and his confidence, he was befriended by the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. According to Tatchell, Fashanu reckoned that at the top level of English football there were probably a dozen or so gay or bisexual players, none of whom would dream of leaving the closet for reasons that are now made clear enough by Le Saux.
Tatchell admits that Fashanu was a troubled individual, and that he may well have made problems for himself as his days began to unravel, but he can hardly be questioned when he points out how remarkable it is – given the generally accepted statistics on the normal ratio of straights and gays in any corner of society – that the tragic Fashanu is the only leading football to have announced his sexuality.
His agony was deepened when he turned to born-again Christianity, only to find that he had replaced the sneering and the innuendos of football with threats of hell-fire damnation.
Maybe Justin Fashanu's bright red car was always heading for a bad end, but football's authority, if such a thing exists as more than the random possession of decent men involved in a game they love, should surely be directed towards the eloquent and biting reflections of such an intelligent former player as Graeme Le Saux.
He offers more than a mirror on one area of intolerance and abuse. He describes a culture that in some areas has become as coarse as it is unfeeling and it is a warning shot that is ignored only at the highest risk to the game's good name.
Maybe it is not too much to think of Oscar Wilde, sighing at his plight, and speaking of a love that dared not speak its name. Wouldn't it be comfortable to think of that as a poignant echo from an age of life-shattering prejudice and ignorance? Wilde also said of fox-hunting that it was the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable.
Left Field can only make you wonder what he would have made of football in the 21st century.Reuse content