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James Lawton: Time has come for the game to tear down its last taboo

A new documentary about the tragic death of Justin Fashanu is a powerful reminder of a prejudice that still shames British football

It happened 30 years ago and now it should be no more than a sad remnant of a time when football, like so many other areas of society, couldn't begin to believe how much growing up it had to do.

This was lunch in Norwich with a potentially brilliant young footballer, bright, witty and inordinately conscious of the good fortune that had come to him after the unpromising start signalled by his and his younger brother's abandonment by their father, a Nigerian barrister.

The emerging star drove away in a red sports car, trailing his optimism. Twenty years later he hanged himself in a lock-up garage in Shoreditch.

The complicated story of Justin Fashanu is known well enough but it has taken the retelling of it this week in a television documentary by his niece Amal to remind us, if we hadn't noticed, that the national game has still to move on from the intolerance that was at least partly responsible for the tragic end to a life which had come to promise so much.

Fashanu, 14 years after his death, remains, astonishingly, the only player in the history of British football, to announce that he was gay.

Today there are 5,000 professional players and we can only speculate on how many of them live their lives filled with the private dread of what might happen to them if they left the closet, voluntarily or otherwise.

At a time when Patrice Evra, a victim of racism, runs a game-long gauntlet of jeers – and at least one monkey gesture – without inspiring a scintilla of sympathy from one of the greatest names in the game, Kenny Dalglish, what price for anyone taking on homophobia out in the open?

Amal Fashanu spoke with Max Clifford, the nation's greatest expert on the public appetite for celebrity exposure, and he confirmed his long-standing advice to elite footballers that they would be mad to make any announcement of their sexuality.

It would, he still believes, provoke professional devastation, saying: "You look across society and see openly gay people in music, movies, television, politics, the clergy and it's not a problem, nor in many other sports. It's not that footballers are homophobic but the fans can be vicious."

When Fashanu moved to Nottingham Forest – and became convinced of his sexual identity – the great manager Brian Clough was not quick to offer a sympathetic shoulder. He suspended him and at one point ordered him away from the training ground.

It was indeed shockingly cold outside the closet and in this documentary, which might just prove seminal, Amal reproached her former Wimbledon and England father, John, for not only failing to support his brother but also showing open hostility. At the peak of the reaction to Justin's announcement, he had said: "I wouldn't like to play or even get changed in the vicinity of him. That's just the way I feel, so if I'm like that, I'm sure the rest of football is like that."

Certainly there has been no evidence to the contrary. Simon Smith of the Gay Football Supporters Network, a 22-year-old organisation devoted to creating a safe environment for players and supporters who happen to be gay, welcomed the documentary not for any biting investigative journalism but the illumination of the pressure on professional players to remain firmly rooted in the closet.

"You have to believe that things will improve," he says, "and we have good links with the Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association. A lot of work is being done in monitoring and acting against homophobia. We certainly welcome this week's programme for its highlighting of the problem."

Yet since Justin Fashanu made the decision that brought so much anger and invective, and estranged his own brother, not one professional footballer in this country has felt able to gather the nerve to come out into the open, a possibility that seemed to be heightened by the resolve of the Welsh rugby union captain Gareth Thomas to reveal that he was gay. Yet Thomas, a notably strong-minded individual, was candid about the agonies he experienced before coming out. At one point he contemplated suicide.

It was the pressure on a star of a game in which whistling designed to distract a goal-kicker is still considered extremely bad form. As Clifford says, it is the reaction of the football crowds which now causes most apprehension. There has maybe never been a time when the force of tribal hatred has been so strong and so unforgiving.

On reflection, John Fashanu says that all the players in his brother's downfall – and certainly not excluding Justin – displayed varying degrees of selfishness. He suggests that maybe it was a product of the times, though the game's leading iconoclast Joey Barton is insisting that some aspects of football remain in the dark ages.

This week Amal Fashanu attempted to shed a little light. It was maybe something more valuable than just a cry for a reckless and ultimately confused kid gunning his sports car. Perhaps it said that the time has come for football to tear down the last and most shameful taboo.