But when the paper's representatives met Justin Fashanu, the gay soccer star in question, they discovered that he was not so much a would-be Christine Keeler, the holder of the secret that would bring down the government, as a wannabe Rocky Ryan, the infamous hoaxer of Fleet Street.
'He gave us the names of two cabinet ministers he claimed he had sex with,' says Phil Taylor, the People's reporter who negotiated with Fashanu. 'If the story could have been proved, it is just possible we might have coughed up pounds 300,000. But we discovered he had absolutely no evidence. We never knew what is the truth and what is not the truth. You have to be very, very careful when dealing with Mr Fashanu.'
Nevertheless, last Sunday the People used its headline to top a story about Fashanu's machinations: 'He demanded pounds 1,000 expenses in cash and complained about his hotel.' On Monday the player himself denied he ever spoke to the paper and contacted the Press Complaints Commission. On Tuesday, Scott Hardie, his agent, in an attempt to revive a potential money-spinner, alerted the police investigating the death of Stephen Milligan MP, suggesting Fashanu could help; the officers who interviewed him angrily announced that he was wasting their time, he knew nothing. On Wednesday he admitted he was making the whole story up in the hope of some quick cash. On Thursday he was sacked by Heart of Midlothian Football Club for 'conduct unbecoming a professional footballer'. On Friday he left the country. This has not been a good week for Justin Fashanu.
Things looked rather different one week in the autumn of 1980. Then, during a televised match, the 19-year-old Norwich centre-forward bent a rising drive into the roof of Liverpool's net from outside the penalty area, the goal of the decade, acknowledged by a nonchalantly wagging forefinger. Justin Fashanu had arrived. It seemed then he had everything. On the pitch there was pace, power and physique. Off it he was accommodating, articulate and charming in a world where surly, thick and gum-chewing is the norm. Better still, he had a romantic story: abandoned by his Nigerian barrister father as a baby, sent to Barnardos, rescued by middle-class foster parents in a big house in Norfolk. This boy was marketable.
Six months after scoring that goal, he was signed by Brian Clough for Nottingham Forest, the first black million-pound player. At 20 he was given a contract worth over pounds 1,000 a week. The potential had begun to pay off.
As young footballers do, Fashanu took his girlfriend Julie with him from Norwich. The pair did not have a constructive time. Not only did Justin's form dip, but he began to find himself drawn to two elements of life not usually associated with young footballers. First, on a garage forecourt, he discovered the Lord. And in a local evangelical church he discovered a full-time spiritual adviser who gave him hints on everything, from what to eat to suggesting he attend an interview with the Sunday Times wearing cream pointed shoes, brick-red trousers, a patterned sweater and a white bow tie. Soon afterwards, and it is not recorded what he was wearing at the time, Fashanu discovered Nottingham's gay scene.
When word reached Clough of his young protege's extra-curricular activity, the manager, not renowned for his tolerance of others' idiosyncrasies, sacked the boy. Worse, when Fash turned up at the training ground anyway, he had him very publicly escorted away by the police.
Fashanu, however, was a determined individual. 'God wants me to succeed in the city of Nottingham,' he told the press as he decamped to Notts County, where, under the wise tutelage of its then manager, Howard Wilkinson, he began to blossom once more. He was beginning to prove himself a very good player indeed when bits of pitch became embedded in a knee wound during a game and blood poisoning set in; it was an injury from which he would not really recover, despite years on operating tables in America running up medical bills which he says topped pounds 200,000.
Meanwhile his apparently less talented younger brother, John, was beginning to develop the sort of career Justin had once anticipated for himself. More robust on the pitch, John was no less confident off it, in demand as a media pundit, clever at business, rich as Croesus. The pair had been close in childhood, and John stood by his brother as the gossip spread through the football circuit. Once when a fellow professional made snide remarks about big brother's sexuality at a function, John threatened to punch his lights out if he didn't stop. He stopped. And when, in 1990, Justin decided to become the first 'out' British sportsman (via the good offices of the Sun), John offered brotherly counsel.
'I tried to talk him out of the articles, saying if he was doing it for the money, I could help,' said John. 'I told him it would ruin his career.'
At the time Justin was living in Canada, negotiating to buy a gay bar in Toronto while beginning to play again after his injury. He has since post- rationalised his revelations as something he felt he compelled to do to make his life complete. 'I could not go on living a lie,' he told the Observer last year.
But Allan Hall, the reporter who handled the story with typical Sun sensitivity ('Justin, 29, says British soccer is packed with gays from dressing room to boardroom') says that Fashanu had a more prosaic motivation.
''He didn't seem to care about what his mum or his brother would think,' says Hall. 'He was only interested in the money.'
Fashanu, he remembers, was obsessed with cash: envelopes full of expenses, first-class flights, fancy hotels, champagne in night-clubs. In the few days they were together, while Hall worked up 'revelations' about a married Tory MP lover and the time Fashanu sat on the Speaker's Chair, the striker ran up an pounds 1,800 bill on the reporter's telephone credit card.
Brother John was not amused. He tried to be offhand when the press contacted him for his comments ('one thing I don't want is newspaper boards all over the place with headlines saying 'Fashanu is Gay' - because people might think it was me'), but he disowned his brother. Their relations have been frosty ever since; the mega-successful John has been increasingly embarrassed by his brother's antics.
Oddly, coming out did not make Justin the pariah in football that John had predicted. He returned from Canada, a gold stud in each ear, and began to play again for whoever would take him: Newcastle, Manchester City, Bournemouth. Crowds were not rude to him, they loved him: he got a particularly good hand when he played once at Wigan. He received more hate mail when he urged Guardian readers to vote Tory at the last election than he ever has about his sexuality.
As he moved around the country pursuing his football, he invariably told the local press that he had never been happier than he was now, whether it was Torquay, Airdrie or Edinburgh. Indeed he has plunged into Edinburgh life with gusto, renting a smart flat in the New Town, buying a bar on the Royal Mile, training hard. But after garnering maximum publicity with the story of his exertions in preparation for the city's traditional New Year's Day sprint, he didn't actually run the race.
Fashanu has always been adept at moulding himself to his circumstances. Whatever is required of him, Justin will do it. Team-mates respect him because he trains hard and exhibits no prima donna touches in the dressing room; fans take to him because he gets stuck in (supporters in Edinburgh even invented an affectionate Cantona-style chant for the player they called the Queen of Hearts: 'Say ooh aah up yer arse'). Football reporters like him because he is affable, plausible and gives good quotes; writers for the serious press seek him out because he appears to have more between his ears than they expect of footballers: 'I go to the opera, I go to classical recitals, I dine with politicians. I have an interest in the not-so-fashionable charities,' he informed the Observer last year.
And when he engages with the tabloid papers - giving them, too, precisely what they want - he behaves in the acquisitive, demanding and brusque manner he imagines is expected of him. His last big story was the one about his affair with Julie Goodyear, who plays Bet Gilroy in Coronation Street ('My Bet on the side').
'The one thing you've got to remember about Justin is he lives in a fantasy world,' a contemporary centre-forward warned. 'He is a real Walter Mitty.'
This last week Walter Mitty has been found out. Driven by his affection for cash, Fashanu believed he had a yarn which could set him up for life. First Scott Hardie approached the News of the World with 'the story of the century'. When the paper refused demands of pounds 20,000 up front, plus pounds 300,000 on delivery, the pair turned to the People asking for a less ambitious pounds 1,000 immediately. The People saw through Fashanu as soon as they met him. But they could have saved themselves even the outlay of expenses: as long ago as last spring, Fashanu told an interviewer from the Independent that he had made up that story about the Tory MP back in 1990.
When you sup with the devil, you need a long spoon. And instead of trousering Fleet Street's cheque, Fashanu found its elbow in his face: 'Foul Play by Fash, the Sleazy Striker' was the Daily Mail's Vinnie Jones-style assault. In the Tory press he became a convenient scapegoat, the black queer selling lies about government ministers, this week's tabloid target, a good man to take the flak off the government for a couple of days. That goal against Liverpool has never seemed so far away.Reuse content