FOR individuals a little different from the crowd, professional football can be a cruelly insular world, and while sensitivity does exist in the macho environment of dressing room, practice pitch and bar, often it is well advised to keep its head down. Justin Fashanu was very different: he was gay and he admitted it, a combination with which, it seemed, many people within the English national game could not cope.
The son of a Nigerian barrister, he had been abandoned as a child, then dispatched to a Barnardo's home before being rescued, at the age of six, with his younger brother, John, by middle-class, white foster parents in Norfolk and growing up to be intelligent, articulate and a fellow of persuasive charm. Also, he happened to be an extravagantly gifted footballer. Tall, strong and blessed with delicate skills for a man of his size, he was a centre-forward who played for England Youth, then signed for Norwich City in 1978. He progressed quickly to the Canaries' senior side - then in the old First Divison, the equivalent of today's Premiership - and represented his country at under-21 level.
But the incident which catapulted Fashanu to sporting fame occurred in February 1980 when, in a televised match against Liverpool, he scored an utterly sensational goal, a curling, rising drive from far outside the penalty box. From that moment he lived his life in the public spotlight and, six months later, he became the first black player to cost pounds 1m when Brian Clough bought him for Nottingham Forest.
At the time, Fashanu was in a "straight" relationship but he had not been in Nottingham for long when his outlook was transformed, first by Christianity, then by the city's gay scene, to which he found himself drawn irresistibly. His form for Forest, then one of the leading clubs in the land, was bitterly disappointing and, when Clough, not the most tolerant of men, discovered his new signing's sexual leanings, he suspended him. Fashanu wasn't having that and turned up for training, only for his manager to have him escorted publicly from the premises by the police.
Clearly his future lay away from the City Ground and, after much heartache, in 1982 he joined Notts County, then also in the top division and managed by Howard Wilkinson. For a while at Meadow Lane his career got back on course, only for a knee wound to become poisoned, after which he was never quite as effective again.
Following a brief interlude with Brighton, and as gossip about his sexuality became common currency, Fashanu went to the United States, then Canada, where he hoped to continue his footballing life while running a gay bar. In 1989 he returned to England and after abortive attempts to rescue his professional fortunes with several clubs, and feeling sickened by the prejudice he encountered constantly, he "came out" in 1990. In fact, the decision only increased the pressure on Fashanu, who became the subject of ever more frequent and lurid publicity: concocted allegations of affairs with Conservative MPs and stories of a lasting rift with his brother John, who had himself risen to eminence in the game with Wimbledon and England.
"You have to understand," said Justin Fashanu in an interview, "that footballers are very narrow-minded people. It's the nature of the business. When you put yourself in the firing line, you are open to attack. I know I'm there to be shot down in flames."
Courageously, he refused to give up on football, doing well in a stint with Torquay United, then serving Airdrieonians and Hearts in Scotland. More recently he had been living and coaching in the US, in Maryland, where he was being hunted by police last week after being charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy. He was found dead in a lock-up garage in Shoreditch, east London, on Saturday. He had apparently hanged himself.
Justinus Soni Fashanu, footballer: born London 19 February 1961; played for Norwich City 1978-81, Nottingham Forest 1981-82, Southampton on loan 1982, Notts County 1982-85; Brighton and Hove Albion 1985, Manchester City 1989, West Ham United 1989, Leyton Orient 1990, Torquay United 1991-93, Airdrieonians 1993, Heart of Midlothian 1993; died London 2 May 1998.
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