In 2017, much to the excitement of scientists, an unknown object emerged from the depths of the cosmos and cut a majestic arc across the night sky. The object, travelling too fast to be trapped by the gravitational pull of any star system, tore through our Solar System and then surged back out into the open ocean of the universe. Never before had an inter-stellar visitor passed through our region of space, and so, when astronomers came to name this mysterious immigrant, they called it ‘Oumuamua, which roughly translates from Hawaiian as “a messenger from afar arriving first”.
Sometimes, when I think of Justin Fashanu – the first openly gay footballer to play in the men’s professional game, and still the only Black one – I think of ‘Oumuamua. For, just like that ageless voyager, Fashanu was elusive, fast-moving and ultimately unknowable. Like ‘Oumuamua, Fashanu was gone from each new place just as quickly as he had arrived there: in his nineteen years as a footballer, he played for twenty-two clubs, an existence not so much nomadic as frantic. Like ‘Oumuamua, he bewitched every expert who observed him, soaring into the uppermost reaches of the English game with a spectacular strike against one of the finest teams in Europe. Yet Fashanu was painfully and utterly subject to the laws of footballing gravity. Instead of accelerating into the distance, untouched and undefeated, he found himself torn to the ground by overwhelming forces. By the age of thirty-seven, he was dead.
It is grim to think that the name of the first Black footballer to command a transfer fee of £1 million, a sum paid in 1981 by Nottingham Forest to take him from Norwich City, is mostly remembered as a cautionary tale – a warning that sport is no place for gay male players. Yet his demise was not inevitable. When a life implodes, as Fashanu’s did, too little thought is given to the astonishing invisible pressures that are constantly exerted upon it. Too little thought is given to the choices that individuals made, or did not make, to help Fashanu when he needed them most. When I spoke with Ambrose Mendy, the sports agent who represented the ill-fated footballer for several years, he was unequivocal on this matter. “Every professional footballer,” he told me, “should hold their head in shame.”
By now, the facts of Fashanu’s early life are fairly well known, at least in outline. He and his younger brother John, who was nineteen months his junior, were born in London. Following their parents’ separation, they were placed in care by their mother since she did not have the financial means to bring them up. The brothers were then raised in Shropham in Norfolk by Alf and Betty Jackson, their white foster parents. There were very few Black people in the whole of Norfolk at the time, and the brothers were subjected to a significant degree of racial discrimination. Justin became a figure who John looked to for physical and emotional protection, and the cost of being that shield was severe. By several accounts, it made Justin acquire a mask for his emotions that he would not truly remove throughout his entire life.
Every now and then, though, Justin’s face betrayed itself. Forbidden Games, a 2017 Netflix documentary about his life, features a scene in which he was being interviewed on Trial By Night, a programme on regional Scottish television. A member of the audience, when asked to contribute, states that he doesn’t dislike Justin because of the colour of his skin; instead, he says, “It’s his vile homosexual lifestyle that I detest.” Justin responds calmly enough (although he still appears somewhat rattled), remarking – in what is perhaps a telling slip of the tongue – that “You don’t know about my vile homophobic lifestyle.” It is striking that the audience member chose to pat himself on the back for not being racist, which also says something about the level of racism that was present at the time.
It occurs to me that there are still many people who do not know what homophobia actually is. There are people who think that it is a form of insult that can be shrugged off with sufficient resilience, allowing the target of these insults to get on with their lives and emerge stronger for their experience. But, as any gay or bisexual person will tell you, homophobia is not mere name-calling. It is a border still present in too many hearts and minds. In some environments, homophobia is the invisible tripwire in every conversation that, when triggered, can cause the ground to explode beneath you.
Aslie Pitter knows this all too well. A swift and skilful right-back, he was a gifted enough footballer to have been offered trials at Wimbledon, and to play non-league football for Carshalton and Sutton United. He was born in 1960, a year before Justin, and so his experiences are a useful yardstick for the kind of prejudice that Justin suffered. I met Aslie when, having come out as bisexual, I went to play for Stonewall FC, a London-based football club that was founded in 1991 as a place where gay and bisexual men could find community while playing the game they loved. When I arrived at Stonewall at the age of 23, Aslie – though he was by then in his early forties – was still one of the fittest and quickest players at the club. As one of the older Black players, and one of the most welcoming people at Stonewall, he was a key figure in my search for self-acceptance and happiness. It was harrowing, then, to hear about one particular episode in his life.
“I was playing for a local team [composed mostly of heterosexual players],” Aslie told me, “and I had joined Stonewall by this time. So, I was playing for Stonewall on a Sunday morning and playing with this other side on a Saturday afternoon, and I loved it. I was having fun.” At that point, he said, he had not told anyone at his local team that he was gay. “I kind of kept my mouth shut [about my sexuality] in the early days,” he said, “because I had this fear that they were not going to pick me, that they wouldn’t want to be friends with me any more, that they wouldn’t want to be around the changing rooms if I was there.” Soon enough, though, he would find himself put on the spot:
It was the Gay Games in 1994, and [news of] it made the papers. So I told the guys from my local team that I was going off to America to play in a football tournament – and I didn’t say what tournament it was, but I knew that the papers had picked up on the fact that a gay football team was going to compete at the Gay Games in New York. So, one of my teammates, who had introduced me to the club, was reading the papers and saw this. So he quizzed me at the clubhouse, in front of a load of my teammates. And he was pushing and pushing, and he was doing it quite light-heartedly – he wasn’t being cruel – and he was saying, “So, what is this tournament you’re playing in in America?” And I floundered a little bit, and then I admitted, “Well, it’s the Gay Games in New York.” And so he just came out and asked me, “Are you gay then?” And I said, “Yes I am.” And it just went quiet.
In revealing his sexuality, Aslie had done what many might have encouraged him to do in such a situation. He was being true to himself, and being open about who he was in a straight-forward manner. Yet there would be consequences for his honesty:
At the time, I was playing for the first team for this club – they had six teams, and I was playing first team. So I completed the rest of that season, and I had a good season, I think we ended up third or fourth in the league. And then the following season, I played one game for the first team, then I got dropped. And what’s supposed to happen is that if you get dropped from the first team you play for the second team, if you get dropped from the second team you play for the third team, and so on. But I got dropped from the first team, and nobody picked me up. I ended up playing for the fourth team.
Unfortunately, as Aslie observed, his fate was not much better in his new surroundings:
The captain [of the fourth team] was a very, very aggressive, bald, big, loud, cockney guy where every second word out of his mouth was one beginning with “c” and ending with “t”. And in this particular game – the one game I played for them – he kept calling the opposition captain, a really good player, he kept calling him – can I say the word? – he kept calling him “pussy f*****”. So, at half-time, I said, “Excuse me, I’ve got something to say,” and he says “Yeah”, and I said, “Do you have to keep calling that guy a pussy f*****?” On that, this guy turned on me, and he said, “Is he your fucking boyfriend? Does he fuck you up the arse?” And this guy let this tirade out at me, and I just stood there. No one defended me. They all stood there and watched.
This confrontation was so dispiriting that Aslie’s heart wasn’t in it any more:
At the end of the game, when we all went to have a shower, I just thought, I’m not going to have a shower. I just changed out of the kit, threw it in the kit bag, got my tracksuit and put it on, and I went up to the manager and said, “That was my last game,” and I walked out. And that was it. And I felt crushed, I felt tired … It’s funny: when I left, nobody from the club actually phoned. It was quite a well-organised club – when people weren’t around, they phoned to see how they were, and things like that – and nobody actually phoned to say, “What’s happened? Where have you been?” Nobody has said anything to this day, some 28 or 29 years later. Nobody has ever phoned me to find out what happened.
Watching Justin go from club to club, I wondered how often people from the places he left so rapidly would get in touch to ask after him. My suspicion – based on the sample of people I contacted in connection with this essay who were not keen to do an interview – is that there were not so many. Ambrose Mendy identified one person who, in his view, could have been a powerful force for acceptance – and perhaps changed the course of Justin’s career altogether. The history of football could have been very different, said Mendy, “if Brian Clough had acknowledged and embraced Justin as a human being”. When he signed Justin from Norwich City, Clough had already won the European Cup in consecutive seasons with Nottingham Forest, and was one of the game’s most influential voices. He was a cultural icon, beloved on the talk-show circuit and far beyond Britain, so well known for his wit that Muhammad Ali joyfully sparred with him on late-night television. If anyone could have spoken for Justin, said Ambrose, it was Clough. But, as Clough himself later admitted in his autobiography, “I had a responsibility towards [Justin] because he was under my jurisdiction as the manager of the club, and I gave him nothing.”
When I spoke to Mendy, his fury with Clough was as intense as a forest fire. He made clear that there was no homophobia towards Justin in the Forest dressing room – due in part to Justin’s imposing physique – and that any outspoken bigotry came repeatedly from Clough himself, who referred to him as “a bloody poof” in front of his fellow players. A year after being signed by Clough, Justin was sold to neighbouring Notts County for a tenth of his purchase price, and his confidence was decimated too. Footage from that period shows him slashing wildly at the ball with his favoured right foot, sending the ball soaring safely high or wide of goal. It makes for a tragic contrast with his body language when, ten days before his 19th birthday, he scored the goal that made him famous. On that day in February 1980, playing for Norwich City against league champions Liverpool, he had conjured a turn and volley of rare magnificence; his limbs moving as easily and as elegantly as a silk flag in the breeze. “Football never saw sixty-five per cent of the potential of Justin,” said Mendy. “And all of the time he was within his shell, he did crazy things.” Mendy recalled the time when Justin made a great show of dating Julie Goodyear, the actress who played Bet Lynch in Coronation Street. “That was a charade, a masquerade,” he said – the mask firmly in place.
On one occasion, Mendy’s support of Justin even took physical form, as he found himself in an altercation with a manager. Justin had returned from surgery in the USA, after which he was at only 80 per cent of his physical peak but more than smart enough to make up for any inhibited movements. He went up for trials at Manchester City, where “he played in three reserve games and scored a hat-trick, a hat-trick and two goals”. While City were deliberating over whether to make an offer, Ambrose received a call from another manager. That manager, having heard of Justin’s goalscoring exploits, said that his club were very keen to sign him, and that he would speak to his chairman. A few days later, Mendy went to the club in question to make the final arrangements for Justin’s contract only to find the manager in a very different mood:
All of a sudden I hear a kerfuffle near the boardroom, and [the manager] is coming in my direction, and his eyes are bulging. “What have you fucking done to me, what have you done? You fucking knew this!” And I said, ‘Slow down, what the hell are you talking about?” [And he replied] “He’s a fucking poof! He’s a poof! You know, he’s a shit-shoveller!” This is what he said. So I knocked him out.
If it had been left to Justin, he would not have thrown any punches. As his brother John notes, Justin was “a peacemaker”. By John’s own admission, when it came to the use of violence in football, he was much more proactive than his older brother. For John, life was about striking a blow at the world before the world could strike a blow at you. He was so renowned for his combative approach to the game that he was nicknamed “Fash the Bash”, a reputation he was proud to indulge and promote. He was one of the figureheads of Wimbledon FC, football’s proudest outlaws, whose legend was established when they defeated the heavily favoured Liverpool 1 – 0 in the 1988 FA Cup Final. The team were in turn known as “The Crazy Gang”, and keenly marketed themselves as an aggressive, hard-running outfit who could out-brawl many of their opponents. Yet there always seemed to be much more to John than mere brawn. In several of his highlights from that period, he can be seen floating delicate chips over the heads of opposition goalkeepers, or sending them the wrong way from the penalty spot after a single-step run-up.
For all of his talk of being the tough guy, I wondered if the use of force had always come naturally to him. I wondered if his hyper-aggressive persona – a finely controlled one, which has seen him acquire black belt-level expertise in four martial arts – was truly him, or a response to oppressive circumstances. I asked him as much, and he explained how life had been for him and Justin as children in Norfolk: “Bear in mind, we were living in a rural area, and Blacks were unheard of … I couldn’t understand why, when I was going to school, I was consistently bullied and beaten up for many, many years. And I think that’s what gave me that hardness, that strength, [to make me] into who I am today.”
John and Justin’s football careers contain enough parallels that, by looking at John’s path through the game, we can gain some idea of the racial obstacles Justin must have faced. Most strikingly, John told me the story of when he joined a club in the 1980s:
I was taken into the dressing room to shake everybody’s hand, and as I stretched my hand out to meet everybody, nobody wanted to shake my hand … There was a lot of racism towards me. My own teammates were calling me “n*****”. It was my nickname. N*****. N*****. So, the away players would call me “n*****”, and the home players would call me “n*****”. And this was a pattern at many of the football clubs I played for. And the way that I established myself was to pick the hardest man at the club, and get into a good fight with him, and beat the hell out of him. And then people would go, “Whoa, now you’ve got our respect, Fash.” And it’s always been that sort of way, for me to become the captain. And most of the teams I’ve been to, I’ve been the captain.
Both John and Justin were keen to court publicity (both of them were very comfortable in front of cameras and television audiences). John got precisely the coverage he wanted: he was portrayed as a fearsome athlete with a witty side, a persona he would eventually weave into a hugely successful career as a presenter on ITV’s Gladiators, a sports entertainment game show that he co-hosted for much of the ’90s. Justin, by contrast, was utterly unable to control the narratives about him, and found himself immersed in scandal. In 1990, he agreed to a lucrative and exclusive interview with The Sun, in which he revealed that he had had an affair with a married Conservative Party politician. The resulting media inferno tore through the bond between the two brothers, with John at first regarding it as nothing more than a publicity stunt to steal his growing limelight. In a 2019 interview with the Mail on Sunday, John recalled his reaction to the news: “Stop showing off. You’re trying to take my glory. You’re not going to do it. I’m the No1 footballer, I’ve taken your position, I’m now in the Premiership and playing for England. You’re now smoking out, having injuries and you just want to take my platform.”
It was only in time that John would understand that Justin’s desire to come out was rooted in a need to be free from the burden of silence. While John refers in that same interview to “sibling rivalry”, it is not clear from speaking to Ambrose Mendy, who knew the brothers better than most people did, that there was much rivalry from Justin’s side. The picture is instead one of John adoring his older brother while also being envious, to an extent, of the ease with which Justin at first moved through the game. Ambrose spoke of the difference in their levels of natural ability, remarking that, whereas John had to work tirelessly on his craft, “Justin was blessed.”
John’s response to his brother’s sexuality comes in for harsh criticism today – not least from John himself. (Ironically, the one club of the era that could probably have protected Justin was the one that John played for – the Crazy Gang, who were brash, resolutely themselves, and had no respect for received wisdom.) While John believes that he should have helped Justin more, Mendy’s judgement is more measured. “They did as much as they could have done for each other,” he told me, pointing to the fact that John frequently gave Justin money when his career faltered time and again. Yet there was probably still an emotional component of support that was lacking from John. This was, after all, a period when homophobia in Justin’s own community was at radioactive levels. In response to Justin’s coming out, Tony Sewell, a columnist for The Voice – the UK’s only national weekly Afro-Caribbean newspaper – wrote that “We heteros are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty.” It would take Sewell thirty years to publicly retract these remarks, and only after they were presented to him by The Guardian. Sewell’s apology came upon his appointment as chair of the government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities in 2020, proving that – at least in some areas of modern Britain – failing to atone for extreme homophobia is still no barrier to career progress.
As John reflected on these events, it became clear that his relationship with his brother was warm and affectionate, but also – on some level – perhaps still tinged with regret, and a little unresolved. At one point, when assessing their careers, he felt the need to assert that his record proved that he had been “the better player”. At another, there was a sense that he thought that Justin could have done more to help himself, perhaps through greater use of secrecy. John recalled asking Justin, ‘“Why do you feel the urge to have to broadcast [your sexuality], to bring the spotlight on yourself, when you’re a wonderful player and a lovely person?” Because then all people say is ‘He’s gay, he’s a gay Black footballer.’ Not good.” Finally, though, he seemed to understand that the scale of the challenge faced by Justin was possibly beyond him:
You’ve got two very big hills to climb – well, not even hills for goodness’ sake, I would say mountains. You’re Black. And you’re gay. Oh, my goodness me. And I made some mistakes when I was with Justin, trying to look after Justin, trying to help him, because I’m sorry to say that even I couldn’t accept him. And if your own brother can’t accept that his brother’s gay, then what do you think other people are going to think as well?
Though John and Justin’s lives had very different trajectories – by the time Justin died, in 1998, the brothers had at one point gone over seven years without speaking – there is one area in which they remained closely aligned: the business of finding the net. John scored 149 times in 396 games at professional level (including two appearances for England’s senior team), an average of 0.38 goals per game. Justin scored 138 times in 376 professional games (eleven of which were for England’s under-21 side), an average of 0.37 goals per game. The two of them even played for the same club in New Zealand, albeit fifteen years apart: Miramar Rangers, where they were both coached by the legendary David Farrington. Even there they were similarly prolific, with John scoring fifteen goals in eleven games in the 1982 season, and Justin scoring twelve goals in eighteen appearances in 1997. Perhaps there is another far gentler and more innocent universe where John and Justin, free from the ravages of bigotry and able to play to their full potential, end up appearing several times for England, maybe even playing together at Wembley.
If that universe exists, it is infinitely distant from our one in which, Mendy noted, Justin’s aforementioned knee injury – so serious that he never fully recovered from it – was aggravated because several physicians in the early nineties were unwilling even to touch him. Justin’s emergence as a potentially elite footballer coincided almost exactly with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which at the time was associated almost exclusively with gay men. In 1988, the UK was so prejudiced against gay people that its Conservative government, under the infamous Section 28 of that year’s Local Government Act, decreed that homosexuality should not be promoted in schools. Around the same time that Justin came out as gay, it was still considered taboo to hug someone who was HIV-positive. This unfortunate confluence of events meant that Justin, in the words of Mendy, was frequently treated “as if he had Ebola”.
Given Justin’s later embrace of Christianity, it is grimly fitting that the story of his life and early death seems to mirror the lyrics of one of the most famous African-American spirituals, Sinner Man, the best-known version of which was sung by Nina Simone. The unnamed protagonist runs from place to place – from the rock, to the river, to the sea – looking for shelter and comfort, but is unable to find respite anywhere they turn. Eventually they run to the Lord, who turns them away and tells them to run to the Devil. When they get to the Devil, he is waiting for them. It could be that Justin felt like the Sinner Man of his era, rushing everywhere in search of help but finding that almost no one would offer assistance. It was yet another cruel twist to his tale: society was in the wrong, but he was forced to beg society for absolution. According to Other Stories, an LGBT history project run by the charity Derbyshire LGBT+, Justin observed that “Friends who I’d … known for many, many years, who’d become managers, and coaches, and chairmen, and directors – suddenly the doors shut. So, there was a lot of backlash. I couldn’t get a job. The bottom line was I couldn’t get a job.” Few wanted to be tainted by association with him. And so Justin carried on fleeing, from the rock to the river to the sea, only to end up not seeking out the Devil but instead doing something worse: taking a long, overwhelming look at his life up until that point.
In view of everything that Justin had been through, his alleged actions in the final chapter of his life are all the more inexcusable. In April 1998, he was charged with sexually assaulting a seventeen-year-old boy in the US state of Maryland, a claim that, according to the court documents, was supported by medical evidence. Justin fled the country after being questioned by police, knowing that a conviction could lead to imprisonment for up to twenty years and confiding in those who knew him that, as a gay man, he did not think he would get a fair trial. He was found dead a month later in a garage in East London, having hanged himself. In a life spent fleeing for safer havens, Justin’s final act on earth was to flee himself. When his accuser was given the news of his death, he told The Baltimore Sun that he had “a lot of mixed feelings … I feel bad he did it to himself. But I’m also disgusted about what he did to me. I’m upset that I didn’t get to see him go through trial, see justice. I didn’t get to confront him, ask him why he did it.”
Sometimes when I think of Justin Fashanu, I think of ‘Oumuamua. Other times, though, I think he wasn’t some mystical, celestial object: he was utterly human. I think of people like his accuser, whose obvious suffering would have been exacerbated by Justin’s fame. I think that, unlike ‘Oumuamua, Justin did not manage to fly free after all. Though his odyssey took him across the world, he came full circle, dying in Shoreditch, only a few miles from his birthplace of Hackney.
Since Justin’s death, there have been other openly gay players in the men’s game: Swedish footballer Anton Hysén in 2011, American Robbie Rogers and German Thomas Hitzlsperger in 2013. Perhaps tellingly, Rogers and Hitzlsperger came out either close to or after their retirement, while Hysén, who came out at twenty-one, has generally played for clubs that are unhindered by the glare of huge publicity. This suggests that more footballers would have taken Mendy’s two-pronged advice: build strong support networks within the game and “Come out when you’re good and ready to come out.” The fact that Hitzlsperger would go on to become the director of football at VfB Stuttgart, one of Germany’s most successful clubs, shows that significant progress has been made behind the scenes, even if gay players are still wary of being subjected to the full glare of social media and the wider public. There has still not been another openly gay Black footballer since Justin stepped forward, indicating that the double burden of racism and homophobia is still too great to bear.
The one thing that resonates most strongly throughout Justin’s story is the silence – the silence of those who could have aided him more at certain points in his life but didn’t. Mendy was still keen to interrogate the leading players of Justin’s generation, who stood by and watched his ostracism even though their influence could have changed so much. “What does it feel like to know that you were in close proximity with the first openly gay Black footballer?” said Mendy. He continued:
What did you do? That’s what I want to ask everybody. All Justin needed, as well as an arm round his shoulder, was an acceptance. He was rejected every moment of his life. There was not one day of his life this boy was not rejected. You’ve only got to look at every club that he went to: he left, because he wasn’t wanted.
I wondered when Mendy had last seen Justin.
“Probably the year before he died.”
Was he in a better place when you saw him?
“Justin was doing what Justin was always doing. He was on his way somewhere. He was in between two points.”
“You know,” Mendy went on, “the greatest labour-saving device ever invented is the word “tomorrow”. Domani, mañana, demain … Tomorrow. Tomorrow. And there’s that famous title, ‘tomorrow never comes’. In many respects, that’s the irony of Justin’s life: tomorrow never came.”
Extracted from A NEW FORMATION edited by Calum Jacobs, published by Merky Books on 21st April 2022 at £16.99. Copyright © Calum Jacobs, 2022