August 1, 2013
Justin Fashanu: a symbol of problems faced by gay people in sport
The Guardian, Friday 20 September 2013
Forbidden Forward, a new book by Nick Baker, charts the rise and fall of England’s first openly gay professional footballer
Justin Fashanu is described as ‘intelligent, witty, honest and articulate’ in Nick Baker’s Forbidden Forward. Photograph: Allsport
New Year’s Day, 1980. At a frost-bound Selhurst Park, the players of Crystal Palace and Norwich City slip and slide and tumble on the bone‑hard pitch. Only one player seems capable of retaining his balance: the visitors’ tall young centre-forward. By himself the teenager is unable to bring coherence to a game that fumbles towards a goalless draw but Justin Fashanu’s performance provides the only lasting memory for a big holiday crowd.
A month later at Carrow Road, in front of the Match of the Day cameras and still a couple of weeks short of his 19th birthday, Fashanu accepts the ball with his back to goal a couple of yards outside the right-hand corner of the Liverpool penalty area. He flicks it up with the outside of his right boot and turns inside. As the ball drops he smashes it with his left boot in an arc that carries it clear of Ray Clemence’s desperate leap. It wins him the BBC’s goal of the season award.
A year and a million-pound transfer further on, Fashanu is playing for Nottingham Forest in the derby against Notts County. Brian Clough’s team lose 2-0 in front of their own fans, and the fans single out the new centre-forward for relentless criticism. Lumbering where he was once lithe, the big No9 seems incapable of even the most basic ball-control. That season he will make 31 league appearances and score three goals before moving on – and on, and on, and on, through a short life destined to end in tragedy.
Fifteen years after he put his head in an improvised noose in an empty factory building in east London, not far from the place where he had been born 37 years earlier, Fashanu has become a symbol of the continuing problems faced by gay men and women in sport. His name is used by the Justin Campaign, launched in 2008 to campaign against homophobia in football, a sport that could be seen as one of the last bastions of prejudice in a society that now accepts openly gay politicians, poets laureate, entertainers and television presenters.
Thanks to the courage of Martina Navratilova, Gareth Thomas and others, no future Maria Bueno or Carwyn James will need to remain silent about her or his sexuality in the worlds of tennis and rugby – unless that is how she or he prefers it. But no prominent male footballer has yet taken the step of declaring his homosexuality.
Fashanu’s story is told in Forbidden Forward, a new book by Nick Baker, which traces the familiar outlines of the tale – a boy born in London to Nigerian and Guyanese parents, given up for fostering by a sympathetic Norfolk couple at the age of six, early football stardom followed by a peripatetic professional career through 20-odd clubs in Europe and North America, increasingly dogged by rumours about his sexuality – all the way to its tragic conclusion.
Adding newly acquired first-hand testimony as best he can, Baker depicts a man of contrasts and conflicts. Fashanu was warm, affectionate and generous, outgoing but down to earth, good at encouraging young players and, in the latter stages of his career, a competent coach. Few would dispute the author’s description of his subject as “intelligent, witty, honest … and articulate”.
On the other hand, while seemingly gentle in his private life, he was as prone to violence on the pitch as his more notorious young brother, John, and his unreliability inflicted burdens on innocent friends and colleagues. What drink did to George Best, money and the things it bought did to Justin Fashanu. There were managers exasperated by unwarranted demands for wage increases, the friend in California who let him use his prized Ford Mustang and never saw it again, the Torquay United chairman who loaned him £11,000 as the player was leaving the club and was never repaid, even the reporter from the Sun who found himself having to face his employer’s questions about the thousands of pounds that Fashanu had spent on phone calls after briefly borrowing the journalist’s international calling card and thereafter continuing to use its code numbers.
Frank Clark was a coach at Forest when Fashanu arrived at the City Ground and later, as Leyton Orient’s manager, took him to Brisbane Road for a few months. He remembers Clough’s brutal reaction when he discovered that Fashanu was visiting Nottingham’s only gay club. “Brian could have been more sympathetic,” he says.”He dealt with it in his usual way and that made it worse. But you have to remember that he was a product of his era.”
If Clough was the product, Fashanu was the victim. By the time Fashanu arrived at Orient in 1990, shortly before unwisely accepting the Sun’s offer of money for a story to pre-empt unauthorised revelations about to appear in the Sunday People, his sexuality was known to his team-mates and the dressing‑room taunts he had endured earlier in his career had come to an end.
“Justin was a bit of a tortured soul but he was very well liked at the club,” Clark says. By that time, however, the lingering effects of a long-term knee problem had robbed him of the mobility and physical presence that had made him such a threat as a teenager. As he roamed from club to club, the acceptance of his peers – often taking the form of rough humour – was not matched by the harsh welcome he received from opposing fans once he had come out.
Clark, a former member of the anti‑homophobia group set up by the FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association, the League Managers Association and gay-rights activists, fears that might still be the pattern were a major Premier League figure to follow Robbie Rogers, the retired MLS player, and Anton Hysen, who plays in Sweden’s third division, in declaring himself. “We don’t believe in putting pressure on people to come out,” he says. “We believe that if someone really wants to do that, then there should be a support structure available. I don’t think there’d be any kind of a problem within the game. But today’s football crowds can be not very nice.”
Justin Fashanu was an individual, not a stereotype. Nick Baker cannot give us a definitive verdict on the rape accusation that led him to flee the US two months before his death, but he makes a decent stab at presenting the factors that may have shaped Fashanu’s life, identifying the many good people who did their best to help as well as those, like Clough, whose understanding came too late.