Words by Joe Roberts
Footballing-wise, Justin Fashanu is most remembered for his 1980 screaming half-volley against Liverpool when he was just 18 playing for Norwich City. A volley that seemed to have a mind of its own, that moved and dipped past Ray Clemence as if it was being remote-controlled. Fashanu in his celebration seemed unbothered, not looking for the attention that his goal warranted. Perhaps a man who just wanted to be left alone.
Despite a relatively average but tumultuous footballing career, with 21 different clubs in and out of England, multiple relegations and promotions and being the first £1,000,000 black football player, Fashanu was not a man who was ever left alone. Racism in football is as strong an issue today as it was in the 80s and 90s during Fashanu’s playing career, this being an issue Fashanu faced his whole career. A.J. Ali, Fashanu’s friend and President of Maryland Mania during Fashanu’s time at the club as a coach, notes how during a meeting with US football owners how he “went into this room and saw a dozen or more older white gentlemen. Some looked at me with disdain. I know that look, I have seen it before when I walk into a room. The racism in sports ownership is quite real […] [But Justin] never pulled any punches. You never had to guess what he was thinking. He saw right through sneers and glares, and he let them have it. He was not going to stand for anyone not giving them a chance due to my age or colour of my skin. That meant the world to him”. Institutionalised racism in football was all too familiar to Fashanu, but also racism from the terraces. In Fashanu’s biography, Nick Baker notes how ‘A barrage of insults reigned down on him, along with bananas. Following footballer John Barnes’ lead a few years earlier, Justin picked up one of the bananas, peeled it and took a huge bite. It was a smart response’. Fashanu was headfast, intelligent and measured in his response to the inevitable racism he experienced on and off the pitch.
Fashanu was also the first openly gay football player. To this day no openly gay football players have played in England. Rumours of Fashanu’s homosexuality led his Nottingham Forest manager and two-time European Cup winner Brian Clough to remove Fashanu from the side and refused to let him train with the first team, resulting in his move to Forest rivals Notts County in 1982. ‘Why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?’’ Clough asked. He famously came out in 1990 in ‘The Sun’; ‘£1 Million Soccer Star: I AM GAY’ yells the October 22nd, 1990 edition of the ‘newspaper’. The media response to this was unfortunate but predictable, especially The Voice newspaper, which subjected Fashanu to ‘page upon page of shame and loathing’ and noted how Fashanu now ‘belonged to Satan’. His coming out greatly affected his footballing career, having no real stint at a club after 1990 with the exception of Division Three Torquay United in 1991-93 – even then he was required to take a HIV test as part of his medical before signing.
The struggles of his homosexuality contributed to his unfortunate suicide in 1998. A seventeen-year-old boy in Maryland accused Fashanu of consensual sex, with homosexual acts being illegal in the state at that time. Fashanu fled to England where he committed suicide by hanging in a Shoreditch garage. “Being gay and a personality is so hard”, Fashanu writes in his suicide note, “but everybody has it hard at the moment, so I can’t complain about that. I want to say I didn’t sexually assault the young boy. He willingly had sex with me and then the next day asked for money. When I said no, he said ‘you wait and see.’ […] Well, justice isn’t always fair. I felt I wouldn’t get a fair trial because of my homosexuality”.
Justin Fashanu was a man beyond football. Trophies, awards, and goals are often what players strive for, but Fashanu’s achievements go far beyond this. His niece Amal Fashanu launched the Justin Fashanu Foundation in 2019 which ‘focuses on tackling Mental Health, Racism, and homophobia in football, as well as making sure Justin Fashanu’s Legacy is remembered’. He was also inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in conjunction with the NFM’s LGBT+ tour, focusing on raising awareness and telling the history of the LGBT+ community in football. An important legacy to leave.
Justin Fashanu should be remembered as much more than a decent forward who scored a wonder goal against Liverpool. Fashanu is a black and gay icon who broke boundaries and fought much tougher opposition than he found on the football pitch – he should be remembered as such.