The scar on Brian Clough’s career. The most disastrous non-Italian transfer in Forest’s history. The rampant fantasist who claimed affairs with sexually experimental Tory MPs and Bet Lynch. The scorer of one of the most famous goals in English football. The only Tricky Tree to knock about with Peter Tatchell. Is it time to reassess the life of Justin Fashanu? Yes, says biographer Jim Read…
Football-wise, Justin Fashanu is essentially seen as a one-goal wonder. Is that fair?
Fashanu’s football career is mainly remembered for one beautiful goal he scored for Norwich City against Liverpool, when he was only eighteen years old. No, he never scored a better goal, but the following season he scored twenty nine goals in the top division, even though Norwich were relegated. You have to be special to do that.
Was he always an outsider?
Absolutely. Growing up with white foster parents in a white rural community, he was bound to feel different. He didn’t drink much alcohol, and - while at Forest - he became a born-again Christian. He turned up at a garage to pick up his car and the garage manager, Terry Carpenter, got into a conversation with him. By the time Fashanu left he was converted. The problem was that in the form of Christianity he embraced, homosexuality was regarded as a sin, and he spent the rest of his life tormented by this conflict. Not drinking and being Christian set him apart from most of the footballers at the time, and then he was gay as well.
He is, pretty much, the only gay professional footballer people are aware of.
Fashanu realised he was gay at a time when hardly any public figures were out. He eventually came out in 1990; what is extraordinary is that no other professional footballer anywhere in the world came out until 2011. That has to say something about the culture of sport and, in particular, male team sports.
There were always rumours about his sexuality after he joined Forest. Is that because Nottingham had some sort of a gay scene and Norwich didn’t, or is it more complex than that?
Justin may well have experimented before moving to Nottingham, but when he arrived he was living with his fiancée. They were invited to a gay club, La Chic Part Two, which gave him a safe way of checking out the scene. Then he started to go on his own and there was no turning back. Justin was picking up men there; I’m impressed that no one exploited the situation to sell a story to the newspapers.
How did Cloughie react when he discovered Justin was gay?
Their relationship was already dreadful. Fashanu was supposed to be the signing who would take Forest back to the top, but it became quickly apparent to Clough that it was not going to work. He soon took a strong personal dislike to Fashanu and treated him appallingly. It was bullying and it was homophobic - there is no doubt about that. Clough wrote in his newspaper column; ‘I whacked more than a few of my players. I hit them – and I don’t mean verbally or financially. Justin Fashanu got it from me more than once – just for being who and what he was.’ In his second autobiography, published after Fashanu’s death, Clough expresses some remorse for the way he had treated Fashanu.
This is a horrible question to ask, but do you think Forest supporters would have been more tolerant of him if he had actually fulfilled his potential?
I’m sure they would have, that’s what supporters are like. Mainly we get behind the players who perform well for the team, and he didn’t. Justin was unlucky in that he joined a club which had been immensely successful but was not doing so well. Cloughie admitted himself that he made a lot of mistakes in the transfer market in this period, and he was falling out with his assistant, Peter Taylor. I think Justin became a bit of a scapegoat.
Then he moved across the Trent for £150,000.
Fashanu moved to Notts County where Howard Wilkinson was the team manager. There were clubs wanting him on loan, but County were willing to take a chance and offer a transfer fee and a contract. They were doing well in in the top flight, they beat Forest as the transfer was being arranged. I suspect also that Justin was keen to stay in Nottingham; he was running these separate lives with football, the gay scene, his relationship with his fiancée and his Christianity, and he probably thought that if he moved somewhere else things could get even more tricky. It was a good move for him and both clubs - Wilkinson briefly brought out the best in him as a player, where he had a 1 in 3 goal ratio. Unfortunately Wilkinson left, then Fashanu picked up a serious knee injury when he was still only twenty-two years old. He was never the same player again.
And then his life went a bit Walter Mitty.
Fashanu was desperate to be rich and famous. When he could no longer achieve it as a footballer he resorted to selling made-up stories about his sex life. It was sordid stuff, and undermined his credibility as an openly gay public figure. He was eventually caught out when he claimed he knew Steven Milligan, a Conservative MP who had been found dead due to auto-erotic asphyxiation. Fashanu was interviewed by the police, who realised he was making it up. He ended up fleeing the country for LA. That’s how his playing career in Britain ended.
What’s the story behind the circumstances of his death? Were the American police after him?
Probably the best bit of research I did for the book was to put together an accurate account of the last weeks of Justin’s life. Justin was living and coaching in Maryland when a young man made an accusation of sexual assault against him. After being interviewed by the police, he rapidly left for England. When the police couldn’t locate him they obtained a warrant for his arrest. Several weeks later they put out a press release saying they still wanted to interview him. It was picked up by the British media and reported in the hours before Justin took his life. At the inquest the coroner said there had not been a warrant out for his arrest, which was widely reported then and has been repeated ever since. The implication was that Justin had killed himself because of misreporting by the British media. Probably the best bit of research I did for the book was to show, conclusively, that the coroner was wrong on this point.
How do you think a twenty-one year-old Justin Fashanu would have coped as a top-flight footballer in 2012?
I think he would have found it easier. The racism has eased off considerably. Thirty years ago the predominant culture in football clubs was white, working class, blokey and boozy. Now it’s much more diverse. He would have liked being around more Christians and people who didn’t drink. He would have enjoyed the stimulation of meeting players from all over the world. He loved to talk to the media, and there is far more demand for that now. He would have been tweeting and blogging and no doubt getting into trouble from time to time. I’d like to think it would be easier to be out as gay in 2012.
There’s been a lot of debate about racism in football this past season. But surely it was more prolific in Fashanu’s day?
It was much worse, and completely tolerated by the authorities. Black players were expected by their white bosses to not react to or be affected by the abuse that came their way - the idea that racist abuse on the pitch could lead to a criminal prosecution was unimaginable. Fashanu was a tough guy, physically and mentally. He was a successful schoolboy boxer. If opposing players insulted him, he made sure they got hurt. I found something he said in an interview about how he coped with abuse from fans intriguing: ‘If I thought they actually hated me it might bother me. But they’re not actually getting at Justin Fashanu the person; they’re getting at Justin Fashanu the image.’
Are there any positives in his story?
Plenty. Fashanu played for three full-time professional British clubs after he came out: Torquay United in England, and Airdrie and Hearts in Scotland. He seems to have been popular with the other players at these clubs, and the supporters of Torquay and Airdrie – he was too unfit to do well at Hearts. John Colquhoun of Hearts wrote a positive piece for The Scotsman about how the straight players did not have a problem sharing a dressing room with Fashanu and how much they respected him. There is a positive story here, but it gets lost. He was a charismatic, exuberant character who is fondly remembered by many who knew him. His death was a tragedy, but his life wasn’t..
After a recent BBC3 documentary, his brother John announced that Justin was never really gay. What's your take on that?
He obviously hadn’t read my book! From his public pronouncements, I would say it’s been hard for John to come to terms with Justin being gay. He is a high profile celebrity in Nigeria, where he lives now and where homosexuality is illegal, so I can see why he wants to believe his brother wasn’t. And it isn’t quite as bizarre as it may seem; after Justin came out, he once claimed to be in a sexual relationship with Julie Goodyear – Bet Lynch from Coronation Street - and he spoke publicly about one day perhaps marrying and having children. But there’s no doubt about it, Justin Fashanu was gay.
What drew you to this story?
I’m a writer, I love football. I have an interest in life stories and human rights. I started looking at Justin’s life nine years ago. I immediately became intrigued. I wanted to find out about the man behind the headlines. Events in my own life kept interrupting me and the only reason it’s coming out now is because I’ve finally finished it. But the timing happens to be good; there is a growing feeling in British football that something is wrong if there are no openly gay players, helped by the contribution of the Justin Campaign. People want to know Fashanu’s story. This is the first time it has been told in depth.
What did you discover about Fashanu and Nottingham when you started working on the book?
I have to say, the more I found out about Brian Clough the more I wondered how he could ever have been a successful football manager, but the facts speak for themselves. I loved finding out about the clubs Justin played for - twenty three in all on three continents. I also enjoyed stumbling across all sorts of daft football stuff; I found out that Notts had fielded a team which included three future managers of Norwich City - Martin O’Neill, Frank Worthington and Glenn Roeder. Well, I think that’s interesting.
Do you think there’s a danger that the recent interest in Justin will turn him into a martyr figure, or something that he wasn’t?
It could, and I hope my biography gives people a realistic picture of his life. I set out to write about Justin Fashanu and the people involved in his life in a way that was accurate, fair and kind, and I hope I’ve succeeded - but Justin does come across as a complex character who was far from perfect.
So how should we remember him?
For his famous goal, always. For being a brave man and a pioneer. For breaking just about every stereotype of how gay men should be. For being someone who was forced to deal with great challenges from an early age, and who did his best for as long as he could.
Justin Fashanu: The Biography, £12.99 DB Publishing
"The Baddiel and Skinner Pineapple thing didn’t kill my career but it had a negative effect"
"The Baddiel and Skinner Pineapple thing didn’t kill my career but it had a negative effect"