The Life and Death of Football's First Openly Gay Player
The tragic tale of Justin Fashanu.
Image cropped from the poster for 'Forbidden Games'. All images courtesy of Dawbell PR
When I was 12, I saw Justin Fashanu play at Belle Vue in Doncaster, the dilapidated and now long-flattened former home of my football team, Doncaster Rovers. He was leading the line for Torquay United, and by all accounts it wasn't an especially notable match, the sort of dour old Division Four knockabout I endured most Saturdays during my teens. That said, it remains an unforgettable fixture within my existence as a football fan; the scene of the most brazen racist and homophobic abuse I've ever heard in a football ground.
Many memories have dimmed in the decades that have passed, but I can still see the perpetrator clearly: elderly, toothless, kind of akin to a live action recasting of Evil Edna from the great 1980s BBC cartoon Willo the Wisp. I remember spittle forming at the edges of her mouth as she screamed in the direction of her team's centre-forward. I remember thinking I was pleased she was old and would probably die soon. And I remember feeling profoundly sorry for the target of her bile.
Four years later, on the 2nd of May, 1998, that man, Justin Fashanu, would be found dead, hung from a beam in a Shoreditch garage.
Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story is the latest attempt to make some sense of a life that was unraveling almost from the off. Born in February of 1961 in Hackney, the son of a UK-based Nigerian barrister and a Guyanese nurse, Pearl – who, much like she did throughout her eldest son's life, pops in and out of the film – Justin was put into a Barnardo's home shortly afterwards, along with his younger brother John.
At six, he and his brother were fostered by Alf and Betty Jackson, an ageing couple who lived in Shropham, near Attleborough, Norfolk. "I wasn't too sure about having coloured children," she says in the film, via archive footage, before going on to say that "the texture" of the boys' skin won her over. It's a scene that elicits conflicted feelings. On one hand, there's affection where there once was broken toys and peeling paint. On the other, well – sometimes the past really is a foreign country.
Even before we get into the meat of Justin's epic tragedy, the film throws shade at a country crumbling and cruel. Enoch Powell's vile pontification is greeted with cheers; the National Front march through the streets, their jaws snapping like feral dogs; the country's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, issues a veiled warning to a generation who "think it's acceptable to be homosexual". Meanwhile, in Norwich, a young black man – the only black man other than his younger brother for miles around – has discovered he's alright at football.
Justin signs for Norwich City in 1978, makes his league debut a year later, and then in 1980 scores the goal that would make him and, arguably, kickstart his downfall. A curse taken on the volley. A decent footballer, doing something remarkable, never to be bettered. He might have made 103 senior appearances for a decent Norwich side, scored 40 goals and collected a decent number of under-21 caps for England along the way, but it's his goal against Liverpool – one of the finest goals in the history of the sport, a left-footed volley that yearns with every yard it takes towards the bottom left of the Liverpool goal; a goal that becomes the recipient of the 1980 BBC Goal of the Season award – that defines the public consciousness of Justin Fashanu.
For now, anyway.
A bid from Brian Clough's European champions Nottingham Forest comes a year later, and Justin signs in August of 1981 for £1 million, the first black footballer to demand such a lofty fee, signed as a direct replacement for the departing, and much beloved, Trevor Francis. Big boots to fill, and he struggles from the start. His relationship with Clough declines quickly. Rumours of Justin being sighted on Nottingham's gay scene are fed back to Clough; nothing happens in Nottingham without Ol' Big Head being aware of it, his little sparrows feeding back to him. In Clough's 1995 autobiography he recounts a dressing down he gave to Justin. "'Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?' I asked him. 'A baker's, I suppose.' 'Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?' 'A butcher's.' 'So why do you keep going to that bloody poof's club?'"
Justin is banned from training with the team. His confidence fractured, his career is signposted downwards.
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What follows is a footballing journey that defines the word nomadic. Spells at defunct names like Los Angeles Heat and Edmonton Brickmen, Hamilton Steelers, Atlanta Ruckus and Toronto Blizzard, a couple of kicks for Manchester City and West Ham United, he drops in for a game with Trelleborg in Sweden, a brief fling with Hearts up in Scotland, and the likes of Leyton Orient, Notts County and countless others in-between. Among this, there's a visit to Nigeria to reconnect with his father – but Justin returns home feeling rejected. A dalliance with the church, just what every young gay man needs. A claim he'd had an affair with a Tory MP. A contrived "relationship" with the Coronation Street actress Julie Goodyear, briefly a license to print cash. Lying for a living.
In 1990 he's paid £70,000 by The Sun to come out. His brother John, an FA Cup winner with Wimbledon and a full England international – by then a star whose orbit has long eclipsed his brother's – offers him £100,000 to stay quiet. Embarrassment appears to be his motivation. Justin takes the money and comes out anyway. "I wouldn't want to get changed or be in the vicinity of him," John's younger self tells the camera in Forbidden Games, going on to describe his brother as his "arch enemy".
Justin ends his professional playing career in 1997, on the other side of the world, in New Zealand, playing for Wellington's Miramar Rangers. Largely forgotten, a footnote in football history.
The following year, while living in Ellicott City in Maryland in the United States, a 17-year-old boy tells police he's been sexually assaulted by Justin. He's questioned by police on the 3rd of April, but not held in custody. The police later arrive at Justin's flat to arrest him on charges of second-degree sexual assault, first-degree assault and second degree assault, but Justin has already fled to London.
His suicide note, found with his body a month later, professes the sex was consensual, but he doesn't "want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family".
Justin Fashanu was a good footballer, not a great one. As a documentary, Forbidden Games follows a similar path. As an overview of an extraordinary life – a man who those closest to him claim they never really knew – it's fine. Useful. The music is incredible, as the story moves from the 70s, to the 80s, to the 90s and across the globe. But its narrative is confusing – Nick Baker's 2013 book Forbidden Forward tells his story with much more clarity; it's a book, it probably always was going to – and it omits key details. Justin's difficulties accepting his sexuality as a black man, and the failure of support from that community, isn't discussed. The contradiction of being a gay man and a poster child for the church is raced through. And it takes some time before the film works out what it is, which is, ultimately, the story of two brothers at war.
John's presence is frustrating. He's there, but he's not. It's only five years since he told TalkSPORT he didn't believe his brother was gay, that Justin was an "attention seeker", that football is "a macho man's game and I don't think any gay footballers will come out – in 20 years of playing all my matches I have never come across a gay footballer". There's a heavily stylised scene in the movie where John's eyes fill with tears. Another where he tells the interviewer, "I think we're done now." The film ends with a vortex screaming to be filled with what John feels about those comments today.
The same day Forbidden Games screened in London, Gone to Pot – a new reality show where celebrities smoke weed for the first time, featuring Pam St Clement, Christopher Biggins and John Fashanu – was shown for the first time too. John couldn't make himself available to speak to VICE for this piece. Life goes on, I guess. Except for those for which it doesn't.
The question "why hasn't another footballer come out as gay?" is asked often. As an answer to that question, Forbidden Games excels.