Justin Fashanu: Britain's first out gay footballer remembered on his birthday

In Football v Homophobia's month of action, those who knew and admired Justin Fashanu keep his memory alive. Former Leyton Orient boss Frank Clark and the striker's friend Alan Quick recall a charismatic character, who continues to inspire artist Colin Yates

Ups and Downs, 1998 (image courtesy of Colin Yates)
Image: Artist Colin Yates' first Justin Fashanu portrait was 'Ups and Downs', completed in 1998, the year the footballer died

"I wanted to capture a motif for his life," says Colin Yates, reflecting on the first portrait he made of Justin Fashanu. "I thought this was the best way to represent him."

'Ups and Downs', with its theme of snakes and ladders, is a metaphor for the turbulent, peripatetic life of one of British football's most mythic figures, who would have celebrated his 58th birthday on Tuesday.

Yates is among those helping to keep Fashanu's memory alive at this time of year, with February the designated month of action for Football v Homophobia, known as The Justin Campaign when it was founded in 2008. Clubs including Manchester City (for whom the striker played briefly in 1989), Tottenham, Charlton, Exeter and Altrincham have all marked FvH in various ways in recent weeks. For those who knew Fashanu personally, and also for those who appreciate its significance, February 19 is a date to reflect on his unique legacy.

Yates has recently been exhibiting a new collection of his Fashanu artwork at Coventry's Blue Door Gallery, with plans now afoot to bring the show to London, supported by the PFA. Last year, the artist's 'Black Looks' collection, which also featured Fashanu in a series of portraits of black professional footballers, was given a retrospective at the National Football Museum in Manchester. As the game encounters fresh, high-profile incidents of racism and homophobia - forms of discrimination that afflicted Fashanu throughout his life - Yates' art continues to spark important conversations for all age groups.

A companion piece made 20 years on from 'Ups and Downs', the print 'Whodunnit?' is a comment on the characters Fashanu represented - the sportsman, the star, the true self - and how each was in the frame after his body was discovered in a Shoreditch garage one Sunday morning in May 1998. "I wanted to create a new version," says Yates. "I re-read all the information, and you think, 'why did he come to that tragic end? Why did it happen?'"

Whodunnit, 2019 (image courtesy of Colin Yates)
Image: 'Whodunnit' is the most recent addition to Yates' Justin Fashanu collection

A happy boy, a successful footballer, a confident celebrity - each persona had a complex backstory. "I think being put in care was a horrendous thing for Justin, and something he kept coming back to," explains Yates. "He couldn't quite come to terms with his mother putting him and John into care." The London-born brothers became Barnardo's boys, fostered from the ages of six and five respectively by a couple living in a Norfolk village. "The importance of that when you're young is crucial, let's face it."

Justin was not yet 18 when he made his Norwich City league debut, but his impact over two-and-a-half seasons - 40 goals in 103 senior games - means those days are much cherished by Canaries fans. Fashanu's record-breaking £1m transfer in August 1981 to Nottingham Forest, who after winning back-to-back European Cups had slipped behind Liverpool and Aston Villa in English football's pecking order, was a logical next step up the ladder. However, the rising star's progress was soon halted as he found himself in difficulty, the young Fashanu landing on the first of many snakes on football's gameboard.

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Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu poses before kick off at a game at Carrow Road, circa 1981
Image: Fashanu rose to fame at Norwich before becoming Britain's first £1m black footballer when he moved to Nottingham Forest in August 1981

Frank Clark was an admirer of the young forward at the time, but before the big-money deal went through, he expressed his doubts over whether Fashanu and Forest were actually a good fit. In his new autobiography 'Black & White And Red All Over', written with Terry Bowles, Clark - part of the Brian Clough team that had beaten Malmo in the 1979 European Cup final in Munich - recalls offering his assessment of the suitability of Fashanu to Clough's assistant Peter Taylor, only to be given short shrift.

Clark had been working as assistant manager under Ken Knighton at Sunderland, and witnessed defender Rob Hindmarch mark Fashanu out of the game in a 3-0 win at Roker Park in the First Division in January 1981. The Black Cats stayed up that season; Norwich went down.

"Justin was in his prime then," Clark tells Sky Sports. "Physicality was really important to his game. He was big, strong, quite athletic, and would knock people about. He was a right handful.

I Believe in Miracles World Film Premiere - The City Ground - Nottingham. Former Nottingham Forest footballer, Frank Clark, poses for photographs on the red carpet. 11 October 2015
Image: Frank Clark's new autobiography features memories of Fashanu from his time with Forest, and later at Leyton Orient

"But Rob was a rough, tough centre-back and really stood up to Justin that day. He didn't chuck it in, but I just felt Justin kept away from Rob a little bit, which put a question in my mind about him playing at the highest level.

"A few months later I was briefly back at Forest as reserve-team coach, and bumped into Peter one day when the newspapers were full of rumours about them buying Justin. I thought 'shall I say something, or shall I not?' I plucked up the courage, and told him what had happened that day at Sunderland - and Peter was very dismissive. He told me to mind my own business, and make my mind up whether I wanted to be a coach or a scout! And that was the end of that."

Taylor and Brian Clough got their man, but almost from the beginning, it looked awkward between manager and player at the City Ground. "There were lots of issues between Justin and Brian," says Clark, who was reunited with Knighton at Leyton Orient within a matter of months. "Like most problems between managers and players, they come along when the player's not doing very well." The more Clough learned about his expensive new charge, particularly the nightclubs and bars he visited, the more he disliked him. Fashanu's confidence, cultivated in Norwich, was conspicuous by its absence in Nottingham.

Forest fans hoped Fashanu would find his goal touch, but instead he found God, adding another layer of complexity to his struggle to accept that he was gay. "As well as Clough's comments, Justin's religious beliefs must have made his life very difficult," says Yates. "There was the anomaly of him being a gay man, and the church saying you can't be." Clough shipped him out on loan to Southampton, then sold him to Notts County for a cut-price £150,000.

Interview (image courtesy of Colin Yates)
Image: 'Interview' (2018) is one of several charcoal portraits of Fashanu by Yates

It may have been the same city, but there were signs of the old Justin as he became a key part of the Magpies team under Larry Lloyd. Even the goals began to flow again towards the end of 1983. He scored twice late on at Old Trafford to rescue a 3-3 draw against Manchester United two days after Christmas. Yet any satisfaction from that performance was short-lived. Back in East Anglia on New Year's Eve, in a game at Ipswich, Fashanu sustained what would prove to be a career-derailing knee injury.

There was little good fortune left for him on football's version of snakes and ladders after that. Match fitness was hard to come by, goals even more so. Fashanu joined Brighton in 1985 but the knee injury worsened to the extent where he needed expert help if he was to continue playing at all. "I knew he'd gone to America to see this top surgeon out there with a big reputation," says Clark, "but then he dropped off my radar. When he came back, it was his agent Ambrose Mendy who contacted me."

Returning to England in late 1989, Fashanu had first pitched up at Manchester City in the First Division, before then trying his luck a level lower at West Ham. At each club, he made just two league appearances. A trial at Ipswich ensued, with Mendy then putting in a call to Clark, who was in his seventh season as Orient boss down in Division Three.

15 Aug 1993: Portrait of Nottingham Forest Manager Frank Clark. \ Mandatory Credit: Chris Cole/Allsport
Image: Clark and Orient's physio Billy Songhurst attempted to help Fashanu with his personal struggles

"Mendy was a well-known East End boxing promoter, and used to come along to O's games sometimes," recalls Clark. "He was trying to get into being a football agent and asked me if I'd consider giving Justin a chance.

"We had him on trial for a week or two, and he looked OK, although he'd lost the physicality that was such a big part of his game. You'd need to get the ball into his feet and pass it around, and we weren't good enough then to do that."

Clark wanted to help Fashanu get back on his feet, however, and there was considerable understanding and sensitivity to the 29-year-old's situation. "Justin hadn't come out by that time, although we knew he was gay and the players already knew, without actually speaking about it," says Clark. "Justin would be guarded and suspicious of people at first, understandably so. You could tell that there were issues that were troubling him.

"Billy Songhurst, our physio, would talk things through with him during rehabilitation on his knee. It was all OK with me and Billy, and the players were a good set of lads - it was very relaxed at Orient.

"They really got on very well with Justin. In fact, he became too popular, in that he was almost able to influence the way we wanted to play. He ended up playing five games but hadn't scored so after a couple of months, and purely as a football decision, we decided it wasn't working out. So we released him."

I felt sorry for 'Fash'. He was clearly a very troubled soul and Billy Songhurst and I spent a lot of time talking to him, trying to be helpful. He hadn't come out at that time as being gay and although we knew the score and so did our players, he was terrified about how people - and the media in particular - would react if he made it public. Interestingly, it never appeared to be a problem with our players. Quite the opposite, in fact, because he had a good influence in our dressing room while he was with us. But the predicament he was wrestling with was quite obviously messing with his life. I was very sad a few years later when I heard he'd committed suicide.
Frank Clark, writing in 'Black & White And Red All Over'

As for the prospect of one day coming out publicly, that was uncharted territory in every sense. In his autobiography, Clark writes that Fashanu was "terrified" about the potential reaction, particularly from the media. "There were no protocols in place in the game to deal with that. Nowadays, if a player were to come out, I do believe that the FA, the PFA, and the leagues would give a lot of support to the individual, whoever it might be.

"We would have supported him, obviously, but other than that, he'd have probably been left on his own. He was very troubled about that."

When the headline '£1m Soccer Star: I Am Gay' appeared on the front page of The Sun in October 1990, the story was a sensation. "The way it was reported and talked about probably justified the fear that Justin had about coming out," says Clark. "The temperature and the atmosphere around those things were different in the early 90s. Perhaps he'd have said 'I told you, I was right'.

"Billy tried to contact him a couple of times but we didn't have the means really."

Justin Fashanu memorabilia on display at the National Football Museum (picture courtesy of Alan Quick)
Image: Memorabilia of Justin Fashanu, including The Sun newspaper from 22 October 1990, on permanent display at the National Football Museum (picture courtesy of Alan Quick)

Fashanu's Faustian pact with the tabloids had begun years earlier. When he was still at Forest in 1982, aged 21, a Sunday People reporter had asked him about rumours surrounding his sexuality. His denial was put on the paper's front page under the banner headline 'I Am Not Gay'. Legal proceedings for defamation began, and the case was settled with Fashanu accepting substantial damages. Eight years later, the knee injury meant his career was limping from club to club, and by now accustomed to a certain level of celebrity, his personal life was a commodity he was finally willing to sell.

Truth was an inevitable casualty - Fashanu would claim to Gay Times the following summer that tall tales in the Sun article about affairs with unnamed Tory MPs and pop stars were largely untrue - but it was the ostracism that hurt him personally. Justin's brother John distanced himself as much as he could, and it appeared as if professional football in Britain felt the same way, as the offers dried up.

Yet there was to be a swansong of sorts, with happier times, and even hints of the old razzle-dazzle. When Fashanu pulled up in his Rolls Royce at Torquay United in November 1991, he brought a degree of faded glamour to the English Riviera, while also contributing 15 goals in 41 league appearances in the third and fourth tiers. Having come out, his stay in Devon was as close as he came to getting settled.

Justin Fashanu, Torquay United, 3 February 1993
Image: Fashanu would become assistant player-manager at Torquay United, before moving on again in 1993 when he missed out on the top job at Plainmoor

He would regularly attend the Tuesday gay club nights at Boxes in Exeter, where Alan Quick was the resident DJ, and they became firm friends. Quick has since amassed a large collection of Fashanu memorabilia, part of which is on permanent display at the National Football Museum. As an advocate for change, he has also brought the LGBT-inclusive messages of The Justin Campaign and Football v Homophobia to fans, clubs, county FAs and other organisations for well over a decade.

The Justin he knew was always smiling. "The press were hard to Justin over those years, but when you got to know him, it was a different story," says Quick.

"There was an adoration around him - you can imagine someone famous walking into a nightclub - but once it calmed down, he was just another person and could enjoy himself. That was the nice part about it. He'd ask for his favourite songs, and would feel comfortable and relaxed."

'A Deeper Love' by Clivilles and Cole was one of Fashanu's most requested anthems, empowering and defiant. The anti-gay Section 28 had been introduced just three years previously, while the country was still in the grip of the HIV / AIDS crisis - the day after Fashanu signed for Torquay, Freddie Mercury passed away. Gay life in Britain was underground.

Alan Quick with exhibit of Justin Fashanu memorabilia at the National Football Museum
Image: Alan Quick has helped keep Fashanu's memory alive through his collection of mementos

"When we talk about the club," says Quick, "we never even advertised it at the time. It was word of mouth only. Young people today probably don't realise what it was like.

"To keep Justin's memory alive is one way, I think, that we can be effective in showing how times are changing for the better. Really, he was an amazing footballer and a great guy, who happened to be gay, and who suffered a lot."

Quick, also a trustee of Exeter Pride, was at St James Park last Saturday for Exeter City's designated FvH fixture. What does he think Fashanu would have made of football's fight against homophobia today, with so many clubs and county FAs supporting? "I'm sure he would have been shocked and amazed that people are doing those sorts of activities and raising awareness in his name, but I think he'd have been really pleased too."

Like Quick, Clark believes a gay male professional player who shared their truth now would be met with acceptance. "I know the problems haven't gone away, but the game has shown a recognition in dealing with racism and homophobia. I do believe there's that protocol in place now for someone who wanted to come out, and that they'd get the full support of the industry."

Artist Colin Yates poses with his Justin Fashanu Triptych at the Black Looks exhibition at the National Football Museum in October 2018 - January 2019 (picture: footballfineart.com)
Image: Yates' 'Triptych' of Fashanu charcoal portraits were recently exhibited at the 'Black Looks' retrospective at the National Football Museum

The PFA's backing for Yates' exhibition suggests art and expression might be the best way to provide further education around Fashanu's story. Yates plans to develop the collection further, encouraged by the conversations that the prints and charcoal portraits kick off.

"I went to Shirley FC in Birmingham a few years back, and they suggested I put the 'Black Looks' exhibition on the terraces. There were youngsters playing in a tournament on the pitch, and they'd wander over to take a look. One of them, aged about 14, said to me, 'what does Justin Fashanu look like?' I could sense he thought Justin was going to be a sort of stereotype of a gay man.

"I showed him some photographs of Justin that I had with me. He was absolutely amazed. This man was a footballer, boxer, an amazing athlete - you could see the penny drop. Nobody made any daft comments or noises. They were all genuinely interested.

"You think back now - could it all have been avoided? Could somebody have helped him? For me, I look at all those different facets of who he was. It might be a fairly straightforward comment that I make, or it might be something darker and deeper.

"As an artist, you try and investigate all these avenues of how to make a portrait, to show Justin and his life."

For some, he's a football icon, and a gay icon. To others, he's a figure who's only sketched out. He wasn't appreciated in his time but with every year that passes, the need to understand his story accrues in value. Happy birthday, Justin Fashanu.

Norwich City's England U21 striker Justin Fashanu celebrates a victory over Chris Woods at a tennis court near  Zurich during the England Summer Tour of 1981

'Black & White And Red All Over', by Frank Clark with Terry Bowles, is available to buy now from www.frank-clark.co.uk.

Colin Yates' artwork of Justin Fashanu, his other football exhibitions and more projects can be seen at www.footballfineart.com.

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