The word legend is tossed around very freely in football these days. Of course, some players rightfully hold legendary status. What really makes a legend in the game of football?
Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and George Best. Just some names in a long list of legends who earned that status with their gifted natural ability. There are other ways to be classed as a legend in our beautiful game. Becoming a pioneer and showing true bravery is more commendable than gifted abilities. Being who you are even when society will wrongly persecute you for it.
This is what the late great Justin Fashanu did. Fashanu was as our title says a true trailblazer. Justin was the first openly gay professional footballer. Along with becoming the first black footballer to make a £1 million transfer during his lengthy career. A career that lasted 19 years and spanned into three different decades from 1978 to 1997.
Early Life and Career
Justin was a product of the Norwich City academy. He signed his first professional contract with the Canaries in 1978 aged 17.
It was a first step away from a tough childhood. Justin and his brother John were sons to African parents who were high members of society in England. His brother John also became a well-known professional footballer and television personality. Most known for his time with Wimbledon and their infamous crazy gang who won the 1988 FA Cup.
After their parents split up both Justin and John were sent to a Barnardo’s home. With both boys been adopted by Alf and Betty Jackson at the age of six.
By the age of 18 Justin was a regular in the Norwich side. He even won Goal of the Season in 1980 for his cracking volley against Liverpool. If you haven’t seen it YouTube is your friend. You won’t be disappointed. Norwich fans still hail it as one of the best goals to ever be scored at their home of Carrow Road.
Norwich City were relegated at the end of the 1980/81 old First Division season. Justin scored an impressive 19 goals that season. This was the catalyst for his big £1 million move to Nottingham Forrest in 1981. Justin joined the two-time European Champions to play under Brian Clough.
This was really the height of the career of the big centre forward. From 1982 until 1997 he bounced around a lot of clubs. He had a career total of 22 clubs. He played football in England. Australia, America, Canada, Scotland, Sweden and New Zealand.
Justin would be known most for his time at Norwich City. Even since the return of this seasons Premier League the club have paid tribute to Justin. Have a look behind the goal on in the Norwich & Peterborough Stand next time you’re watching a Norwich match. You will see a big flag covering the empty seats with Fashanu 9 on it.
Ahead Of His Time
It seemed like Fashanu had it all as a player. Unfortunately, his career never panned out. He never won any silverware or was even capped for England at senior level.
That famous Nottingham Forrest move turned out to be a disaster. Look I know Brian Clough is a legendary manager but honestly to keep things PG lets just call him a real piece of work. He wasn’t the only one at the time. Homophobia and racism were commonplace in the 80s. Honestly sadly still are if recent events are to go by in the world.
Clough heard rumours of Fashanu attending gay bars in his down time which is his right to do. Clough would even bar Fashanu from training with the first team. Justin was quickly shipped out of Forrest starting his spell of bouncing from club to club.
Its reported that a lot of people knew Justin was gay before he publicly came out. Even before he came out there was an unwillingness to accept his sexuality.
This even spread into his own family. His own brother John was even against Justin publicly coming out as gay. John has even said that he offered Justin £75, 000 to keep his sexuality to himself. John has said in the past that he begged and threatened Justin to not go public. Saying that he didn’t want the embarrassment to him or his family. John would even say in later life that Justin wasn’t even gay. That it was all for attention.
John has talked about his deep regret about these comments in later life. He has admitted he is more educated and is in a different place in his mind now.
Despite everyone telling Justin to keep quite bravely he didn’t. Justin agreed to sell his story to The Sun newspaper. That’s how Justin publicly announced he was gay. On the 22nd of October 1990, The Sun ran the headline “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.”
This was during a year Justin was still very active as a footballer. He played for three clubs in 1990.
Justin knew that he was now in the firing line in football stadiums. He understood that football was full of narrow-minded people and that he will be “shot down in flames.”
Justin did have supporters during the 90s after he went public. BBC opened their poll to email votes for the Sports Personality of the Year in 1996. A campaign was organised by students to attempt to win Justin the award. It really picked up some steam and his supporters were hopeful it could happen. However, the show’s producers excluded all of Justin’s votes from the final tally. Formula 1 driver Damon Hill won the award that year.
The late 90s would see the career of Justin Fashanu come to an end. He announced his retirement from professional football in 1997. He would take up a coaching role with Maryland Mania in America. They were a new second division USL A-League club at the time.
It was in Maryland where more downfall sadly came to Justin. In 1998 he was accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old. The incident allegedly took place in Justin’s apartment in Ellicott City, Maryland. Justin was questioned by the police but was not held into custody.
Shortly after the police did go to Justin’s apartment with a warrant for his arrest. At this stage Justin had already returned home to England. However, this wasn’t an admission of guilt. Homosexual acts were illegal in the state of Maryland in 1998. Due to this Justin felt he wouldn’t get a fair trail because of his sexuality.
Tragically it all became to much for Justin. He was found hanging in an empty car garage he had broken into in London. In a suicide note Justin denied all allegations against him and said the act was consensual. He said he fled because he had already been assumed as guilty. The whole suicide note makes for heart breaking reading.
Extremely sad end to the life of Justin Fashanu. He was only 37 years old at the time of his death.
This year marks 30 years since Justin publicly announced he was gay. To this very day he is still only football player in the English game to do so. Other high-profile players like Thomas Hitzlsperger have come out since but have been retired at the time.
Just came out during a time when football hooliganism was at its height.
Justin was a true inspiration in the world of football and beyond. He was a true trailblazer in more than one aspect.
His name still lives on in his legacy. The Justin Fashanu Foundation was set up by his niece Amal daughter of John. John himself now works with his daughter as a trustee. The foundation works to confront prejudice within football.
This year Justin was also added into the National Football Museums Hall of Fame. His contributions to the game were recognised with a ceremony at the Museum in Manchester back in February. His niece Amal accepted the award on the day that would have been her uncles 59th birthday.
The story of Justin Fashanu is a sad one. Someone who just wanted to be accepted for who he was. It also shines a light on the ridiculous nature of sexuality in football. Its 2020 and its still seen as incredibly difficult for footballers to come out. You would like to think that if someone were to, they would have it easier than Justin. Honestly its hard to tell as hate is still a huge factor in the game we love.
It really shouldn’t matter how footballers choose to live their personal lives. We wouldn’t like to go into work to have people shout abuse at us for how we live our life. For someone that loves the game of football it can be a huge source of frustration sometimes.
Justin was a hero in our game. He attempted to break down barriers and he can’t be commended enough for it. A talent on the pitch and by all accounts the fun life of the party off it. He truly is a trailblazer and it would be amazing to see someone step up, be brave and try shatter horrible attitudes in football like Justin.