In contemporary life homosexuality in football is thankfully much more accepted across the English leagues. However of course this wasn’t always the case; especially when Justin Fashanu ‘Britain’s first gay footballer’ announced his sexuality.
This feature focuses on Fashanu because the day of writing (Tuesday February 19th) would have been Fashanu’s 59th birthday, however the former Manchester City player sadly passed away in 1998, hanging himself in a locked garage amid the struggles and challenge of being gay.
Fashanu grew up in foster care alongside his elder brother John at the ages of six and five respectively, a decision made by his mother that Fashanu ‘couldn’t ever come to terms with’. The brothers were taken in by a couple in Norfolk, where Fashanu had a difficult upbringing and used football as an opportunity of escape.
Twelve years on, a seventeen-year-old Fashanu made his Norwich City debut as a striker for The Canaries, where over a season and a half he would appear in 103 senior games, scoring 40 goals. August 1981 eventually brought a massive £1 million transfer to an attractive Nottingham Forest side, or so it seemed.
Life became awkward between Fashanu and manager Brian Clough when the player entered a patch of poor form, with many questioning his lack of physical presence. A bad situation only got worse when Fashanu announced he was gay, which was met with a bad reaction. Clough eventually sold him to Notts County for a £850,000 loss, also irritated at the striker’s common visits to nightclubs and bars.
Fashanu’s form picked up for Notts, despite the difficulty of still being in the same city, however a game on New-Year’s eve against Ipswich would cause what would be a career damning knee injury.
From here Fashanu’s career only fell, with spells at Brighton, Manchester City, Tottenham and West Ham following, all of which were somewhat disappointing. As his career continued Fashanu eventually moved back to Leyton Orient, another of his previous clubs, at the age of 29. The main reason for this was manager Frank Clark, who had helped support the player throughout his career.
While at Orient, where he was comfortable and confident, Fashanu admitted he hid his sexuality for many years, terrified at the medias potential reaction when he announced he was gay. In 1990 The Sun released magazines of the gay footballer which could be perceived somewhat damaging. Fashanu eventually sued the organisation for defamation, an ordeal that deeply affected him.
This somewhat marked the end of his footballing days, his knee injury no longer allowing him to perform at anywhere near his highest level. Although, Fashanu’s up and down career still today helps pave the way for sportspeople of all sexualities to play sport and be successful. A true legend of the game.
Fashanu’s suicide in 1998 came as a huge shock, with his sexuality and playing career more appreciated and respected by many. This however still should prove a constant reminder that people’s sexualities and visions should always be respected, and most importantly if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, don’t hide your feelings.