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24 September 2014
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Justin Fashanu

Justin Fashanu - openly gay footballer.

Gay footballers

It's the national game but it is a sport which has a bad reputation for tolerance. Football started to tackle racism when black players became stars. But why is being gay still a taboo on the football field?

Ten years after his suicide, Justin Fashanu is still the only professional footballer in the world to admit he was gay.

Homosexuality remains something that professional footballers rarely talk about, let alone admit to.

Justin Fashanu c/o PA Images

Fashanu endured abuse after coming out.

Fashanu's harsh treatment by fans and colleagues in the 1980's continues to act as a disincentive to footballers thinking about 'coming out'.

Despite homo-erotic adverts featuring footballers portraying their bodies and masculinity, football is still obsessed with portraying a macho image.  

We look back at the story of Justin Fashanu and see if attitudes towards homosexuality are changing.

Coming out

One of Justin Fashanu's former managers is Howard Wilkinson.

He was the last Englishman to win the title in the top division and is now Chairman of the League Managers' Association.

He says statistically it cannot be the case that Fashanu is the only gay footballer.

Howard Wilkinson c/o PA Images

Howard Wilkinson - more gay footballers?

Gay Rights Activist Peter Tatchell, who was a friend of Justin's in the 1980's, says it is remarkable that he is the first and only footballer to admit he was gay.

He was also the first and only black figure in society to do so.

However, Justin's controversial agent, Eric Hall, reckons there are no more gay, professional footballers and doesn't believe there ever will be.

He says football and being gay don't mix.

Gay Football League

Inside Out visited the the national Gay Friendly Football League.

Players say they felt isolated and found it hard to be themselves in "straight" teams.

A good player can get by but an ordinary player would struggle.

Football match

Coming out - a tough time on the pitch?

And perhaps the story of Justin Fashanu and what happened to him is one reason why no other player has come out.

When the teenage Fashanu signed for Norwich City at the end of the 1970's he was different because he was black.

A wonder goal against Liverpool which won the goal of the season on the BBC's 'Match of the Day' led him to become the first £1m black player when he was signed by Brian Clough for Nottingham Forest.

But at Forest, Justin's career nose dived.

He couldn't cope with what his friend Peter Tatchell calls 'Brian Clough's homophobic verbal attacks' once he found out he was regularly visiting a gay night club.

His form suffered. Clough banned him from the training ground and then sold him for £100,000 to local rivals Notts County.

Regrets and revelations

Later Clough would express regret about how he treated Justin Fashanu - effectively it had destroyed him as a player.

Brian Clough believed that he shouldn't have confronted him about his sexuality in public.

Brian Clough

Brian Clough - regrets over Fashanu.

For a brief time at County, Justin's career picked up. He scored regularly in a struggling side under Howard Wilkinson.

Injury then blighted his career and he played for a whole series of clubs.

He fell out of the limelight in football but made the headlines in another way.

Justin Fashanu

Born Justinus Soni Fashanu in Hackney, London on February 19, 1961. Sent to Barnardo's home as child after this parents split up.

Justin and brother John were fostered by Alf and Betty Jackson in Norfolk as young boys.

Started his career as an apprentice with Norwich City, turning professional in December 1978.

Made his league debut in January, 1979 against West Bromwich Albion.

Played for several clubs between 1978 and 1997 including Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Notts County, Manchester City, West Ham, Orient and Hearts.

Won the BBC Goal of the Season award in 1980 for his goal against Liverpool.

Became Britain's first £1m black footballer in 1981 with his transfer to Nottingham Forest.

Played abroad for Los Angeles Heat, Edmonton Brickmen, Toronto Blizzard and Trelleborg.

Became the first well-known footballer to declare himself publicly as gay in 1990. The Sun ran an exclusive with the headline - "£1m Soccer Star: I AM GAY".

When working in the States was accused of alleged sexual assault, but the case was eventually dropped.

Died May 2, 1998. His suicide note said: "I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family... I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me, I will at last find peace."

Fearing he was about to be outed by a Sunday paper, he and his agent sold The Sun the story that he was gay

The story caused a huge upset with his family and friends.

In the newspaper Fashanu also made even more outrageous claims about relationships with politicians before leaving for America to train others to play football.

It was later found that these claims had been made up.

While in the States Fashanu became embroiled in an accusation of a sexual assault on a young man.

He came home and went to a monastery in Leicestershire. Then Justin visited a sauna in London's East End.

Finally, he went to a lock up garage where he hanged himself.

Eric Hall, Howard Wilkinson, and Peter Tatchell all say they find it hard to accept that Justin killed himself.

"He didn't strike me as that kind of person," said Wilkinson.

BBC Radio Nottingham match reporter Colin Slater who interviewed Justin as a player sums the sad story up by saying:

"The tragedy is Justin Fashanu will be remembered for two things. That he was gay and that he hanged himself. Not for his unquestionable talent as a footballer."

Kicking out homophobia

Fashanu's tragic suicide was 10 years ago.

So how has football moved on in terms of gay players?

The Gay Friendly League now has Football Association backing, and
some of its players are working with clubs to back a campaign to drive homophobia out of grounds.

But it's still the case that there are still no openly gay footballers, and homosexuality remains one of the game's enduring taboos.

last updated: 25/04/2008 at 10:52
created: 24/04/2008

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