How Norwich City star Justin Fashanu fought racism and homophobia on and off the pitch
Justin Fashanu was the first English Black footballer to demand a £1 million fee for a football club trade and he was the first openly gay player in English history.
To this day, thirty-one years later, he is still the only one to have done so.
Justin Fashanu was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2020 on what would have been his 59th birthday.
He is one of the most inspirational and talented players of the late 20th century in England, and his impression on football is still felt today.
Fashanu was originally born in inner-city London in the 1960s but was adopted with his brother John by a Norfolk couple and was raised in the small village of Shropham, near Attleborough.
Growing up on the poverty line his whole life, it was in Norfolk that his life began to look up and football soon became a daily part of his life.
Both brothers were very talented apprentices at Norwich City Football Club. It wasn’t long before they had signed contracts to the club in 1978, when Justin was only 17.
As a footballer, Fashanu was ground-breaking.
Against Liverpool in 1980, Justin Fashanu received the BBC Goal of Season award for a technically sublime left-foot volley that rocketed into the far corner.
That goal is still considered one of the best ever scored at Carrow Road.
He bagged 19 goals in the 1980/81 campaign and, by the end of 1981, he was signed with Nottingham Forest with a £1 million fee on his demand, making him Britain’s first black million-pound footballer.
He went on to play for West Ham United and Manchester City among others, as well as spending time in America.
The first openly gay player
Although Fashanu was not publicly out, it is well known that the teammates of his early football career were aware of his sexuality.
Once he signed with Nottingham Forest, tensions arose with his manager, Brian Clough, who reportedly disapproved of Fashanu’s sexuality.
Before long, he was loaned out to Southampton.
Even his brother and former England Football Player, John, admitted in later years to offering Justin £75,000 to keep his sexuality to himself.
His brother told the Daily Mirror: “I begged him, I threatened him, I did everything I could possibly do to try and stop him coming out.
“I gave him the money because I didn’t want the embarrassment for me or my family. Had he come out now, it would be a different ball game.”
After a tabloid threatened to ‘out’ him, on October 22, 1990, he told the world the truth in an interview with The Sun, which ran with the headline: “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.”
The backlash to The Sun interview inevitably reached football stadiums where he was often the victim of homophobic chants and abuse.
He was faced with two levels of abuse, racism and homophobia, and his career never fully recovered.
‘I had already been presumed guilty’
In 1998, while spending time in the United States, a 17-year-old boy in Maryland accused Justin of sexual assault.
After being questioned by a detective about the event, Fashanu fled to London.
On 2 May 1998 at the age of 37, Fashanu’s body was found in a garage in east London with a suicide note.
It read: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends or family.”
“I want to die rather than put my friends and family through anymore unhappiness.”
It is a tragic end to the life of a man who was an inspiration to so many. He paved the way for British black footballers and was a figurehead in the fight for gay rights.
On top of all of that, he was one hell of a player.