On Wednesday, Justin Fashanu was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame, on what would have been his 59th birthday.
It’s 22 years now since Fashanu died, a couple of decades in which football has had to come to terms with the fact that this was a man who in life was let down, abused and cast aside by football, as a collective and an institution.
This news will not make up for that, but it’s better than doing nothing, better than refusing to acknowledge that the game could and should have done more to help a man who it simply didn’t understand. Or, perhaps more accurately, didn’t want to understand.
“He’s here now [in the Hall of Fame],” Amal Fashanu, Justin’s niece and filmmaker, told the BBC’s LGBT Sport podcast this week. “You guys have acknowledged him, we all respect him, he’s been given the position he deserves, and for me, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for Justin.
“I always thought he was a brave man, doing this to respect who he was – but as time passes, I’m thinking ‘wow’… we’re still waiting for a current footballer to say ‘this is who I am, and I’m going to follow in Justin’s footsteps and I’m going to be real about my sexuality and who I am so I can live the best life I possibly can’.”
It’s really nobody’s business why no current, top-level male player has come out, but it’s not difficult to see why they might not be keen to. While the climate today in the men’s game is hopefully more welcoming than when Fashanu was playing, the chants routinely aimed at Chelsea fans were just this week’s example of the prejudice that still exists. The encouraging thing is that clubs and institutions seem much keener to both speak out strongly and offer tangible action, as Chelsea did following their game against Manchester United.
But despite all of this, Fashanu’s career was essentially one long cautionary tale about how English football failed to care for the one man who was open about his sexuality.
?️? Remembering Justin Fashanu ?️? pic.twitter.com/KXKCnVWX67
— Norwich City FC (@NorwichCityFC) February 16, 2020
It’s a story that is relatively well-known, but it is one worth retelling, about how Fashanu was treated by Brian Clough after Nottingham Forest signed him in 1981. Clough took against Fashanu from the start: the 20-year-old’s dress sense and, among other things, an insistence that he used his own towels rather than club-issue ones had already made the manager unsure about his purchase, and then rumours that Fashanu had been frequenting gay bars in Nottingham reached Clough.
It’s worth emphasising that the following is not half-remembered hearsay, a tale that has grown legs in the course of time, but rather a proudly and even smugly told one from Clough’s autobiography.
Clough wrote that visiting those bars ‘didn’t bother me too much’ and that it was more Fashanu’s ‘shiftiness, combined with an articulate image that impressed the impressionable’ that made it difficult for him to be accepted as ‘one of us.’ The claim that Clough was fine with Fashanu’s homosexuality was undermined rather by what came next.
Clough wrote: ’I called him in and put him to the test. ‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club in town?’
That would have been written in 1994, 12 years after the incident. A couple of years later, writing in the News of the World, Clough wrote: ‘When I was in my prime at Nottingham Forest, I was a law unto myself. I whacked more than a few of my players. I hit them – and I don’t mean verbally or financially. Justin Fashanu got it from me more than once – just for being who and what he was.’ Around the same time he appeared on an ITV show called ‘Sport In Question’ on which, as Jonathan Wilson recalls in his biography of Clough, he said ‘with a knowing glance to the audience’ that it “took me about three months to twig him, but I twigged him.”
This was just one of the many examples of how football mistreated Fashanu. Suspicions about his character were more often than not rank homophobia. That it was a ‘different time’ doesn’t really fly, given how vicious some of his treatment was.
Fashanu himself left, to say the least, a complicated legacy. Most seriously, the details of the sexual assault allegations that had been made against him when he died in 1998, recounted in Jim Read’s biography of Fashanu but allegations that he denied, make for extremely uncomfortable reading, at best.
But this is about more than just Fashanu. His honouring this week is a further recognition that the game was not only abysmal to Fashanu personally, but by extension abysmal to an entire community. Things may be better now, but it still feels like this was a necessary step towards improving things even further.
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