Black Gay & Brilliant

When I came up with the idea to create the Nottingham Sport website a lot of it was to do with ‘equality’ and giving a platform for all our great sporting teams and athletes to have more deserved limelight for their contribution to sport in this great county of Nottinghamshire.

Ignored down to popularism, I wanted to cover some sports, some teams, some athletes that wouldn’t usually get their deserved mention, despite them being every bit as good at the top of their profession, as say those in more popular public domain that we have regularly ‘heard of’ and ‘know about’ through mainstream media.

I suppose in a way, fighting for a voice, those often seemed irrelevant, different, non-routine or outside the norm in a world that often tells us what we can and can’t do, to the degree these days (during lockdown) where we aren’t even aloud outside of our houses without reasonable excuse.

The biggest self-inflicted and deliberate ignorance of mine was to keep this website away from politics, keep away from news that is not sport-related, by that I mean is not essentially and predominantly focused on what is done on a pitch, a court, a track, or similar… Take sex, take gender, take religion, take race, throw it out of the door, it is all irrelevant, because none of it is sport.

But sport has the incredible power to unify. It can unify cultures, languages, religions, race, even politics, it doesn’t matter in action if a participant is gay, straight, bi, tory or labour, all they are judged on is performance, and that is important, but my original ignorance failed to consider the bigger perspective, how one plays is not necessarily how one feels… Just because someone comes across trouble free or happy, on the pitch or playground where they can focus solely on doing what they do best, it doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering in silence, off it, their lives completely different to how we portray?

Justin Fashanu is a footballer that first springs to mind when comparing a modern-day athlete with underlying mental health issues that devastatingly and sadly resulted in taking his own life, often not known beyond the four walls of what is going off in one’s own head, it has only recently become more and more important to talk about things, open up, and discuss the emotional aspects for an athlete, and other, as the mental health and wellbeing are every much as important to get right, as performance is when playing through matchday.

Fashanu was a much-troubled human-being, growing up in the 1980’s where racism, sexism and homophobia was very apparent, a London born son of a Nigerian Barrister who’s mother abandoned him as a child, was the first black footballer to be sold for £1m when Brian Clough signed him from Norwich City.

A talented striker, six foot plus, leggy, ungainly, awkward, yes, but with subtle touches that made him ‘different’ from the usual fifteen stone battering ram type target-man number nine that was laid out in most managers starting XI’s each week.

The goal of the season in 1980, still played to this day, against champions Liverpool wearing Canary yellow at Carrow Road, flicking up the ball to turn Phil Neal on the edge of the area and smash home on the volley left footed past Ray Clemence. In celebration he walked off one arm raised in the air, like he does that kind of thing in training all the time…. Because he did that kind of thing in training all the time.

At Nottingham Forest he came with reputation as a future England star, but things didn’t go so well on the pitch. Fashanu in his early twenties, had settled into a new city and a new way of life, he became familiar with the Nottingham night scene and his Manager didn’t like it… Clough once saying to him “Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?” ‘A bakers, I suppose’ was Fashanu’s response. “Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?” said Clough… ‘A butchers’ Fashanu replied… “So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?” questioned Clough.

Perhaps Clough, in an era that perhaps was not then ready or used to the world’s evolution, needed educating himself? Perhaps Clough as his Manager, had he understood what Fashanu was going through as a young man, could have rescued the players own career, perhaps he would still be alive today had it had been a shoulder to cry on and an arm around him instead of nothing more than 1980’s white-male ignorance? But Clough was not at fault for not knowing, the system was at fault, people will say ‘it was better back then’ but today thanks to people like Justin Fashanu, people have now been given opportunity to be who they want to be. I think that is much better than once how it was. Fashanu without knowing, helped do that.

Fashanu didn’t come out as ‘gay’ until later in his football career. It may have been public knowledge, but those within the walls of his changing room simply respected him for the player he was. None more so than at Notts County. A hero to many Magpies fans too, he scored 20 league goals in 64 games after joining from Forest in December 1982 where he scored just 3 in 32. Fashanu had been sold by Clough for £150,000 little more than a year after he had bought him for a million. This after loaning him to Southampton where he did very well. Fashanu in the end took a pay cut of 50% to join up with Jimmy Sirrel on £400 per week and the player more than paid back that faith by scoring winning goals against Arsenal and Manchester City, by twice scoring in a 3-2 FA Cup win against Leicester. Notts in the top flight of English football would finish fifteenth for a second season in a row, five points above the drop zone, Fashanu netting 7 in 15 playing a major part in helping the side stay up.

Fashanu’s talent and eye for goal sadly couldn’t halt Notts suffering back-to-back relegations as they dropped from First Division to Third in two successive years but a £115,000 move to Brighton & Hove Albion in 1985 ensured the club wouldn’t be out of pocket for their initial investment, for having faith in a footballer’s ability above all, regardless of what irrelevantly went off away from the pitch. County were repaid by a player who often did them well on it.

Sadly, the career of Justin Fashanu never really got going after that. Spells in USA, Canada, Scotland, Sweden, sandwiched short stints at Manchester City, West Ham and Newcastle United amongst others, he ended his career in New Zealand before moving back to America which he frequented as home.

After being charged with sexual assault he fled back to England in 1998 before taking his own life aged just 37, a letter saying that the sex he had was consensual, by then it was too late.

Today, February 19th 2021, would have been Fashanu’s 60th birthday. A day we should be celebrating with him alive and well, after a fantastic career with many goals along the way, but for a man that through no fault of his own, who pushed aside boundaries and routine to do what he wanted to do. For a man who should be commended, rightfully in the football hall of fame, for providing inspiration for gay men, black men, and all men and women that want to follow their aspirations, we instead remember sadly a true great, that via his own turmoil and sufferings, has laid down the foundations for the future to prosper, which in some ways is much more than significant in being just another bloody good footballer.

Fashanu’s legacy, will always be the first!

*Article provided by Daniel Peacock (Editor).

*Main image @PON-NCC Justin Fashanu in Notts County colours.

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