The late Justin Fashanu became the first £1million black footballer following his move from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest in 1981. He also remains to this day the only openly gay footballer to have played professionally in the UK. To honour his impact, Justin was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame last season where his niece Amal, who founded the Justin Fashanu Foundation and very much a trailblazer in her own right, picked up the posthumous award on his behalf.
Amal, it must have been both a proud and emotional moment to see Justin inducted into the Hall of Fame… It warmed my heart to see him being honoured in this way. I think Justin’s recognition has been long overdue, given he was this country’s first black £1million footballer and the first to come out as gay, which would have been an incredibly difficult thing to do back in 1990. Recognition like this keeps his legacy alive for the generations that have followed, who may not know too much about both the footballer and the man.
Here was a footballer who decided to go public with his sexuality in a national newspaper. How tough would that have been?
It was a far less tolerant and educated society back then, so it would have taken so much bravery and courage – but that was a mark of the man. When I read up on the climate that existed, people would have thought he was crazy to go through with it, but he did so in the most public of ways, knowing full well what the reaction would have been, both on and off the pitch.
Obviously, you were too young to have known about Justin’s life at that time, so when did you become more aware of who he was?
I remember when I was very, very young, I would stay with my dad [ex-footballer John Fashanu] at weekends and vividly remember him getting very angry and upset when he overheard a radio interview in which the presenter was saying Justin was gay. He really was having a moment so when I returned to my mum I mentioned it to her. She said she would explain when I was older but now was not the time. We eventually had that conversation and around 2010 I started looking more into Justin’s past and the effect it had both on him and our family. From those lectures came the documentary I made on Britain’s Gay Footballers for the BBC; and from that, both Football v Homophobia and the Justin Campaign evolved. I then set up the Justin Fashanu Foundation with my father.
Tell us more about the foundation…
It focuses on three fundamental issues: mental health, homophobia and racism, which all affected Justin in his life. Through education, we challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist in football both on and off the pitch. The Justin Fashanu Foundation, by confronting received opinions at an early age, aims to undermine misconceptions before they harden into prejudice.
‘With age has come maturity and he is far more sensitive to the situation now. He regrets how he spoke back in the day and I know if Justin was still with us now and decided to come out, my dad would be very supportive’
You mention your dad being angry when his brother was spoken about as being gay. Has his attitude changed?
Yes, 200 per cent. With age has come maturity and he is far more sensitive to the situation now. He regrets how he spoke back in the day and I know if Justin was still with us now and decided to come out, my dad would be very supportive. He has six kids of his own so I think that has changed him too. He is far more mellow than the guy we all saw on the football pitch back in his ‘Crazy Gang’ days at Wimbledon.
Justin tragically took his life in 1998, aged just 37. He would have found himself in a very lonely world back then…
Unlike today, there would have been no support system around him whatsoever. He would have received no help from his family, no help from his religion, there was no father to speak to or close friends to confide in. He was very much alone and having to deal with mental health issues along with his sexuality was clearly a heavy burden on him. When you also look at his youth, brought up by a foster family in Norfolk, where he and John were the only black kids, then to have broken into football, where fame and fortune came very quickly, it was all a recipe for disaster.
It’s been a year we’ll never forget – where do you think we are in light of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement?
A lot of it has been incredibly positive and change has been pushed forward, but the subsequent rioting and looting, especially in the US, put a bit of a dampener on what the BLM movement was supposed to be about. I do feel a lot of people who were super-pro the movement at the start, even if they weren’t black, are now more passive and being passive doesn’t push us forward. We need to keep the movement active at the forefront of our minds, and so it’s great to see footballers taking the knee and a sportsman like Lewis Hamilton being so proactive, as it is a problem that’s not going to go away unless we tackle it together.
‘Given the number of black players in the game, it’s awfully concerning to see so few taking that next step. My dad should have gone into a management position but he always said he wouldn’t be given a fair hearing. It’s a very white, male-dominated environment’
We need to see more black coaches, managers and figures in administrative positions. From what you’re hearing and seeing, do you think that will happen?
I’m hopeful those in positions of power are now addressing the situation but we’ll have to see what develops. It’s not something that I feel is going to change overnight. Given the number of black players in the game, it’s awfully concerning to see so few taking that next step. My dad should have gone into a management position but he always said he wouldn’t be given a fair hearing. It’s a very white, male-dominated environment and even as a top-level footballer, TV presenter and businessman at the time, he felt it was near impossible. If a white player had his credentials, then I’m 100 per cent certain they would have walked into a job.
Are you encouraged to see black players now using their voices through social media?
The likes of Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose, Marcus Rashford, who are clever enough to know what’s happening, who knows what’s wrong, will stand up, but there are still lots of black players who see racism as banter and a part of football. They’re of the opinion you just have to be hardcore, be a man and deal with it. That passiveness needs to be addressed. If a black person is being semi-passive and not really dealing with the situation then why would a white person? Many people see it that way.
Have you suffered much racism in your life?
I grew up in Madrid and have been to so many Real Madrid games where there has been a racial slur. You’ll be abused if you’re black if you’re different, and off the pitch, there have been many occasions where passive racism exists – which for me is the worst kind of racism. At least if you’re racist and you say it to my face, that’s fair enough, that’s your messed up view, but it’s the unconscious racism, which happens a lot of the time in Spain, and in England for that matter, where people are being racist and they can’t even recognise it. It’s that underlying racism that is ingrained into the culture of a country.
As you mentioned, your foundation also focuses on mental health. Have you been busy since the pandemic broke out?
The calls we received certainly increased during lockdown and the foundation has been doing some incredible work. We’ve had a lot of Zoom conversations with players and we’ve also appointed three Norwich City academy players as ambassadors for our mental health section, so we’re happy to start working with clubs now. Mental health is something that – like homosexuality – is hidden in football circles. Players simply don’t want to talk about it but our foundation is one of the biggest outlets for players to come and open up if they have issues. I have the skills and the experience to help them, to assess them, or to point them in the right direction. The foundation also supported two gay Premier League footballers who sent open letters to The Sun newspaper to talk of their anguish.
‘I think we’re getting closer and the more we speak about it, the more it normalises the situation. I think what’s holding back the first player to come out is an anxiety of the unknown, which is why I’m making another documentary’
Do you feel we’re far from the first player since Justin to come out?
I think we’re getting closer and the more we speak about it, the more it normalises the situation. I think what’s holding back the first player to come out is an anxiety of the unknown, which is why I’m making another documentary, where I want to create a roadmap, so players know what’s going to follow if they do come out. They’ll first speak to a psychologist, then the PFA and the governing bodies, who would then make communication with the player’s club and so on – a real support structure in place. The letters in The Sun certainly helped those involved gauge a reaction without putting them in the crossfire, and the comments and reactions were, on the whole, very positive.
If Justin was here now, would he feel we’ve made progress in terms of racism, homophobia and mental health?
Justin was a very kind, gentle soul and not judgemental, so he would just encourage people to be who they are and to be free and happy. I don’t think he would feel disappointed that there hasn’t been another gay footballer come out – but he’d be very proud that he was brave enough to do it. He would be happy for me and what I’ve done to help people; the fact that I’m speaking to players about their sexuality, mental health and race would mean a lot to him.
It’s also important that we celebrate Justin the footballer, too, given the joy he gave to so many people, right?
Absolutely! Last season, the Norwich City fans celebrated the 40th anniversary of his Match of the Day Goal of the Season against Liverpool – one of the best goals scored in British football history – with a wonderful banner, which was truly humbling. You don’t become a £1million footballer unless you are a special, special talent and he certainly was that. He was an extrovert; a wonderful dancer and singer as well as a super-talented footballer – he always pushed the boundaries in everything he did and I’m proud of everything he achieved in his life.