Justin Fashanu: The first openly gay footballer and why he is now in the Hall of Fame

  • Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian. Video report by ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith

It has been 30 years since Justin Fashanu made headlines as the first professional footballer to come out in England.

To this day, he is still the only one.

His decision to come out publicly - in an era when even his own coach criticised him for attending gay clubs - has been an inspiration beyond the world of football.

But nearly a decade later, it ultimately came at a tragic price - Fashanu took his own life, writing in his suicide note that being gay and a personality "is so hard".

As the first black man to trade football clubs for a fee of £1 million, Fashanu is remembered by many to be a trailblazer in English football for more than one reason.

That's part of the reason he is the latest inductee to the National Football Museum's Hall of Fame on what would have been his 59th birthday.

What did Justin achieve in his career?

Justin Fashanu was a talented young striker. Credit: PA

A promising young striker, Fashanu impressed as part of the Norwich City academy and signed his first professional contract in December 1978, aged 17.

Within a month - and just before he turned 18 - he was made his first league appearance for Norwich and would establish himself as a regular in John Bond's side.

The young forward's eye for goals soon caught the attention of bigger clubs, with his stunning volley against Liverpool voted Goal of the Season in 1980.

That strike is still considered one of the best goals ever scored at Carrow Road, Norwich City's home ground.

A banner at Carrow Road on the 40th anniversary of Justin Fashanu's goal against Liverpool in February. Credit: PA

Despite plundering 19 league goals during the 1980/81 season, in his last year as a teenager, the Canaries were relegated at the end of the campaign and a new, much greater challenge was on the horizon for Fashanu.

Legendary manager Brian Clough was convinced enough in his talents that he parted with £1 million to sign Fashanu for recently-crowned two-time European champions Nottingham Forest.

But his big move would prove to be unfruitful for Fashanu, caused in part by his strained relationship with Clough, who reportedly held reservations around his sexuality and lifestyle.

He was soon frozen out despite the big-money fee and loaned out to Southampton, where he would score three times in nine games in 1982.

Justin Fashanu's time at Nottingham Forest was not enjoyable. Credit: PA

Tight finances on the south coast meant the deal could not be made permanent and Fashanu was shipped off to local rivals Notts County for around 10% of what Forest coughed up a year prior.

Fashanu managed to breathe life back into his career after a disastrous year at Forest, scoring regularly for County.

But he was powerless to stop the club from back-to-back relegations.

Fashanu would go on to appear for West Ham United and Manchester City, among others, after some time playing in the United States.

He was never capped for the senior England team.

What happened when he came out?

Justin Fashanu faced backlash for coming out. Credit: PA

A clearly talented player, Fashanu's career perhaps should have included more trophies, goals and England caps.

His potential was certainly curtailed by football's - and society's - unwillingness to accept Fashanu's sexuality, even before he publicly came out.

It's said that Clough, considered one of the greatest managers of all time, did not take kindly to Fashanu's lifestyle.

In his autobiography, he looks back at a time he confronted the young striker after rumours he spent time in gay bars.

"'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?"'

Brian Clough relationship with Justin Fashanu was strained. Credit: PA

Even Fashanu's brother and former England footballer, John, admitted to offering Justin £75,000 to stay quiet and keep his sexuality to himself.

Justin would later say he was offered more money to stay silent than he was to sell his story.

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.

“There wouldn’t be an issue, but there was then. Things are different now. Now he’d be hailed a hero.”

Justin's brother, John, said he offered to pay him to stay silent. Credit: PA

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.”

Fashanu was also criticised for seemingly fabricated claims of affairs with Tory MPs.

And the backlash to The Sun interview inevitably reached football stadiums.

The man himself once said: "You have got to understand that footballers are very narrow-minded people. It's the nature of the business.

"When you put yourself in the firing line, you are open to attack. I know I'm there to be shot down in flames."

'I wish that I was more of a good son, brother, uncle and friend'

Justin Fashanu's body was found in this garage. Credit: PA

On May 2 1998, Fashanu's body was found in a garage in east London.

In a suicide note, found in the pages of his filofax, Fashanu said: "I wish that I was more of a good son, brother, uncle and friend. But I tried my best this seems to be a really hard world.

The body of Justin Fashanu carried to his funeral in 1998. Credit: PA

"I hope that Jesus, that I love, welcomes me home. I will at last find peace... Being gay and a personality is so hard but everybody has it hard at the moment so I can't complain about that.

"I want to die rather than put my friends and family through any more unhappiness."

What is Justin Fashanu's Legacy?

Justin Fashanu is still the only openly gay professional footballer this country has seen. Credit: PA

Fashanu is considered by many in the game as a pioneer.

As the first black man to command a seven-figure fee and the first professional footballer to come out as gay, he broke through two ceilings at a time football hooliganism was at its peak.

To this day, he is still the only professional top-level footballer to come out publicly in England.

The Justin Fashanu Foundation, founded by his niece Amal, works to confront prejudice within football, supports those suffering with mental health issues and has a special focus on the LGBT community.

Amal Fashanu spoke of her uncle's admission to the Hall of Fame. Credit: PA

Speaking of her uncle on the day of his entry to the Hall of Fame, Amal said: “Today would have been Uncle Justin’s 59th birthday and what a way to celebrate it on his behalf.

"One of my favourite memories of Uncle Justin was his playful, cheeky character. He was so fun to be around and he would have been the life and soul of this event.

"Justin Fashanu was talented, smart, well-loved and charming. It warms my heart to witness his legacy being honoured more than 21 years after his untimely passing."