Extraordinary - Justin Fashanu at Torquay United

Extraordinary.  That's as appropriate a word we can find to describe Justin Fashanu's tragically short life.  Fashanu's stint at Torquay United highlights the complexity of his time with us.  Here's Juliet Jacques.

‘I genuinely thought that if I came out in the worst newspapers and remained strong and positive about being gay, there would be nothing more that [my critics] could say. Of course, I was wrong and lost three years of my career.’

So wrote Justin Fashanu in ‘Strong Enough to Survive’, his contribution to the Stonewall 25 volume, published in 1994. His suicide, four years later, became cast as a warning to players against coming out, Justin’s insistence that doing so wrecked his career serving as evidence that gay men could not survive in the football world.

Whilst homophobia contributed much to Justin’s decline after his £1m move to Nottingham Forest in 1981, where Brian Clough famously confronted him about his trips to “those bloody poofs’ clubs”, the end of his career and death were deeply complicated.

Having spent his early childhood in a Barnardo’s home after his mother put him up for adoption, Justin’s suicide was triggered by a sexual assault allegation levelled by a 17-year-old in Maryland, where he had been coaching. A born again Christian, he had gone to America’s ‘Bible Belt’ after four years in exile. In February 1994, Scottish Premier League club Heart of Midlothian sacked Justin, then 33, following his attempt to sell stories about affairs with Conservative MPs to the press. This scandalous end to Justin’s complex relationship with the media, alongside his injury record and his age, were the main reasons why no other British club would sign him.

The cancellation of Justin’s £2,000 per week contract with Hearts ended an extraordinary return to top level football, three years after he came out on The Sun’s front page. Agent Eric Hall helped Justin sell his ‘confession’ for a five-figure sum: after a horrific knee injury which had forced him to retire in 1986, Justin spent over £200,000 on medical treatment in North America, attempting to revive his career. Trials with Manchester City, West Ham and Leyton Orient in 1989/90 failed to earn a contract, and he ended the season as player-coach of non-League Southall.

The Sun article appeared on 22 October 1990, by which time Justin had joined Canadian side Toronto Blizzard. As well as explaining how his fear of being outed had affected his career, Justin was quoted as saying that he had relationships with pop stars and married politicians. A week later, Justin’s brother John – Wimbledon and England striker, and host of ITV’s Gladiators – distanced himself from Justin in black newspaper The Voice.

Hoping to return to English football, Justin trained with non-League Leatherhead to keep fit. Out on London’s gay scene, he met journalist Terry Deal in Soho bar Village West One: this led to him appearing on Gay Times’ cover in July 1991. Their interview explored Justin’s decision to come out via the ‘bigot-stained’ pages of The Sun, hated by the gay community for supporting Section 28 (which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools) and football fans for its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.

Justin presented his choice of outlet as socially motivated, saying that ‘Papers like The Sun are the ones that football fans read.’ But, having sued The Sunday People in 1982 for publishing rumours about his trips to Nottingham gay club Part Two, he added a fatalistic note: ‘If I had gone with a serious paper then The Sun would have …  hounded me for the rest of my life.’

Insisting that The Sun had fabricated the stories about MPs, Justin blamed the backlash from the article for his failure to find a club. But he soon found that rather than killing his career, coming out reinvigorated it, as teams seeking a headline-grabbing yet affordable player were willing to give him a chance.

After a trial at Newcastle United, where he played ten minutes in a League Cup defeat to Peterborough, Justin remained unattached. Torquay United chairman Mike Bateson wanted a marquee signing to boost gates at his struggling Third Division side: confident that his friend Harry Redknapp could help him contact the former Norwich and England Under-21 striker, secretary Dave Turner suggested Justin. Bateson invited Justin to Torquay’s Grand Hotel, where they negotiated terms. Justin demanded £1,500 per week – three times the club’s previous record, with most of their players earning between £200 and £400 – and 50% of any transfer fee. Bateson was speechless.

“I know the club is struggling financially” came the response, “but I have to concern myself with Justin Fashanu.”

A skilful negotiator, Justin also persuaded Bateson to provide a sponsored Jaguar XJS convertible, custom-built, with his name on the chassis. When the hotel bill arrived, Justin sped to the Torquay Herald Express offices to announce himself, before striding into River Island to spend a small fortune whilst signing autographs for stunned shoppers.

Bateson asked Justin to sign his contract on the pitch at half-time, the Plainmoor PA announcing “Our first million pound player!” to a mixture of cheers and howls from the stands. Many fans had misgivings. Could he play?

Their fears grew as Justin took a month to make his debut, finally playing in a 1-0 home win over Preston North End. At Fulham six days later, he got his first taste of homophobic abuse from the terraces. Having been one of England’s first prominent black players, breaking into Norwich’s First Division side in 1978 before scoring his famous Goal of the Season against Liverpool, Justin knew that the best way to silence the hecklers was to meet their abuse head on. “Away supporters threw bananas [at Justin]” says Bateson. “He’d eat them in front of them. He’d blow kisses and wiggle his arse to the crowd, too.”

Defiant gestures were one thing: to win over his team’s fans and secure his return to the top flight, Justin needed to score goals. He did just that, his energetic performances helping him hit ten in 21 matches during his first season in Devon. “It’s sad that he was mainly regarded as a curiosity,” says Herald Express journalist David Thomas. “When he put his mind to it, he was formidable. Away at West Bromwich Albion, he was terrific, and scored with a bullet header from a corner. [Ex-Tottenham and England defender] Graham Roberts was marking him – it would have taken four Graham Roberts to stop him.”

Justin pre-empted any potential issues about team-mates not wanting to get changed around him by using the referee’s dressing room. Bateson and Thomas insist that they never heard another player express misgivings about Justin’s sexuality, but also say that none formed close friendships with him. Although Justin bought a luxury flat in the town’s Kilmorie district, nobody expected him to stay for long: as Bateson reflects, “Torquay was a means to an end for him.”

One of Justin’s best displays came when a scout from First Division Coventry City attended: despite rumours that they would offer £250,000, neither they nor anyone else made a bid. Partly, says Bateson, this was because of the abuse from the stands after he came out, but his long-standing knee injury, which required constant attention, was another crucial factor. To keep Justin focused, Bateson made him assistant to manager Ivan Golać in February 1992, a post he retained when Paul Compton replaced Golać three months later.

Doing enough in football to maintain his fame, Justin became a gay spokesman. He judged the final of Mr Gay UK in 1992, and appeared on Tonight with Jonathan Ross and Open to Question, discussing the need for people to be open about their sexualities – his need in particular. On Open to Question, Justin – a schoolboy heavyweight boxer, and an overtly physical footballer – explained how his coming out challenged stereotypes about gay men being effeminate, and that he had sold his sexuality to The Sun to compensate for the contacts and contracts that he anticipated losing. Although he had been proved correct, Justin said that by coming out, he had done the right thing – and that he could still return to English football’s top table.

Having consciously constructed his tabloid image , Justin realised there was financial gain in undercutting it. Just before the 1992 General Election, he taunted Guardian readers by urging them to vote Tory, confounding many of his gay followers and friends, who included activist and former Labour candidate Peter Tatchell. In this case, Torquay were prepared to tolerate Justin toying with the media – but his next stunt tipped the balance.

Justin never visited Rocky’s, Torquay’s gay club, for fear of being mobbed. Instead, he frequented Boxes in Exeter, which held a gay night on Tuesdays. Once, he brought actress Julie Goodyear, who he had met in London. Justin contacted The Sun, telling the newspaper that he was dating Goodyear, who played barmaid Bet Lynch in ITV soap opera Coronation Street. Although Justin had told Open to Question that he remained attracted to women, the tabloids still sold him as ‘gay’, and he knew that a ‘relationship’ with Goodyear would generate headlines.

Sure enough, The Sun asked Bateson if they could shoot Justin and Julie in the Plainmoor dressing rooms. With Torquay constructing a new stand, costing £1.3m, Bateson agreed, as long as his club got some publicity and revenue. It was arranged that Goodyear would pull the last pint at the old stand’s Social Club. But just before the game, her PA told Bateson that she would not do it.

“There were more photographers than we’d ever seen at Plainmoor, and at full-time The Sun were saying ‘Let us in!’” recalls Bateson. “‘Give it a few minutes,’ I said, then opened the doors and let everyone in. Bang went their exclusive! It was pure revenge, really. I regret doing that now – it overshadowed the football.” Soon after, Justin claimed to have split with Julie as she was “too old”. Goodyear never forgave him.

At the end of the 1991-1992 season, Torquay were relegated to the bottom division. Despite Justin’s strong showings, nobody bid for him. Bateson had to cut back: he told Justin to stop throwing his kit into the crowd, but bigger indulgences followed. Justin threw a lavish party in Torquay’s Bishops Court Hotel. The bill came to the chairman’s office. Bateson returned it, but worse was to come: Justin told Bateson that he owed £14,000 to some “heavy people”, with the debt affecting his game. Bateson lent him the money – but as Justin’s First Division dream became ever more distant, he never got it back. Bateson forgave him, though: if Justin had not had so many factors working against him, he reflects, the money might have been returned with considerable interest.

With tabloids wary after the Goodyear debacle, Justin planned other ways of clearing his mounting debts. He asked David Thomas to help write his memoirs. Suspecting that he would much of the work before Justin took the credit, Thomas decided to test Justin’s commitment, telling him to draft a rough plan as a starting point. Like Justin’s clothing label ‘Fash and You’, which never moved beyond a logo on headed paper, it did not materialise. Thomas was relieved: “I would have spent a lot of time nailing the truth about his life. Justin would produce a version of events according to Justin, which wouldn’t necessarily stack up.” Despite talking of these memoirs for the rest of his life, a finished manuscript never found a publisher.

With Justin turning 32 in February 1993, Bateson knew it was a matter of time before he left. That month, as Torquay struggled at the foot of the League, Compton resigned. Justin applied for the vacant position. “It was okay to chance on Justin as a player,” says Bateson. “As a manager it was different. He would have used the club, and maybe its future, to market Justin Fashanu. I doubt we could have handled his expenses.”

Neil Warnock eventually landed the job, and Justin moved to Airdrieonians in Scotland. He stayed for just four months, then spending six weeks with Trelleborgs in Sweden before signing for Hearts in July 1993, representing them in the UEFA Cup weeks later.

Justin never played in England again. His sometimes surprisingly successful spell as English football’s only openly gay footballer should not be taken as typical: rather, it was a short, strange interlude in a life which, from its difficult beginning to its tragic end, was often complex and always extraordinary.

Juliet writes regularly for the Guardian in the UK and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques

We'd also like to highlight the work of The Justin Campaign, tackling homophobia in football.  If you'd like to know more, please visit their website.