Dom Kureen takes a glimpse at the homophobic attitude and fear associated with ‘coming out’ in men’s professional football.
Justin Fashanu’s limp, lifeless corpse dangles from the rafters of a dingy lock-up garage in Shoreditch, London, his neck is bound by a short length of rope and hangs loosely, seemingly held in place by something akin to a layer of Origami paper, as a member of the public stumbles upon the tragic scene.
Aged just 37 at the time of his death on May 2, 1998, Fashanu had at one point been regarded as English football’s next breakout star, signing a lucrative contract with Brian Clough’s high-flying Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1981 – subsequently becoming the first black player in the game to command a seven figure sum, following his £1m move from Norwich City.
Clough, a brilliant but often unnecessarily outspoken manager, had been shaped by traditional Victorian family values. This didn’t bode well for his new acquisition, who was banned from training with the rest of the squad after his sexual orientation and party lifestyle became common knowledge around the football club.
In one particularly fraught exchange, Clough barked angrily “Why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”
The relationship had reached breaking point and was severed irreparably soon after, when the Forest boss had his young striker escorted from the training pitch by two police officers.
Rapidly falling from grace, Fashanu came out publicly in The Sun newspaper published on 22 October 1990 – the first high profile British sportsman to do so.
The sensationalised revelations led to widespread public and private criticism, notably at the hands of his younger brother, John, who was also a professional footballer.
“I wouldn’t like to play or even get changed in the vicinity of him, so if I’m like that then I’m sure the rest of the footballers are like that” John said shortly after his brother’s tabloid revelations. The two siblings didn’t speak during the final seven years of Justin’s life.
In the three decades that have passed since the Justin Fashanu exclusive broke, no active male professional footballer has come out, although a handful, such as former Aston Villa and Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, have done so shortly after retiring from the game.
In the semi-professional game in Britain there is only one openly gay footballer, Cleethorpes Town’s Liam Davis, who has been public about his homosexuality since 2014.
Rugby, cricket, tennis and a myriad of other sports have long accepted homosexuality: be it Gareth Thomas, Steven Davies, Martina Navratilova or more recently Tom Daley, the diver who broke millions of female hearts when he used YouTube to announce his relationship with another man and was generally well received for his honest admission.
Former England international footballer, Sol Campbell, was the target of derogatory, homophobic chants from the terraces throughout his career; despite no evidence to suggest that he was gay. The former Arsenal, Tottenham and England defender now has a wife and son.
Campbell revealed to BBC News that in his opinion many fans and professionals still have the blueprint of a stiff upper-lipped 1970s footballer in their mind, so anything deviating from that prototype makes them uncomfortable.
England women’s soccer international, Casey Stoney, went public with her sexuality in 2014, revealing to the Telegraph newspaper that she was inspired by the positive reaction Daley received:
“I feel it’s really important for me to speak out as a gay player because there are so many people struggling who are gay, and you hear about people taking their own lives because they are homosexual. That should never happen.”
Conversely, the majority of her male counterparts remain, on the surface at least, far from ready to accept the presence of sexual persuasions in conflict with heterosexuality among their peers. The primitive psyche surrounding the sport is one reason why it is often perceived as the brutish step-cousin of competitive pastimes.
In that sense things have receded rather than progressed since Justin Fashanu was shunned by his peers more than two decades ago.
One need only look at how that situation regrettably played out to see why there is still an thinly-veiled taboo on top-flight players admitting such a thing, but can more than 5,000 professional football players really all be ‘straight’?
The blinkers are on. As football agent Eric Hall assuredly stated for Inside Story: “Football isn’t really a game that gay people play, I believe that there aren’t any homosexual players among the professionals.”
That sort of wishful thinking may provide a misguided crumb of comfort for a game jaded by its own deep-seated insecurities; a sport gripped with fear and judgement fostered from the sanctuary of a reassuringly unenlightened cocoon.