Justin Fashanu and the politics of memory

The narrative that homophobia in football was primarily responsible for his death forms a dauntingly

Fourteen years since his demise, Justin Fashanu remains one of football’s most politicised yet least understood figures – despite conducting his entire adult life in the media spotlight.

Rounding up the coverage of his death for the Gay Times (June 1998), Vicky Powell noted that "scarcely have there ever been obituaries so devoid of feeling, compassion or warmth" as those for Justin. In the aftermath, he was portrayed as "the Walter Mitty of football" (Guardian), a "predatory gay man" (Sun) and "the architect of his own downfall" killing himself to escape "torment over his homosexual lifestyle" (Mail). Only the Independent and the Times placed Justin in any social context, the latter concluding that "he might have had a less troubled life had his talents been made for a more forgiving arena".

As the tenth anniversary of his death approached, there seemed to be little reconsideration of the cultural meanings of his life (all I noticed was a Scotland on Sunday article reiterating the negative perception of Justin). Aware from ex-manager Brian Clough’s autobiography and elsewhere that prejudice from colleagues and crowds blighted Justin before and after he came out, some team-mate at an LGBT club in Brighton and I co-founded the Justin Campaign, aiming to incite a wider debate about homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in football.

We held intense conversations about whether it was ethical to use Justin’s memory in this way, however much we thought he might have approved. (We later learned that despite appearing as a role model, he didn’t involve himself in activist groups such as Stonewall or OutRage, or elsewhere, despite his friendship with Peter Tatchell.)

Having studied his life, from his childhood in a Barnardo’s home and with a foster family in rural Norfolk, the goal of the season which made him nationally famous whilst at Norwich City and the failure of his £1m transfer to Nottingham Forest, all before he turned 21, to his subsequently nomadic career and tragic death, we acknowledged that his difficulties were not solely due to homophobia. We could not ignore his mistakes, not least that he died after being accused of sexual assault, but we would emphasise his struggle against discrimination, and ask how it may have affected his mental state. This made our platform workable, and contributed towards more sympathetic reassessment of Justin, and of football’s treatment of sexual and gender diversity (even in the Mail), but also obscured the complexities of his life.

Inflammatory as it felt, John Fashanu’s recent attempt to short circuit the debate by claiming that his brother “wasn’t really gay” is a red herring. Given that he also had relations with women, there is perhaps an argument about whether Justin was gay or bisexual, or something else, but that concerns the validity of identities attached to sexual behaviour, and the pitfalls of assigning (or re-assigning) them to the deceased. Whatever label is used, Justin was not lying about the fact that had sex with men, and spent time on "the scene" in Nottingham, London and elsewhere throughout his adult life, all of which he spent in football.

Famously, this brought conflict with arch-traditionalist Clough, who asked why he kept "going to those bloody poofs’ clubs" but after leaving, he briefly flourished at neighbouring Notts County, then in the top flight. What destroyed him, as much as the clash between sexuality and his profession, were injury, his double-edged engagement with Evangelical Christianity and his Faustian pact with the tabloids – which really began when he tried to sue the Sunday People after it carried a front-page story headed "I am not gay" which published rumours about his nights at Nottingham’s Part Two.

In December 1981, Justin crashed his car for the second time. On the Autocar forecourt in Nottingham, the salesman convinced him to find God. But, to his surprise, Justin’s proclaimed belief, teetotalism and celibacy baffled and affronted Clough as much as his sexuality, and his acrimonious exit from the City Ground was sparked by Justin bringing his spiritual guide to training – Clough screamed "the religious bloke has got to go" and rang the police to escort them out.

After moving to Notts County, where he spent three years, Justin trumpeted his faith – when he joined Brighton & Hove Albion in June 1985, the Argus said it had been "over-stated". Privately, he struggled to reconcile it with his sexual desires, lamenting the lack of support from the Church on the matter in his Stonewall 25 contribution, "Strong Enough to Survive". Perhaps because his religion was assumed to have covered for his sexuality, the subject was seldom raised after he came out, despite the fact that his last words were "I hope the Jesus I love welcomes me home". One indicator of how Justin is remembered, his Wikipedia page, barely mentions it. (As it stands, anyway.)

Coming out by selling his sexuality to the Sun was one way to meet some of the debts he accrued in trying to fix the horrific knee injury that ended his time in the First Division. It did not, as Justin later claimed, end his career, but actually revived it: he was out of League football at the time. Wanting a high-profile yet affordable player to drive up their crowds, Torquay United, newly promoted to Division Three, gambled on Justin (paying him three times more than their previous highest earner) despite doubts about how his sexuality would be received and, his fitness. He performed brilliantly – ten goals in his first season despite his club being relegated – but his realisation that he could make easy money by selling stories about his private life, whatever their veracity, ended disastrously.

After his fabricated "relationship" with Coronation Street’s Julie Goodyear, and various other media appearances (including a Guardian article in May 1992 urging readers to vote Conservative), Torquay chairman Mike Bateson declined to promote Justin from coach to manager. This led Justin to leave, first for Airdrieonians and then Heart of Midlothian, one of Scotland’s top sides. They sacked him in February 1994 after his attempts to sell stories to the Sunday People about his affairs with Conservative MPs ended with him being questioned by the police and his admission that none were true.

No top-level club touched Justin again – but this may have been because he was 33, out of form and playing with an injured knee. (Footballers have done worse and stayed in the sport if clubs feel they have something to offer, after all.) Nor did the tabloids, despite having taken great interest in Justin when he was profitable: the fallout undoubtedly informed their spiteful response to his death, setting the terms for the polarisation of his memory. Now, surely, enough has passed for us to consider the shades in Justin’s story, remembering him as someone who struggled with a difficult family background and a host of prejudices, against his ethnicity, his sexuality and his faith, in a time that probably wasn’t ready for him. Not only is that fairer for Justin, but it’s fairer for any closeted footballers, for whom the narrative that homophobia in football was primarily responsible for his death forms a dauntingly negative precedent.

Justin Fashanu, pictured here in 1981 when he played for Norwich City. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times