Throughout his troubled career, Justin Fashanu made headlines. In 1981, as a precocious 20-year-old, he became the first black footballer to cost £1million when he signed for Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. In 1990 he became the first high profile footballer in Britain to admit he was gay. In 1998, he was found hanged in an East London garage.
Twenty-two years after Fashanu came out he is still the only high profile footballer in Britain to have done so. Last month, the debate around homophobia in football was reignited when Anders Lindegaard, the Manchester United goalkeeper, spoke out on the issue, calling it ‘a taboo subject’. Just what will it take for another top footballer in the UK to follow in Fashanu’s footsteps?
“A huge amount of courage,” says Adam Turner, a 24-year-old defender for Stonewall FC, one of the UK’s most successful gay football clubs. “It would be a fantastic thing for the sport, but if a big Premier League footballer came out, it would just hand the opposition fans ammunition. Anything fans can get hold of, they will use. I’m not sure a footballer would want to put themselves in that position if they didn’t necessarily have to. It’s terribly sad. Personally, I don’t think it’s a problem which is going to go away very quickly.”
Liam Jarnecki, Stonewall FC’s chairman, is equally cautious. “My personal belief is and always has been that a coming out needs to be managed,” he says. “Some poor sod is going to have to fall on their sword, and my view is that, to test the water, it should be someone foreign and someone retired.”
Turner has been playing for Stonewall for three seasons. While homophobic abuse from opponents and their fans is thankfully not a weekly occurrence, it does still happen. “Last season, I made a late tackle and gave a foul away. One of the opposition’s players came straight up to my face and said, ‘you fucking bender’. My initial reaction was one of anger. I understand that in the heat of a game a lot of things can be said, but shouting at someone for being gay is no better than shouting at someone because of the colour of their skin.”
During his playing career in the 1980s and 1990s, Pat Nevin was at the forefront of attempts to tackle racism in football. He was also, like Turner, the subject of homophobic abuse, not from players, but fans. “Because I was interested in the theatre, cinema and the arts in general, I would get homophobic comments aimed at me now and again. I can remember one game at West Ham when, in a short period of time, I was called gay, then ugly, then a midget, then a manky Scottish Git. I couldn’t care less. I just shrugged my shoulders and got on with it, but I know others didn’t find it as easy.”
Nevin is a close friend of Graeme Le Saux, his former teammate at Chelsea. Throughout his career Le Saux, a technically gifted, elegant full back, was subjected to torrents of homophobic abuse based on nothing more than the ludicrous assumption that, because he read the Guardian and, like Nevin, had an interest in the arts, he must be gay.
The situation reached a nadir during a heated match between Chelsea and Liverpool in 1999 when, in an apparent reference to the rumours surrounding his sexuality, the England international Robbie Fowler bent over in front of Le Saux. Le Saux reacted, elbowing Fowler off the ball. Nevin spoke to his friend after the incident. “I made a point to Graeme,” he says. “I told him he should be so far above taking that sort of attitude seriously. I said to him, does it really matter, can you not just smile at it?”
That incident aside, Nevin believes players would be supportive of a teammate if they were to come out. “If someone came out and said they were gay, I would be quite surprised if they didn’t get fantastic backing from players,” he says. “Football gets a bad press before it’s done anything wrong. I’ve wanted a footballer to come out for years, because if there’s a negative reaction there will be a few of us up for a fight. Everyone I talk to says ‘football is homophobic’. Well, let’s see if it’s homophobic when it happens, and if it is, we’ll attack it.”
Nevin strikes a refreshing note of positivity, and attitudes towards homosexuality at both grass roots and professional levels do seem to be moving in the right direction. Today, you would like to think that a manager would never get away with calling his player a ‘bloody poof,’ as Brian Clough did to Fashanu in the 1980s. Hope Powell, who managed Team GB’s women’s team at London 2012, is lesbian. And only last week, Liverpool’s 19-year-old Spanish forward, Suso, was fined £10,000 by the FA after he called a teammate ‘gay’ on Twitter.
Anti-discrimination organisations are also confident of seeing a change within the game. “Attitudes have softened towards participation from underrepresented groups in football generally,” says Roisin Wood, Director of Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign. “We’re beginning to see a more diverse range of groups contribute. Our work both in the community and with professional footballers has thrown up some really enlightened views about how people in the mainstream game would view more input and involvement from gay people.”
Progress, then, but Jarnecki is conscious that a long road lies ahead. “Social attitudes have transformed in the last twenty years and there are all sorts of positives but we’ve still got a long way to go,” he says. “If you can have gay Tories, it’s extraordinary you can’t have a gay footballer.”