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Justin Fashanu in Extra Time | reviews, news & interviews

Justin Fashanu in Extra Time

Justin Fashanu in Extra Time

A new play remembers the first - and only - openly gay professional footballer

Justin Fashanu: the first, and only, openly gay professional footballer

Ten years after Justin Fashanu - not only the first openly gay footballer, but the first black player to command a £1 million transfer fee - committed suicide in a lock-up garage in the East End, his former agent, Eric Hall, breezily informed the BBC that football was “not a world that attracts gay people". Has anyone told Elton John, Watford FC’s most famous fan?

Yet however implausible Hall’s comment may seem, the evidence is stacked solidly in his favour: no other professional footballer apart from Fashanu has ever come out. “The simple reason is that homophobia is still rife in the football industry,” says Troy Fairclough, a writer and – hold tight, Mr Hall – gay football fan whose new play, Justin Fashanu in Extra Time, opens at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green on Thursday.

Fairclough – for the record, he supports Arsenal - is also directing the production. “I was lucky enough to meet Justin twice, in extremely different situations, and have always been fascinated by his story,” Fairclough tells me during a break in rehearsals. “I started writing the play in 2003, but I’ve worked on it on and off over the years so there have been several drafts. It’s such a huge story it really intimidated me so I didn’t know where to begin, but it was the end of his life that really intrigued me and when I decided to start with the end and tell the story in a series of flashbacks, everything fell into place."

Football, indeed sport in general, can hardly fail to be dramatic which, sadly, is more than can be said for many theatre productions. Yet staging football action convincingly is nigh on impossible and playwrights usually, quite wisely, do their best to avoid it by concentrating on the fans' or the players’ personal lives. In Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads by Roy Williams, for example, the match takes place on a big screen on the set. Carl Heap and Tom Morris rather cleverly solved the problem in their 1994 production, The World Cup 1966, by choreographing football sequences in slow motion. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Beautiful Game the action was represented choreographically.

sackie"I don’t think football works on stage,” says Fairclough, whose last play, I Cover the Waterfront - The Spirit of Billie Holiday, could be seen at Rich Mix last October. “I have a scene where Justin, played by Amersackie Osakonor (pictured right), is teaching a young guy how to kick a ball, so we kind of play around with that, but that’s as far as it goes.”

From a very young age, Fashanu knew what it was like to be considered different. He and his younger brother John, who also became a professional footballer, were born in London but when they were still very small, their parents split up and the boys were placed in a Barnardo’s home. When Fashanu was six they were fostered by Alf and Betty Jackson, a white middle-class couple who lived in a small village in South Norfolk. To say that part of the world is not ethnically diverse is putting it mildly. I grew up only a few miles away from the Fashanus and apart from a few other children who had been fostered or adopted by white families, as far as I know, there were no other black people living in the area.

Fashanu’s career began as an apprentice with Norwich City; he turned professional in 1978. He always had to contend with racist taunts from the crowd - rival fans making monkey noises and throwing bananas onto the pitch was par for the course – but in 1980 he was awarded BBC Goal of the Season for an extraordinary goal against Liverpool. Six month later he was signed by Brian Clough, manager of Nottingham Forest, for £1 million.

Watch Fashanu's Goal of the Season against Liverpool:

At first Fashanu was euphoric about the move and it was around this time that Fairclough met Fashanu for the first time. Fairclough was only about 10 years old but his older brother Chris also played for Nottingham Forest and brought Fashanu back to meet the family. “The first time I met him, I was just struck by his charisma," recalls Fairclough. “He was a superstar in Nottingham and there was a real buzz about him. He was physically very impressive and he charmed the whole family.”

But things were about to go badly wrong for Fashanu. For whatever reason, he failed to live up to Clough’s expectations and rumours that Fashanu visited gay bars fuelled the manager’s increasing antagonism towards the player. In his autobiography, Clough relates the following conversation. “‘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?’” Not surprisingly, Clough’s constant jibes had a hugely detrimental affect on Fashanu’s performance. Eventually Fashanu left Forest and although he played for several other clubs, including Southampton and Notts County, often with a degree of success, a knee injury put paid to a career in major league football and he was never to fulfil his early promise.

Ever since he joined Nottingham Forest, Fashanu’s sexual orientation had been the subject of much conjecture and in 1990 Fashanu decided to come out. It is unclear whether he did this of his own volition or whether his hand was forced by tabloid threats to out him, although as he announced he was gay in an interview with The Sun, the latter seems more likely.

The abuse Fashanu was forced to endure from football fans and former colleagues was staggering, but probably inevitable. As David James, the current England goalkeeper, pointed out in his blog in The Observer, “In those days football was also much more homoerotic, with more bum-patting and kissing - so maybe the presence of an openly gay footballer would have upset the comfort zones.” However, what really hurt Fashanu was that he was denounced by the black newspaper The Voice, which called him “an affront to the black community". He was also publicly disowned by his brother in the same publication. The sense of betrayal must have been overwhelming.

Not surprisingly, the news had a considerable impact on Fairclough, who had not come out at that point. “When Justin came out I really was very surprised. I now know there were lots of rumours but I’d never heard any of them.” Fortunately, when Fairclough came out a few years later, his experience was very different to Fashanu’s. “I was always very clear with my family that if they didn’t accept me, I was happy to walk away, but they were fine with it, absolutely fine. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. As a young gay black man, I wasn’t exactly inundated with role models and my brother Chris suggested it might be a good idea for me to meet up with Justin.

“By coincidence we both happened to be living in Scotland – I was at university there – so I went round to his flat. It was very strange and I kind of regretted it in a way because he was very different to the Justin I had met when I was younger. He was very distant, very guarded and there were lots of long pauses in the conversation. We didn’t really engage with the whole coming-out thing. We touched on just about everything else, about Chris and how the family was doing, but we never really addressed that. I’m not sure what I was looking for but whatever it was, I didn’t get it.”

For the next few years Fashanu travelled extensively, trying to salvage the remains of his professional footballing career but it gradually petered out and in 1997 he moved to the US to work as a coach. That, apparently, was ticking along very nicely until a 17-year-old boy claimed he was sexually assaulted by Fashanu. Fashanu panicked, returned to London and on 3 May 1998, after a visit to a massage parlour, hanged himself in a lock-up garage in the East End. His suicide note denied the accusation.

Ten years later the Justin Campaign was launched to tackle homophobia in football but it still has a long way to go. “The whole culture in football is not conducive to being gay,” says Fairclough. “There is still a very macho attitude within the sport. The Football Association claims it is trying to change this, but when I approached them about this play, they didn’t want to get involved, so what does that say?”

Lack of funding has dictated that Justin Fashanu in Extra Time will only receive four performances, but Fairclough hopes that the play might be offered another run elsewhere. “It’s very hard-hitting, it doesn’t pull any punches - did he assault that boy? The jury is out, although I hope the play will go some way to explain who Justin was and why his story is still so important. Oh, and don’t forget to say that there’s nudity too – now I’m really selling it."

In those days football was also much more homoerotic, with more bum-patting and kissing

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whatever happened to extra time has it just faded away are we not bothered

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