Thursday, 7 June 2012

Reviewed: Justin Fashanu - The Biography

Justin Fashanu: The Biography
Book review

When Justin Fashanu was a young professional, just out of the youth team and still wet behind the ears, a journalist asked him how he’d like his life to progress. His reply? ‘I’d like to get richer and more famous’. As Jim Read points out in his gripping, long-overdue biography, this wasn’t what eager young professionals were supposed to say. They were supposed to say they wanted to improve, learn from the older pros, win a regular place in the first team. But then, back in the grey, macho world of early 80s football, Fashanu wasn’t much like anyone else. Opinionated, flamboyant and (we now know) gay, he must have seemed like he’d come down from another planet. Football had never seen anything like him. It still hasn’t.

This was just before the moment that would change his life. Playing against Liverpool with the Match of the Day cameras watching, Fashanu had received the ball on the edge of the penalty area with his back to goal, flicked it up with his right foot, turned, and volleyed it past the Liverpool keeper with his left. As Read points out, Fashanu didn’t normally score such spectacular goals; normally he was all elbows. Some team-mates even uncharitably put it down as a fluke. No matter - it looked sensational, and it was duly voted goal of the season. The problem was living up to it.

After two explosive seasons at Norwich, Fashanu was sold to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for £1m, but a disastrous spell gave him a reputation of an expensive flop from which he never recovered. He spent most of his career moving around the lower leagues, attempting comeback after comeback, injuries scuppering his chances of ever recapturing his former glories. Read’s meticulously researched book charts Fashanu’s extraordinary journey from Barnardo's home to the big time, then onward to his lonely death in a Shoreditch lock-up. There is a dizzying array of clubs and characters along the way but in Read’s able hands the story is never less than gripping.

And symbolically Fashanu still matters: remarkably, more than 20 years on, he remains the only top-class player to come out as gay. A childhood in care, black, gay - it’s almost tempting to see Fashanu’s life in cartoon terms, as a crusader - Mr Diversity, perhaps - taking on prejudice wherever he finds it, seeing off isms one by one. But while Read rightly draws attention to the prejudice he faced at the hands of rival fans and atavistic managers - in particular the monstrous Brian Clough - the Fashanu he gives us is as flawed as he is admirable.

Because while he vividly demonstrates Fashanu’s breezy charm and winning personality, Read is far too honest a biographer to gloss over the less appealing aspects of his character. Always a lover of money and the limelight, the young Fashanu showed the almost touching naivety and carelessness that can come with early, unexpected success: driving around Norwich parking wherever he pleased, amassing hundreds of fines that he thought he was too famous to have to pay. And as the demands of his extravagant lifestyle began to outstrip his earning power the story becomes darker, with Fashanu using his charm to exploit friends and admirers alike. And while we shouldn’t underestimate his bravery in coming out while still playing, Read reminds us he that did so by selling his story to the Sun for a huge sum at a time his career was floundering.

While Fashanu often spoke out eloquently against prejudice, he was too unreliable too, unpredictable, too torn to ever be a reliable spokesman for the gay community. For one he was never able to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, and at times even tried to go back into the closet. And a string of tawdry tabloid stories in which he falsely claimed to have had affairs with Tory politicians then with his (soon to be former) friend, the actress Julie Goodyear just made him seem desperate and ridiculous. It was this confusion that enabled Justin’s brother John to be able to claim that he wasn’t really gay, just mixed up - a dubious attempt to rewrite history. Read, without ever descending into prurience, does the truth a favour by providing plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Read is also adept at encapsulating social history within the space of a few paragraphs, elevating the book way beyond the average sports biography. One particularly strong section details the way that the black community reacted to Fashanu’s coming out, in particular his appalling treatment at the hands of black paper The Voice. Here, Read offers a potted critical history of African and Afro-Caribbean attitudes to gay people, putting the affair neatly into context. And it’s a trick that he pulls off again and again.

More prosaically, but just as importantly, the book counters the still commonly held assumption that it would be virtually impossible for a top player to come out as gay. Indeed, it is to Read’s great credit that he consistently refuses to fall back on lazy assumptions about bigoted sportsmen. Because while his teammates were somewhat bewildered by Fashanu on occasion - one telling scene sees him turning up to training with his own masseur in tow - even after he came out they mostly rubbed along pretty well, and they thought rather highly of him.

Of course it helped that Fashanu had intelligence and disarming charm to spare, and was fluent in that staple of footballers’ communication, banter. At the Scottish club Airdrie, a player calls Fashanu a big poof. Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Fashanu breezily replies. If anything, his fellow professionals seemed to enjoy the campness, and Fashanu to play up to it. Read cites one joint television interview in which Fashanu and a teammate unleashed a string of double entendres: ‘And I’ll try to get hold of his long balls from the back’. But it wasn’t just camp jokes. When Hearts fans protested at Fashanu’s impending arrival, the club captain wrote to the local paper in his support. And when a former teammate’s brother came out as gay, it was to Fashanu that he directed him for advice.

Read also nails a few long-held myths, such as the self-serving story Brian Clough told about Fashanu. In it Clough has himself asking the still closet-dwelling player where he’d go if he wanted to buy a loaf of bread. A baker’s, Fashanu supposes. And where we would he go if he wanted a leg of lamb? A butcher’s, Fashanu shrugs. So why, asks a triumphant Clough, do you keep going to those bloody poofs’ clubs? This exchange has has been repeated so many times it has become an accepted truth, but Read shows conclusively what we should have suspected all along: that the conversation was entirely a product of Clough’s alcohol-fuelled imagination.

Finally, of course, there is Fashanu’s tragic, self-inflicted demise. Wanted by the American police, he hanged himself while facing dubious charges of sexual assault against a young man (not, in fact, as the author assiduously uncovers, technically a minor). He left what must be the chirpiest of all suicide notes, taking this final chance to look back at his career (‘What a start’) before defending himself against the accusations, and finally thanking a long list of people. Betraying barely a hint of depression, it reads more like a Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note.

So right to the end the enigmatic Fashanu refuses to reveal his true self. But then, was there a ‘real’ Fashanu? He was rarely the same person two days running. Devastating in front of goal then tripping over the ball; couldn’t do enough for people, or would only do anything if there was something in it for himself; fearless on the pitch yet so timorous he’d beg, weeping, to be substituted; irrepressible and gregarious then distant and withdrawn; a highly moral, religious man who readily exploited those around him for money. He is always just out of view, leading the author a merry dance, resistant to Read’s valiant attempts to pin him down.