John Fashanu: the brutal but gifted footballer whose success gave way to scandal

John Fashanu: the brutal but gifted footballer whose success gave way to scandal

John Fashanu is a tough man, and a tough man with a big smile is a dangerous man. John Fashanu is a dangerous man, a man that Phil Tufnell says is “two tinnies short of a six-pack.” Funny, but not even close. During interviews, Fash, as he’s known, sits poised with his legs apart in a display of dominance. He’s articulate and speaks with a lilting, rhythmic and precise English. He is, with worldly minimalism, deftly articulate. Swap his suit or tracksuit for the appropriate garb and you’d easily mistake him for a king, perched on his throne, those around him bent to his steely will.

Fash was a dictator during his time at Wimbledon. We hear of such players regularly enough, but he was in the dog pound with some of the game’s hardest men. If they weren’t when they arrived, they soon would be.

His shift from a quiet and reserved child that was raised by a doting foster family to one of English football’s most formidable and volatile personalities is filled with shocking and heartbreaking moments. His complex personality is perhaps best understood by looking at his complicated route through life.  

It’s a well-worn path but rarely is The Prince as applicable as he is to John Fashanu. In interviews, Fashanu’s lexicon is eerily like – perhaps intentionally so – the Italian social theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. In his treatise on power, he wrote: “It is much safer to be feared than loved because love is preserved by the link of obligation … but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Make no mistake, punishments were not rare occurrences at his hands. Wimbledon’s infamous Crazy Gang emerged under manager Dave Bassett, with Fashanu adopting the world of the pied piper. There was a simultaneous push and pull that forged their solidarity.

The team felt unjustly derided in the media and, as such, they were forced into a tight embrace. Similarly, the camaraderie and well-documented displays of machismo created an internal culture that was impossible to breach. That even extended to new recruits. Initiation rites were often brutal. Their message was clear: only the strong will survive. 

Studiously drilled on their opponent’s tactics, they’d shrewdly find soft spots, from slow players to uneven tempers, and do all they could to wind them up. Remember Vinnie Jones grabbing Paul Gascoigne’s testicles? This is just one such example. 

Under Bassett, the club scaled the leagues from the Fourth Division up to the First. It was in 1986, faced with the prospect of taking on the big boys, that Wimbledon needed their own bigger boy. He came in the shape of Millwall’s John Fashanu. A record signing at the time, the £125,000 striker joined the club in the Second Division in March. They were already pushing for promotion, their third in four seasons, and had nine games left. Fash settled in well, managing to find the back of the net on four occasions, lighting their path to the top. 

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Despite their perceived primitive tactical approaches, the team found their Trojan Horse. Playing up to the perception that they were nothing more than a bunch of bruisers allowed them to infiltrate opposing teams’ naivety. They were taken for mugs, yet were nothing of the sort. Fash instantly become a club hero, loved by fans and loathed by nearly everyone else. In the dressing room the squad, with help from Basssett, would whip themselves up into a fury. Fashanu claimed: “We believed we were warlords because on Saturday at three o’clock, it was war.” 

A child who grew up in the bosom of loving foster parents is still susceptible to rebelling against their affection. Children are known to push people as far as they can to find out their limits. It seems that, possibly stunted from childhood, this was a behaviour that persisted into his adult life and bled into his career as a professional footballer. 

Well-known as a karate black belt and overall hard-man, his behaviour prevailed unchecked and manifested in his Wimbledon years as he adopted the role of the changing room bully-cum-kangaroo-court judge, with a violently magnetic ego. His behaviour often repulsed his teammates, but like a berserker army charging to war under the influence of hallucinogenics, the Crazy Gang had their pre-match dose of Fash to get them through.

In the controversial Crazy Gang documentary, Vinnie Jones, perhaps tainted slightly by the group’s well-known self-mythologising, recalls a time when a player got on Fash’s wrong side. The angry black belt threw the offending player judo-style onto the hard ground of the changing room. On impact the player’s calf  “obliterated”. It was Fash’s violent zenith, an incident that lives long in the minds of his former colleagues 

What prevails through the documentary is the egotism and impulsivity of his behaviour, perhaps never more clearly displayed than an on-field incident involving Tottenham defender Gary Mabbutt. Known half-jokingly as ‘Fash the Bash’, in a game against Wimbledon he embraced the sobriquet with brutal consequences. In the early minutes, a time when Fashanu was known to exhibit aggressive displays of dominance, an aerial challenge between the two resulted in the Spurs captain floored. No immediate action was taken as the intent wasn’t obvious enough, however the resultant injury was a fractured skull and eye-socket. What happened behind the doors had now been revealed to the world.

Although Fashanu initially went to visit Mabbutt in hospital and was publically apologetic for his actions, years later he has rationalised it as being necessary for the club’s survival against bigger teams. To Fash, no one died. It was only someone’s pride, only “part of the game”. The public, pundits and fellow professionals didn’t see it the same way.

Fash’s rage wasn’t only directed towards the opposition, though. Rumours abound by former teammates accuse him of trying to break Lawrie Sanchez’s legs with his karate sticks. It was a particularly galling episode of internal strife. It was all part of maintaining the pecking order. 

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Despite his civilised upbringing, his streak of kill-or-be-killed would flare many more times when his perceived position at the top felt challenged. Speaking in third person, Fashanu orates: “Fash was a physical bastard and you would either have to adapt or dissolve as a person. The players ran the club and if you were a wise manager, you would work with us, not against us.”

This is only one side of a complex personality. It’s a Jungian shadow that connects Fashanu to his more animalistic side – a side we often repress, which can be as dangerous as allowing it to the fore. There are extremes and Fash was comfortably at one end. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that this side of the young Nigerian-born Englishman managed to surface. Growing up, life wasn’t bad for Fashanu. Being a Barnardo’s boy – someone who went through the charity’s fostering system – instilled in him a sense of being strong. He is as much a product of nature as of nurture.

Betty Jackson, his foster mother, recalls his childhood insecurities and how she’d “cuddle him ever so tight” to quell them. Despite this, and possibly due to the vast cultural differences between his early youth and his new life, Fash never felt at home. It was only when he made it to Wimbledon that he discovered the security he craved. They were his real family.

His search and subsequent discovery of security amounted to an inability to relinquish control. Incidentally, his gentle foster mum instilled his sense of self into John and Justin, two black kids in a white family. Betty remembers them wanting to be white, presumably to fit in. But as expected from any loving mother, she was adamant that they embrace who they are. She’d tell them: “You’ve got to be better than anybody else at whatever you undertake because you’re black.”

His bullishness expressed itself at Wimbledon as a man running around the pitch who looked awkward yet compellingly idiosyncratic. Fash, with his gangly frame, cut a distinct shape on the pitch. His low-rolled socks and his high-pulled shorts emphasised his extenuated frame. Clocking in at six foot two inches, he towered over most other players. His combative runs and dogged self-abandon in the air made him a truly fearsome, and fearless, opponent.

His strength was in the mind as it was in his body. With unwavering resolve and a bullheaded conception of leadership, he steered the oars of one of England’s most unorthodox crew of footballers. If the Crazy Gang was the School of Hard Knocks, he was the principle that ruled with an iron fist. Harnessing their ‘with us or against us’ attitude was imperative to their success. Bassett, a fan of direct, aggressive football articulated their tactical approach as consisting of “goalkeepers who can kick the ball 90 yards and a six foot two bloke to head it in!”  

Fashanu was a force to be reckoned with in his first season at the club, finishing as the team’s top scorer with 11 goals. His awkward gait was difficult for defenders to deal with. Combining his strength and athleticism, he played with an overlooked elegance. Understated in his attacking prowess, his brutalist ballet made him the Dons’ spearhead upfront. Bassett had his tactics and his team.

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Regardless of who was the captain or the coach, there was little question around who was the leader. Fash had an uncanny knack for turning unfavourable situations to his advantage. In his unofficial role, he provided his team with a sense of security. Official titles didn’t mean anything to Wimbledon at the time. They were the cowboys and their ground was the Wild West.

In the same documentarym Fashanu was asked, “Did you rule by fear?” His answer was slow, methodical and absent of any emotion. After a deafening pause, eyes fixated on the interviewer he replied: “Yes … yes”, before a mechanical smile creeped across his cold demeanour. “We ruled by fear.”

Was he a leader? Yes. Just maybe not one that most clubs aspire to, but then again, Wimbledon at that time were anything but most clubs. His ruthless desire for success at all costs did, at times, pull others up with him. There was perhaps no better example of this than the 1988 FA Cup final. Stepping out into the cauldron-like wall of noise at Wembley with an attendance just shy of six figures was an intense experience for the team. The unbreakable boys felt their cracks showing. but not in the way the practical jokers were used to.

The eccentric bruiser somehow managed to emit a rough semblance of calm as he stood on the field taking questions for the pre-match interview. As the reporter asked him a question, Fash would repeat, “Sorry?” – feigning deafness by the sheer audible volume of the fans cheering and jeering. Giving the interviewer a pass, he laughed it off and seemed genuinely humbled: “It’s great, I mean look at the red army,” he said, motioning towards the vast Liverpool section of the stadium. He then gazed into the camera with a twinkle in his eye: “There must be four or five of ours,” before he smiled again. He was in heaven, star-struck by the atmosphere.

As the two sides lined up in the tunnel, co-conspirator Vinnie Jones looked over at his opponents with menace and, having previously claimed to Kenny Dalglish that “I’ll rip your head off and shit down the hole”, the Wimbledon squad began to shout “in the hole” as a stark reminder of what they were about to bring. Their novel take on tactics lined up closer to boxing than football.

Fashanu had decided not to shake his opponents’ hands. He would snarl at them instead and years later calmly recalled coming face-to-face with his friend, but opponent that day, John Barnes. Fash was “calling him the names that only a black man can call another black man.” It’s a story that Barnes denies. 

On a day when history was made, it’s hard to tell who wrote it – the crazy victors or the more civilised losers. Is Fashanu embellishing a legacy or are the illustruous Liverpool squad afraid to admit that the minnows had gotten under their skin? A headed goal from Lawrie Sanchez minutes before the end of the first half was the difference. Wimbledon had entered the field looking for a fight and their relentless aggression never abated. Remembering the glorious moment, Fashanu reflected: “That was probably the most painful moment in my life, because my arch-enemy scored that goal.”

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After the game, John Motson delivered an eternal line: “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.” Fashanu was the head of a gang that was about to evaporate in the heat of their success.

The quintessential rags-to-riches tale, Fashanu soon began to cash in on his new-found fame. If controlling him in and around the training ground wasn’t enough, now his every move was hogging the newspaper columns. In such moments of madness like that, it’s the eccentric ones who will flourish. Fashanu remembers: “That was what we were looking for, we wanted to be notorious.” From here on out, Fashanu’s influence in football diminished – he was a celebrity now.

When television money came calling, Fashanu answered. Accepting the role as presenter of television show Gladiators, he’d demand a half-time substitution to make filming on time. Years later he’d end up appearing on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! before being named by The Times as 22nd on their list of the Premier League’s 50 worst players. It’s a familiar path.

It’s hard to believe, considering he scored 107 goals in his 276 games at Wimbledon, that he’d be on such a list and end up in such a way. During his heyday, Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam was offering him £2,000 per goal scored. For this, Fash would fight for every penalty and push players out of the way for a tap-in. Regardless of his undoubted quality and will to win, for many he was a deeply unlikeable man.

Since retiring from football he has presented Nigeria’s version of Deal Or Nor Deal by way of founding his own football team, Fash FC, as part of a reality television series. Despite his reputation, he kept getting deals. People wanted to see more of him. Such flawed characters are often portrayed by the media as anti-heroes or rogues. These are people we can’t help but love, usually because we know a few of them ourselves. Vinnie Jones embraced his hard-man image and made a film career out of it, yet Fashanu’s path was never so steady.

Some behaviour can be excused as the folly of youth and later behaviour as someone who was incapable of dealing with the trappings of fame. It happens and people must be judged on exceptional behaviour relative to their exceptional circumstances. Bizarrely, though, Fashanu emerged trumps from every incident. There seemed to be nothing that could hold him down. That all changed recently, though, when a particularly nefarious detail of his past emerged.

It began in 1990 with his brother Justin, a fellow professional football player, coming out as homosexual to the British media. Being the first to do so made headlines. The exclusive story in The Sun was full of salacious tales of romps with politicians and fellow players. The prevalent attitudes of the time were less than accepting. For Justin, the fallout was fatal.

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Besides being shunned from the world of professional football, he was left in the cold where it mattered the most – family. John saw more pound signs upon his brother’s revelation and chose to release his own exclusive story in The Voice titled ‘John Fashanu: My Gay Brother is an outcast.’

After numerous attempts to feel comfortable with himself, Justin ended up taking his own life in 1998 after the weight of an upcoming legal battle seemed to loom heavily over his head. At times, John showed deep empathy, referring to his brother as “my shining light”. However, in 2012, he made a curious claim on talkSPORT that his brother’s homosexuality was actually just a cry for attention.

To make matters worse, earlier this year, Fashanu admitted to paying his brother £75,000 for his silence. While the influence John had over his brother’s life, and suicide, is difficult to quantify, it’s clearer to see that throughout the moments of media speculation and coverage, his concerns lay with himself. “I make it very clear, I was a monster to Justin then.” Can we take his openness as a sort of confession? Has Fashanu addressed his previous ignorance, or is this simply another mask?

Looking at Fashanu’s behaviour and his willingness to bend every situation and person to his will, as well as making grandiose promises, reveals an apparent display of the dark triad of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The picture we are left with, through various testimonials and a battlefield of injuries and assaults, is that the solidarity he held so dear at Wimbledon was brittle and subject purely to his fear. Those that were like him – Jones for example – managed to hold their own. Those that weren’t suffered.

Behind the camaraderie, the ruling mantra seemed to be ‘steady seas don’t make skilled sailors’. That might just be a lazy way not to confront his antics, though. Fashanu is intense, verging on caricaturish. Yet, the menace still slowly bubbles below his steely exterior. 

Since his footballing career ended, he’s faced match-fixing allegations, nights in Nigerian prisons, and a scandal involving a threesome and a murderous wife. His greatest legacy on the field is undoubtedly from his days at Wimbledon where he led the Crazy Gang to an FA Cup triumph. As a footballer he was brave, aggressive, positive and possessed a grace and guile that defied any expectations. He was a figure skater in a boxer’s body. 

If his mentality had been different, it’s impossible to know where he would have ended up. Then again, every action seemed like a result of everything that had happened up until that moment. Sadly, his fate was something that even he couldn’t fight off. Was there anything about his life at Wimbledon or beyond that he’d change? No. “Regrets are for fools,” he says. But as we know, even fools can be right sometimes.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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