The triumph and tragedy of John and Justin Fashanu

The triumph and tragedy of John and Justin Fashanu

Justin and John Fashanu were two of the most talented brothers to ply their trade in the English First Division, but their story unfortunately begins and ends in tragedy.

Born in inner-city London in the early 1960s, Justin and John were the sons of a Guyanese nurse and a Nigerian barrister. Abandoned by their father at an early age, their mother was mired in poverty and struggled to make ends meet. Unable to care for her two toddlers alone, she sent them to Barnardo’s, a charity that prepares children for fostering and adoption. It was an agonising decision that would leave a lasting mark on the two boys. 

In the mid-1960s, a couple adopted Justin and John when they were six and five respectively. Living with their new family in Shropham, Norfolk, life began to brighten. 

Football quickly became a central theme in their daily lives. As a teenager, Justin shined on the football pitch and in the boxing ring, and even considered turning professional in the latter. But the boys’ next home would be a stone’s throw away at Carrow Road.

They were two of the most talented apprentices at Norwich City at the time and quickly signed professional contracts for the club. Justin’s professional career ignited immediately, earning a regular spot on the scoresheet – many times in spectacular fashion. 

Against Liverpool in 1980, Justin clinched the BBC Goal of Season award for a technically sublime left-foot volley that rocketed into the far corner. He bagged 19 goals in the 1980/81 campaign but it couldn’t prevent the Canaries suffering relegation from the top flight. 

Forty goals in 103 appearances for Norwich made Justin a hot target for sides in the First Division. In August 1981, he made headlines when Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest secured his signature, making him Britain’s first million-pound black footballer. 

Even after his brother’s departure, opportunities were few and far between for John. He managed just seven appearances and one goal at Norwich before brief loan stints at Crystal Palace and New Zealand outfit Miramar Rangers during the English off-season led to a permanent move to Lincoln City in 1983. From there, his career would begin to take flight.

Unfortunately, Forest’s marquee signing would only last one season under Clough, who ostensibly took umbrage with Justin’s visits to local gay bars and nightclubs. Clough even banned him from training with the first team after discovering that he was gay. 

In Clough: The Autobiography, the Forest manager recalls a conversation with the young forward: “‘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?’” 

Although not publicly “out” at the time, Justin’s sexual orientation was well-known among teammates. Unfortunately, it would later create a seismic rift between him and his brother. 

Original Series  |  Brothers in Arms

Justin netted three goals in 32 games for Forest before he was loaned to Southampton and sold shortly after to fierce rivals Notts County, where he found relative success. He scored 20 times in 64 games but the club suffered back-to-back relegations. A serious knee injury looked to have terminated his career and took Justin to the US for treatment. After undergoing surgery abroad, he kitted out for a couple of North American sides including the Los Angeles Heat before trying to resurrect his career in England.

Meanwhile, John helped Millwall secure promotion to the Second Division before signing for Wimbledon. The club secured three promotions in four seasons – only the second club in the Football League to do so – to earn their place in the top flight. 

John’s Wimbledon career spanned eight memorable seasons, including 126 goals and an FA Cup title after a dramatic 1-0 upset against Liverpool in 1988. His impressive displays up front earned him call-ups to the national side, earning two caps for his country in 1989. Justin had only managed to appear for his country at under-21 level.

In 1990, Justin returned to England after his stint in the USA and Canada. He hoped to revive his career. However, his return did not pan out as he had hoped, bouncing from Leyton Orient to non-league Southall and then Leatherhead, a semi-pro club. 

Later that year, Justin publicly opened up about his sexuality. John attempted to stop him from coming out as gay, paying him £75,000 to keep silent. He feared the effect it would have on both of their careers and personal lives. Justin took his brother’s money but ignored the advice. 

After a tabloid threatened to “out” him, Justin agreed to an exclusive interview. On 22 October 1990, The Sun took centre stage, decorating its front page with the histrionic headline, “£1m Football Star: I AM GAY.” He remains the only prominent football player to come out as gay during their career.

Sadly, he was scorned for it, with John also the victim of regular homophobic abuse from the stands. He would go on to cement a spot in the hearts of Wimbledon fans during their infamous Crazy Gang years. 

Sold for £1.35m to Aston Villa in 1994/95, John limped through the season with an injury and netted three times in 13 matches. His final game came in a 1-0 loss against Manchester United when a Ryan Giggs’ tackle snapped his knee ligaments and signalled the end of his playing days.

Justin’s career never fully recovered. He found some success at Torquay before finding himself back in the USA, where he would eventually hang up his boots with a final stretch at the now-defunct Maryland Mania. 

However, when a 17-year-old boy in Maryland accused Justin of sexual assault in 1998, he fled to London after he was questioned by a detective. He died by suicide two months later. His suicide note read: “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends or family.”

The start and the end of the Fashanu brothers is etched in tragedy, but filled with some memorable football highlights in between. After being dealt such a woeful hand as children, Justin and John both found happiness and success for club and country playing the game that they loved.

By Alan Condon @alan_condon

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