Remembering Brighton and Hove Albion star Justin Fashanu in Black History Month

For Black History Month, Alf Le Flohic, a local historian working at the University of Brighton, has been looking back at former Brighton & Hove Albion striker Justin Fashanu’s time in the city, through those who knew him best.

Monday, 12th October 2020, 11:43 am

The article, in the October edition of Gscene, features interviews with members of the community, friends and acquaintances.

Fashanu, who played for the Albion between 1985 and 1987, tragically took his own life in 1998 at the age of 37, seven years after he became the first footballer to come out in the UK while he was still playing. He remains the only professional male footballer to come out in the UK before retiring and was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in February this year.

In 1985, Fashanu moved from Notts County to Albion, then playing in Division Two, having previously made a name for himself at Norwich City. He left Carrow Road to join Nottingham Forest at the age of just 20, becoming the first black million-pound player and working under manager Brian Clough.

Justin Fashanue in Brighton by Kevin Weaver SUS-201210-112847001

Le Flohic, who is part of the web team in the university’s Marketing and Communications department, was fascinated by Fashanu’s time in Brighton and set about talking to friends and acquaintances to paint a picture of his time in the city.

He said: “Justin left Brighton the summer I arrived here. Brighton, and indeed the UK as a whole, was nowhere near as tolerant of its LGBT residents as it is now. And Brighton was exceedingly white back then too, and it got me wondering what life for him must have been like as a black gay man.

“The closest I was going to get was to talk to people who actually met him. Amongst the people I chatted online to, were two Brighton graduates.” Kevin Weaver, who studied Expressive Arts at the then Brighton Polytechnic, recalls the first time he met Fashanu: “He was on crutches (following a knee injury) hobbling along the seafront near the main pier, and as a lifelong Norwich supporter I immediately recognised him and introduced myself. He invited me to his flat one Sunday and I met some of his Christian friends. He was keen to convert me, but I told him I wasn’t interested.

“I found his flat dark and quite depressing. He didn’t have much furniture and it was devoid of character, personal touches or warmth. It was basically one long floor with a galley type kitchen.

“However, the flat was in contrast to Justin’s character, which was open, warm and very friendly. He had a bright white smile and his eyes lit up. His laugh was infectious too and he was interested in everyone.

“We immediately hit it off, though he never mentioned his struggle with his sexuality. We went to several straight clubs including Savannah – I think we saw Princess, a black soul singer from London – and The Escape Club [now Patterns on Marine Parade]. We didn’t seem to discuss football much – he wasn’t full of himself and boastful at all. He seemed a bit lost to me.”

Going back through Fashanu’s life, Le Flohic found that Fashanu continued his association with Brighton long after he left the club to move the USA in 1987. Iain Gowers studied Biology with Chemistry and met Fashanu in 1996, a few years before the forward took his own life.

He recalls a night at the gay nightclub Revenge when he was approached by a journalist fishing for information, and on another occasion was told by Fashanu not to leave at the same time as him: “We both walked down the stairs and he stopped me and said, ‘You will need to wait up here for a bit’. And I’m like, ‘Why?’, especially being 20 and being told what to do. And he said, ‘You don’t wanna be outside. You’re the perfect person that they want me to be photographed with’. I said to him when I saw him next, ‘Does that mean that they follow you home?’ He said ‘Yeah’, he gets his taxi home and then they literally drive up and sit outside and wait for him.”

In March 1998, a 17-year-old American accused Fashanu of sexual assault. Although the age of consent was 16, homosexual acts were illegal in the state of Maryland at the time. Fearing he would presumed guilty, he returned to the UK but was found hanged on 3 May.

Le Flohic said “It was unexpectedly emotional talking to Justin’s friends and acquaintances. Over 30 years after his death, people still loved and missed him. And in a tragic twist, art student Kevin Weaver, who had become a photojournalist, was sent to capture the location of a celebrity suicide.

“He told me: ‘I saw a yellow and green Norwich City scarf tied to the door handle. I was stunned. It was a tragic end for a lovely, misunderstood person who I counted as a friend’.”

Photo caption: Justin Fashanu in his basement flat in Regency Square, Brighton, taken in 1986 by Kevin Weaver.