A player to the end

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A fantasist and charismatic con man, Justin Fashanu left many angry people behind after his suicide, not least in Scotland, where he spent one dizzying year that began in fanfare and ended in scandal. Ten years on, we lay the final myths to rest.

THE boy was 17 years old and fit. He had fair hair and blue eyes and the sunniest disposition in all of Ashton Woods, a small town in Maryland. In March 1998 the boy made a new friend. The friend said he was 28 but he was actually 37. He said he was a businessman when in fact he was a fraud; said he was recruiting but that was fiction, too. The glamour, the dollars, the sincerity, it was all a lie. No promise held water with this man. He left a trail of bad blood and unsettled bills wherever he went, he stung people for money so often in so many places that he had to go to Canada and New Zealand and finally to this backwater in America to start his deceit anew.

Had the teenager searched the internet for details of his friend he'd have saved himself a nightmare. All he had to do was type in the name and then run for cover. He'd have known then that Justin Fashanu was a bad man to be around.

He remained in ignorance, though, and Fashanu preyed on him. One night in late March, after a drink or two and a couple of spliffs, the boy crashed out at Fashanu's place. He remembers feeling woozy, not drunk or high but powerless. He wonders then as he wonders now (when the awful memory of it returns) if something was put in his drink, some sort of tranquilliser. He woke up at 8am and found Fashanu fellating him. He fled home and told his mother. Two calls were made at that point: to a doctor and to the county police department. The medics discovered a tear in the boy's rectum, observed some blood and semen and concluded he'd been raped.

Detective Glenn Case paid Fashanu a visit and asked him if he would provide a sample of blood for examination. Fashanu said yes, absolutely. The sooner the better. He'd nothing to hide. Next day, Case returned to Fashanu's place and found it abandoned. He was gone without a trace, the only thing left being a note of his innocence carved into the wall with a penknife. A warrant was issued for his arrest – first and second-degree assault and second-degree sexual assault being the charges. If guilty, Fashanu was looking at ten to 20 years in prison.

The journalist Brian Deer went to the States to cover the story. Having spent time with the police, there was no doubt in his mind that Fashanu would have been nailed for this. "They were going to get him. There was no question about that."

We can only assume Fashanu knew it, too. His descent into suicide had a few signposts. On April 15, 1998, he went to a religious retreat in Leicestershire where he had once applied to become a monk. He got in touch with friends and asked them to try to sell a story to the tabloids, painting the boy as a blackmailer. Nobody bought it.

On April 30, a call from an unidentified source reached his brother John Fashanu's mobile phone. There were no words spoken, just sighs and breathing. To this day, the television presenter and former footballer thinks it was his estranged brother's last plea for help. "I could feel that it was somebody from my family," he says. "I could feel that it was Justin, but I didn't reach out. I just put the phone down and thought: 'Oh, it's him again.'"

Justin Fashanu was in London by now. The following afternoon, around 2pm, he entered a spa called Chariots, a gay meeting place behind Liverpool Street station. He stayed there for roughly six hours, his time spent in the company of young Oriental men. He was said to be in good spirits. Later, he walked a few hundred yards down a cobbled cul-de-sac in Shoreditch, found his way into a derelict garage, put an electric flex around his neck and hanged himself from the rafters. His body was found the following day, ten years ago this coming Friday. There was a note alongside. It stuck to the line about the boy blackmailing him. "We did have a relationship of mutual consent but the next day he demanded money off me. When I said no, he said, 'You wait and see.'"

Finally, he wrote: "I tried my best… this seems to be a really hard world."

"STICK YOUR bum out," he said.


"Stick it out. Come on, big lad, stick out that bum."

I stuck it out. "That's it," said Fashanu. "They'll not get near you if you just stick it out." That morning in 1993, a year before he left Scottish football in disgrace and five years before his suicide, Fashanu and I were locked side-by-side in a training session for his new club Airdrie; Britain's first black million-pound footballer, Britain's first (and, to date, only) openly gay footballer – and me.

I'd only gone along to write a piece about the club, to capture some thoughts on their desperate slog to avoid relegation, to hear their anger and bitterness at being labelled Scotland's most ill-disciplined team – or the Beastie Boys as the tabloids nicknamed them. I had no boots but they provided them. I had no jersey, no shorts, no socks, no interest, but they supplied the kit and worked on my enthusiasm.

John McVeigh, the madcap assistant manager, made me an offer I couldn't refuse. "See if you don't play, none of the lads will talk to ye. Isn't that right, lads?"

"That's right, boss. Nae chat."

So on I went, as strike partner to Justin Fashanu. He didn't say much except "feet, feet" when he wanted me to play the ball to his, er, feet instead of his head, and "on me nut" when he wanted it delivered the other way around. Oh, and the bit about the bum and how it can be used to shield yourself from defenders. "Like this, see," he demonstrated. "Get the idea? Right, sorted. Let's go."

This is the story of Fashanu's time in Scotland, just over a year in calendar terms which saw him play little more than 30 games of football and score just six goals. But it was a dizzying period for anybody who came into contact with his whirlwind. Dizzying and destructive, contradictory and manipulative – these are just some of the words used by people I spoke to. The polite ones. Others were not so circumspect. Fashanu left a lot of angry people behind him; some were owed money, others were duped by his fake sincerity, a lot will tell you that every word that came out of his mouth had to be treated with the greatest suspicion. Some realised it early, others saw it late and it ended up costing them.

It all started in the spring of 1993 when George Peat, now president of the Scottish Football Association and then chairman of Airdrie, decided he wanted a marquee name at his club, a striker that would get the turnstiles clicking and give the team a chance of avoiding the drop.

"We wanted a personality and we settled on Big Fash," says Peat. "He came up after his supposed affair with Bet Lynch. I wasn't sure if any of that was true but, as we were to discover, you didn't know what to believe with Justin.

"We agreed a thousand quid a game but he was always coming in looking for more. I got to thinking that he must have gone home every night and sat down and said to himself, 'Right, how can I make an extra 500 quid tomorrow?'"

Fashanu took about ten minutes to mark himself out as different. At his first training session he called over a YTS trainee and asked him how much he made in a week. The boy said 40. Fashanu said he'd give him 50 if he, personally, looked after his kit: washed it, ironed it, warmed it up and presented it in pristine condition. Boots, too. Scrubbed and polished and looking like mirrors on handover. From day one he had his own staff.

And he had his own way of preparing. He'd always be at training first, always with a bag of cosmetics. He had oils for this and creams for that, had his vitamins and minerals and fruit juices and isotonics before anybody in Airdrie had ever heard of them. He was a walking pharmacy. "Aye, he was gorgeous," says McVeigh. "And he was just about the most charismatic man I've ever met. I took him down to the Ford garage to get his sponsored car and it was supposed to be an Orion. Everybody had an Orion. Justin says, 'I'm not an Orion kind of guy.' So he goes in to see the manager and he obviously talks him around his little finger because the next thing I know Justin has driven past me in this sports car, this flash soft-top going like the clappers out of the garage and down the street."

He settled in Glasgow, in a waterfront apartment. That was glitzy as well. "He had this flat-warming party early on," recalls his former team-mate Kenny Black. "No expense was spared. There was a woman playing a harp outside his door. There was wine and champagne. Sandy Stewart (another team-mate] came in and said he didn't drink any of that fancy stuff. Justin went into the kitchen and brought back four cans of heavy just for Sandy. He was a very, very bright guy. Very sharp. You couldn't outfox him. He was open about his sexuality, it wasn't a taboo subject at all. We'd call him a big poof and he'd say, 'Hey, Blacky, don't knock it till you've tried it.'"

Alex Dowdalls reported on Airdrie games for 21 years and he never saw anybody quite like Fashanu. "He was dripping with gold: gold chains, gold rings, gold bracelets. He had designer sunglasses, trendy clothes. He had a pinstripe suit that must have been a right few grands' worth. He was a one-off. He had confidence oozing out of him. There was nobody like Justin."

Airdrie and Fashanu were an odd mix. Broomfield was hardly the most welcoming environment, but for a black, homosexual, narcissistic footballer, it had the potential to be a horror house. But it worked. The flamboyance was accepted by the faithful, the life of excess tolerated. More than that, it was celebrated. "He's black, he's gay, he plays for Air-da-ray!" went the chant. What the fans appreciated in him was that he tried his heart out. He was Fash the Flash off the field but he was Fash the Bash on it, able to mix it in the trenches with the hardest of them. He was ultra-physical to the point of maliciousness at times. His football ability may have faded but his power to intimidate remained.

"I remember Alex McLeish and Brian Irvine clattering him," says McVeigh. "His eyes were rolling about his head. 'Come off, Justin,' I said. 'You're all over the place, son.' He said, 'No, gimme ten minutes.' He went back on, threw the elbow into the two boys, absolutely rapped them, and said, 'Right, I'll come off anytime now.' He did the same to Andy Goram one day. He'd been told how Goram used to sort out forwards. Fash left him in a heap on the floor. He just went through him. Christ, he was a tough boy when he wanted to be."

None of the Airdrie players saw the other side of Fashanu but they heard stories. "Somebody told me there were two Justins but I'm pretty sure there were more than two," says Black. At the club and official functions he was clean-cut, unfailingly polite and hugely charismatic. But hair-raising tales of his private life did the rounds. He did a number of interviews (for cash) and at each one teenage boys hung around the periphery. Business associates, or so he said.

There was talk of sex parties and drugs. For those who got closest to him there were hints at how complicated he was, how sad and abusive his early life may have been. There was a feeling he had been sexually abused as a boy in care. Certainly, he suffered nightmares as a teenager. He would sit upright in his bed and punch out as if trying to beat off an attacker. One time, he sent his fists through his bedroom window. There was a repeat performance during his ill-fated spell at Nottingham Forest. Brian Clough's autobiography tells of an incident during the night in which Fashanu punched a hole through his hotel room door after another nightmare.

Whatever shaped him, there were demons involved. However it happened, he became a calculating individual. He targeted wealthy gay men and charmed vast sums of money out of them. There's the tale of the wealthy Edinburgh businessman who was infatuated with Fashanu. To the footballer, this was an opportunity too good to miss. The businessman funded Fashanu's lavish lifestyle on the apparent promise of an affair that never materialised. Those who observed the scene said it was cruel, that Fashanu had taken his admirer for five figures, had abused his affections to a scandalous degree.

Fashanu was a wanted man. Airdrie were relegated and he departed to a club in Sweden only to return soon after as a Hearts player. He was set up in a swish Georgian apartment in Edinburgh's New Town, a property purchased months before by an investor from the Far East. It cost 1,000 a month to stay there. Whoever paid for it, it certainly wasn't Fashanu.

While in Edinburgh he felt an urge to work on his life story. He needed a ghost writer and Gillian Glover, formerly of The Scotsman, was selected. "He contacted me and said he wanted me to write his book," she says. "Barnardo's Boy made good and all that. He said I'd no idea how amazing it would be, but the whole thing was later dropped. He was a fantasist. He had very grandiose ideas and was brilliant at getting other people to pay for them. He had incredible charm. But none of his stories added up. He was always on the verge of making it big globally, always on the verge of breaking through. People were drawn into the fantasy and how fabulous it was all going to be.

"I often doubted everything about him. But you couldn't doubt how handsome he was. Oh, jaw-droppingly so. He came to dinner at my house once and my stepdaughter stared at him the whole night. She could hardly pick up her cutlery. He was very aware of his physical charisma. The tales he spun just led people along. He pretended to be saved by Jesus. He said Jesus was guiding him on a daily basis. Guiding him to empty the pockets of others, more like."

At Hearts, he continued bewildering people. John Colquhoun was a team-mate back then. "I'd say there were about ten different people inside Fash's head. For instance, I could never understand why a gay black man was so vociferous in his defence of the Tories. He was pro-Conservative to the point of being right wing. I could never figure that out about him. Nights out with him were fantastic, though. We went to John Robertson's house for dinner one night and I collected him. He was dressed all in white. He looked amazing and he brought this big bunch of white lilies for John's missus. I mean, he was not your ordinary footballer.

"In the mornings he had his egg whites and his vitamins. He spent 15 minutes putting on his creams. As a player he could be the worst ever and other times he'd do things that were out of this world. He'd become unplayable with his physique. But it was always about the money with Fash. He'd screw money out of people every way he could."

His Tynecastle experience was a dismal failure. The fans rounded on him, not because of the colour of his skin or because of his sexual persuasion but because they thought he wasn't trying. They might have been able to forgive a non-scoring striker if they thought he was making an effort, but they saw him as a shirker. He was an unused substitute by the time the end came amid a huge scandal in March 1994.

"I remember coming into training one morning and, as I was walking in, two guys in suits were walking out," says Colquhoun. "They'd obviously been speaking to Justin so I asked who they were. He said they were from the government. They'd been sent to warn him about relationships he was supposedly having with government ministers. That's what he said. Where were they really from? I haven't a clue. But that's what he said – and shortly afterwards the stories about him and politicians emerged."

In February 1994 the Sunday People revealed that Fashanu had tried to sell the newspaper a story about his sexual relationship with two members of John Major's cabinet. He'd been looking for 300,000 for the expos, which happened to be a total fabrication, so flimsy he had no choice but to admit the hoax. He said it was a chance to make "easy money" from the red tops. Hearts sacked him on the spot. He went to Canada next, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills. He placed 20 boxes in storage and never came back for them. He never paid for the storage either. The removals company cracked open the boxes months later and found piles of designer clothes. Why would he leave them all behind? "Maybe because he knew he'd find another sucker to pay for more gear in the next place he turned up," says Glover.

THERE WAS AN awful lot of nonsense spoken in the aftermath of Fashanu's suicide but the bulk of it centred around his supposed courage for coming out in the macho world of football and the alleged damage his honesty did to his subsequent career. But revealing that he was gay had little to do with courage and a lot to do with cash. He gave the story to the Sun in 1990. It cost the paper 20,000 up front. In the few days spent working on the story, Fashanu ran up a 1,800 bill on the reporter's credit card. "He didn't seem to care about what his mother or brother would think," says the ghost writer, Allan Hall. "He was only interested in the money."

The damage to his career? It's hard to argue that one. By 1990 injury had wreaked terrible havoc on Fashanu's body and he was pretty much a spent force as a footballer. Other players in his position may have found it next to impossible to find a club willing to take them on. Because of his profile – or his personality, as George Peat calls it – Fashanu found plenty. At a certain level – Leyton Orient, Torquay, Airdrie, Hearts, Canada, America, New Zealand – he was still a name, still a crowd-puller. At Airdrie the average gate went up 15% while he was there. Fashanu said he lost three years of his football life when he came out. Like a lot of what he said, it was myth. "God has always allowed me to live in style and with panache," he declared in 1989. That was myth, too.

In the end he had no style, no panache, nobody to talk to in his final hours bar the strangers at Chariots spa. Apparently, before walking down the road and putting a noose around his neck, he told them of his plans to get into television, that things were taking off for him, that an exciting future lay ahead. Justin Fashanu proved a sad, complex and tragic Walter Mitty to the last breath.