Amal Fashanu was nine when her footballer uncle Justin hanged himself. He was Britain’s first black £1 million player. He was also gay.
“I remember the day so vividly,” says Amal, now a striking 23-year-old model. “The night before, we were reading Chip and Skip and fighting with strawberries. The next day he was going to take me to Elton John’s studios as a treat. I was waiting and he never came.”
Fashanu’s body was discovered in an east London garage in May 1998, the eight years of turmoil he had experienced after admitting his homosexuality ended by a length of electric flex.
Amal – the daughter of Justin’s younger, but equally famous, brother John – has sought to discover why the former Norwich City and Nottingham Forest striker remains the only high-profile British footballer to declare himself gay. In doing so she has had to exorcise demons from her own family’s past.
For when Justin announced to the world in 1990 that he was gay, his brother John – then a member of Wimbledon’s notorious Crazy Gang team – effectively disowned him, reacting angrily on camera and describing him in one newspaper article as an outcast. “I think my dad believed that was the best approach at the time: the correct way of protecting our family,” says Amal.
This authored documentary is the first time she’s raised the subject of her uncle’s death with her father. She says she still doesn’t know if the brothers – fostered as children by a white family in Norfolk – ever spoke again. “I haven’t really asked that. I’m afraid to ask some questions because a few are still so delicate.” She does, though, believe that her father, John, was also a casualty.
“He describes times when the other footballers bullied him because of Justin. He was a member of the Crazy Gang, and these guys were ridiculing him because his brother was gay.”
In the film, father and daughter sob as he ponders his own hostile response towards Justin: “I wonder, ‘Could I have done more?’ and I keep coming up with the answer that I could.”
In her agent’s office, Amal is close to tears again as she considers her father’s actions at the time. “My dad knows it wasn’t the right thing to do. They were very, very close and it wasn’t very brotherly. It’s a terrible thing for him [to live with]. Remorse is the worst feeling ever, especially when it’s over someone you love.”
She hopes the film will open up a wider debate about gay people in football and, perhaps, encourage someone to do what her uncle did more than 20 years ago and admit his homosexuality. “We need more brave people, otherwise it’s not going to change. Whether sexually you like Victoria or you like David, it doesn’t matter.”
Britain’s Gay Footballers is at 9pm tonight on BBC3