The year was 1988 and John Fashanu was in his element.
The Wimbledon centre forward was in the glitzy Dorchester Hotel, celebrating with his team-mates after their astonishing victory in the FA Cup.
The win over Liverpool that day was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition and the celebrations were in full swing.
But then things turned ugly. Fashanu went to the bathroom, where a group of players were laughing and joking about the fact that his brother Justin was gay.
John says: ‘At that time, anybody saying my brother was gay was reason to fight them. Now you wouldn’t think twice about it. But then it was an insult to my family name. One of my brothers was gay. Are you mad?’
Ten years later Justin, the first £1million black footballer — and first openly gay professional — killed himself, a victim of racism and homophobia. He hanged himself in a deserted garage after being wrongly accused of sexual assault.
‘It was a horrible day,’ adds John, who was a year younger than his brother. ‘While Justin wrestled with a number of personal demons in his life, it is clear that issues around his sexuality were at the heart of his problems.
‘There is no question that the prejudice he encountered in his professional life as a top-flight footballer for club and country blighted his career and led eventually to his death. It is a sad reflection of the continuing issues that surround professional football that, 20 years after Justin’s death, there is not a single openly gay footballer in the Premier League.
‘This is a situation that defies logic and underlines the fact that, 20 years after Justin’s death, it is still not considered advisable to be openly gay.’
John now regrets that he was part of the culture that condemned his brother to death. And, in a total volte-face, he now is urging other gay players to ‘come out’ and change the face of the sport.
He and his oldest daughter Amal, a 29-year-old TV presenter and bag designer, are launching a foundation on April 1 in an attempt to stamp out homophobia in football and increase the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender players (LGBT) in the sport.
Backed by the Professional Footballers Association and FIFA, the Justin Fashanu Foundation will collaborate with the professional bodies in organising fundraisers and raising sponsorship in a bid to eliminate prejudice in the sport.
While John will be the figurehead of the organisation, Amal is planning to organise workshops in schools and clubs at grassroots level to educate our future footballers about the negative effect of homophobia in sport.
‘Our mission is to confront discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in football at all levels and empower them to participate without regard to their sexuality,’ says John. ‘We want to ensure that professional footballers can be open about their sexuality without the fear of public disapproval or professional disadvantage.
‘Thirty years ago, when I was at my peak playing football, the climate wasn’t conducive for anybody to come out. It wasn’t conducive for anyone to say they were bisexual, homosexual, LGBT.
‘But times have changed. The reaction has been overwhelming. It has been amazing. It’s almost like people are saying now: “Please come out. Have a free spirit. Have a free will. Be who you are”. There are a lot of people we hope to inspire to be free to come out and nobody will persecute them as I did with my brother many years ago.’
Fashanu, 56, readily admits that he acted like a ‘monster’ towards his brother after discovering he was homosexual in 1990. Initially, he did not believe the gossip that Justin was gay but, after his brother confirmed the rumours, he paid him £75,000 to keep quiet.
Later, when Justin came out in The Sun under the headline ‘£1million Football Star: I am Gay,’ he felt betrayed. Eight days later, he hit back, doing an interview with The Voice, saying: ‘My Gay Brother is an Outcast’.
‘Initially I didn’t believe him,’ says Fashanu, who now runs a Sports Academy in Nigeria. ‘When I confronted him and he said he was gay, I just thought he was doing it for attention.
‘Of course you’re gay,’ I thought. ‘Stop showing off. You’re trying to take my glory. You’re not going to do it. I’m the No1 footballer, I’ve taken your position, I’m now in the Premiership and playing for England. You’re now smoking out, having injuries and you just want to take my platform’.
That was what I was thinking. So I said: ‘Here, I’m going to give you £75,000 on the condition that you stop telling everybody you’re gay because no one cares’.
‘I then put him in a beautiful hotel in central London and asked my then manager to keep him there for a few weeks to calm him down. Little did I realise that he was gay too and sympathised with Justin. They colluded together and came up with the front-page story in the Sun.
‘I was livid. I thought he was a scam artist, taking money from me and taking money from the newspaper. I couldn’t understand then — although I can now — why he thought it was necessary to tell all and sundry that he was a homosexual. After all, I’m a heterosexual but I don’t go around singing that I’m a heterosexual.
‘Now I see the frustration and confusion he must have been going through. He must have just wanted to bare his soul. But homophobia was the rage then. You couldn’t even say the word homosexuality 30 years ago. My immediate thought was to protect my siblings, protect my mother and father and protect my loved ones around me.’
John, who scored 134 league goals in almost 400 games at Wimbledon and four other clubs, believes it was sibling rivalry that tore the brothers apart.
Just 19 months separated them in age, they were extremely close as children, after being sent to a Barnardo’s home when their parents Pearl Gopal, a nurse from British Guyana, and Patrick Fashanu, a Nigerian barrister, split up. They were later fostered by Alf and Betty Jackson, who lived in Shropham in Norfolk.
But when Justin was capped by England at Under-21 level, their circumstances changed. While he had money in his pocket, his brother was still trying to make his way. It would be another six years before John joined Wimbledon and their roles reversed. By then his brother’s career was on the wane.
‘I think it was sibling rivalry,’ he says. ‘And then you add the football, you add the showbiz, you add the celebrity, you add the money. Oh my goodness. That made the relationship quite toxic.
‘Money is a very powerful influencer when you don’t have any. I can remember going to my foster parents house and going through Justin’s numerous suits, looking for money in the pockets because I was broke.
‘I wouldn’t say I was jealous of him — I was happy for his success — but I felt annoyed that he wasn’t supporting me. I was very cross because he had a lot of money and wouldn’t give me any.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, I think he wanted me to learn the hard way. He would say: “You are not going to be a freeloader, John. You are not going to sponge off me. You will work for your money”. But at the time I couldn’t see it. I thought he was a meanie pants. Now, 30 years later, I say: “Thank you so much for assisting me to understand you have to work for your own money”.’
But it was very different when the tables were reversed and John became a millionaire. Then Justin would ask him for money and, as the dutiful younger brother, he paid up. ‘I was very generous,’ he says with a laugh.
‘And, of course, I loved him.’ Contrary to reports at the time, the two brothers were not estranged when Justin died. In fact, when Justin fled America after being wrongly accused of sexual assault, he turned to his brother. John last saw him on April 30, 1998, two days before he died.
‘Sometimes we had three months, sometimes it was five months we didn’t speak,’ says John. ‘But we would still pick up the phone and shout abuse at each other, as brothers do. I think I was one of the last people to actually see him. He came to my penthouse in St John’s Wood.
‘The dynamics had changed so quickly, from me not having any money and him being loaded, to me suddenly having crazy money and him having no money at all.’
It was at that time that John had a premonition about his brother.
‘I actually called my mum and said that I think Justin is going to take his life,’ he says. I saw the narrative. I saw that he was looking like a man on some sort of downward spiral.
‘I think he was lost. I think he was defeated. I thought: “This is not good. I think Justin is going to do something silly”.’
It was two days later, on May 2, when John and his second wife Melissa were christening their oldest son Amir, now 21, that his brother hanged himself in a deserted garage. The couple have two other children Akim, 19, and Alana, 14, and John has another two with his third wife Dolapo, Alik, 15, and Alisa, 11.
‘My then wife and I were arguing over whether to christen him Amir Justin Fashanu,’ he says. ‘I was refusing because he had caused me so much stress. Just as I changed my mind, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and there were two police officers. They said: “Is that John Fashanu? We have bad news to tell you. Your brother has passed away.” I said: “What do you mean? He’s dead?”
John and his daughter Amal are launching a foundation to tackle homophobia in football
It was so traumatic. I thought it was some sort of horrible joke gone wrong. The challenge was how do we tell my mother Pearl, who was already not very well. She had cancer and we all knew telling her would kill her and we were right.
‘We drove to her house but didn’t say anything. She just looked at us and burst into tears and said: “I know he’s dead”. Then literally on Justin’s birthday the following year, she passed away.’
It is now more than 20 years since his brother’s death and John, who is building a John Fashanu housing estate in Nigeria, for sportsmen and women, has moved with the times. ‘I’m sad that I wasn’t able to communicate better with Justin and a lot more often,’ he adds.
‘Communication stops wars. But life is too short for regrets. What we couldn’t see many years ago, we can now see.
‘We cannot go back and change the narrative but we can move forward and make changes for the future. Hopefully, our foundation will be a major stepping stone to change.
‘Justin was a wonderful brother and achieved so many goals: he was a great athlete, the first black £1m footballer, had the best goal of the year — which was an amazing goal — and bigger than all of those accolades, he was my brother.
‘He propelled me into the limelight: a high percentage of my achievements in this world have been because of him. Not only was I able to film the biggest television show in the world for 13 years, Gladiators, but I won the FA Cup in 1988 with Wimbledon, the Crazy Gang.
‘All my achievements were phenomenal. And they wouldn’t have happened without Justin.’