How the first openly gay professional men’s footballer – one of England’s most headline-grabbing stars of the 80s and 90s – ended his career playing for a Wellington club side in New Zealand’s summer league.
This story was originally published on the author’s Substack newsletter, Two Halves.
Justin Fashanu’s life was extraordinary, tumultuous and, ultimately, short. The English footballer died 25 years ago this month, at the age of 37.
Fashanu’s professional career began with Norwich City in 1978, and combusted into life with a stunning goal of the season against Liverpool in 1980. He went on to become Britain’s first £1 million Black footballer when he transferred to European champions Nottingham Forest the following season.
He remains best known, however, as the first openly gay professional men’s footballer, coming out publicly in 1990.
Less well known is the story of how one of the most headline-grabbing figures in English football came to end his playing career in the relative peace and quiet of New Zealand’s National Football League. This is the story of Justin Fashanu’s season with Wellington’s Miramar Rangers.
Ahead of another summer of football, Miramar Rangers were struggling to find a striker to spearhead their attack. An attempt to lure Mount Maunganui goal machine Alan Lamb had failed, and head coach John Cameron was struggling for options.
Then, out of the blue, he received a call from New Zealand Football development officer Glenn Turner with a proposition that sounded too good to be true.
Prior to his role at NZF, Turner, who passed away last year, worked as a physical educator in Fashanu’s home county of Norfolk and the two were close. Turner was aware of Miramar’s striker shortage and felt Justin might be the solution. He wouldn’t even be the first Fashanu to play for the club – younger brother John, perhaps better known to New Zealanders as the former co-presenter of 90s UK TV classic Gladiators, played for the club on loan in 1982.
Suddenly, Miramar’s boss had the chance to bring a player of real international pedigree to the Peninsula.
Some reservations remained, however. Not around Fashanu’s sexuality or his regular appearances in the UK tabloids – these were strictly sporting reservations. A series of severe knee injuries had forced Fashanu into a somewhat nomadic late career. In the eight years prior to his New Zealand adventure, he had played for 15 clubs across England, Canada, Scotland, Sweden and the United States.
“We did have a bit of a concern not knowing enough about his physical wellbeing,” Cameron explains. “So as a club, we agreed it was best to offer Justin to come out here so we could meet him firsthand and organise for a game to be played. Then we could run our eye over him and be comfortable that he was a viable option physically.”
To Cameron’s amazement, Fashanu agreed. With the start of the season rapidly approaching, a friendly was hastily arranged between Miramar and a Wellington Invitational XI in Petone one Tuesday night.
“It was quite incredible,” Cameron recalls. “I think there was a crowd of about 4,000 people that turned up and Justin shined, including getting a goal. We quickly endeavoured to put a deal together to bring him over for the summer season.”
Some entrepreneurial contacts helped put a financial package together, involving accommodation and a motor vehicle. A few weeks later, Fashanu was lining up in Hamilton for his New Zealand National League debut against Melville United.
Teammates remember Fashanu as a hard-working, happy and willing striker with none of the baggage or primadonna tendencies you might expect for a player once worth seven figures. In fact, one of the main things that stood out about Fashanu was his ahead-of-its-time skincare regimen – several of his former teammates today reminisce about “Fash’s potions” with joy.
Future All Whites goalkeeper James Bannatyne was just a youngster when Fashanu joined the club. The age gap meant he didn’t get to know Fashanu well, but his qualities on the pitch shone through.
“I have two memories of Justin that really stand out,” says Bannatyne. “One was that lotion,” he jokes.
“The other was a header that was probably better than Grant Turner’s famous one against Australia. What a header, one of the best you’ll ever see. It was an absolute demonstration of his raw quality. He was in his mid-30s but he still had that timing and quality.”
On the pitch, Fashanu performed well, scoring 12 goals in 18 games in what was ultimately a disappointing season for Miramar Rangers, who missed out on a playoff spot. Off the pitch, however, is where he really had an impact. Cameron recalls the increased fanfare and attendance whenever “Fash” was playing – he added a glamour and celebrity the local football scene had seldom seen before.
Away from the spotlight, Fashanu was also keen to give back. He helped two local talents earn soccer scholarships at US universities, he judged at a fashion event at the Wellington Cup and was a regular visitor to the child cancer unit at Wellington Hospital. When he died, a father of one young boy being treated for a brain tumour spoke of his son’s anguish at the passing of “My Justin”.
This was a far cry from the Fashanu often portrayed in the British media. Although he wasn’t always entirely blameless – the admission he had tried to sell fake stories to a national newspaper about alleged gay relationships with MPs had cost him his job at Scottish club Hearts in 1994 – Fashanu had become a magnet for negative press coverage since coming out in 1990. But his eight months in New Zealand passed without scandal.
“There were always rumours that appeared to follow him, but not when he was out here,” says Cameron. “He was gregarious, no doubt, and always a human headline, but all I can say is that in New Zealand, he was a human headline for all the right reasons and was just a really good thing for football.”
In Cameron, Fashanu had a coach clearly disinterested in the widely-reported aspects of his personal life. That hadn’t always been the case in England.
Not only did Fashanu suffer homophobia from members of the UK press and football supporters, he also faced it from his own managers. The legendary Brian Clough, who made him a £1m player with his move to Nottingham Forest in 1981, eventually admitted his cruelty toward Fashanu. He once infamously threatened to call the police on him when Fashanu refused a transfer to Derby County.
Fashanu found no such trouble in Wellington. “His sexuality was never really a thing,” says Cameron. “I never witnessed or recall – and I’m sure I would’ve found out if it had happened – any kind of hostility or anything like that.”
Fashanu’s experience has long been held up as a cautionary tale against coming out in the men’s game. He is often cited as an example of why there are so few openly gay male footballers. Indeed, it took more than three decades for the UK’s next active professional male footballer to come out as gay.
As former teammate and All White David Chote recalls, Fashanu’s sexuality was simply a non-issue in the sheds at Miramar.
“I had been in the UK in the eighties and Justin was a big name then and the attention he got was nasty really,” Chote says. “I think he felt comfortable in the New Zealand environment, away from any dramas in relation to his private life where he could play football and have an adventure.
“He wasn’t at all in the closet or anything like that. There was no secrecy or scandal because his private life was public. If he had boyfriends they’d be at the club, if he didn’t they wouldn’t be at the club. He was open, totally open.”
After eight months, Fashanu left New Zealand to take up a coaching role in Maryland, USA. The final game of his 20-year football career came against Christchurch side Woolston in March of 1997.
The following March, Fashanu once again ran into controversy when he was accused of the alleged sexual assault of a 17-year-old in Ellicott City, Howard County. In a state where homosexuality was still illegal, Fashanu denied the allegations and made a hasty return to England.
On May 2, 1998 – just 14 months after his time in New Zealand came to an end – Fashanu was dead. His cause of death was suicide.
His death came as a shock to those who knew Fashanu during his time in the capital.
“He struck me as a good guy who really cared about people and had a nice tone about him,” says Bannatyne. “I was really shocked and sad.”
While his death was reported crudely by certain sections of the UK press, in New Zealand tributes poured in for a man who, in the words of his boss Cameron, “just wanted to be liked and loved.”
In the decades since, Fashanu has entered England’s National Football Museum Hall of Fame, and a petition for his statue to be erected outside Norwich’s Carrow Road ground began gathering pace late last year. A dramatic televisual retelling of his life and relationship with his brother has just been commissioned.
“If people feel comfortable with me as a person, then my sexuality is not important,” Fashanu once said. In New Zealand, that seems to be what he got.
It was perhaps the perfect way to end his playing career, one which ignited so dramatically with that timeless goal against Liverpool before encountering such divisive controversy in relation to his sexuality. Fashanu finished his playing career as he started it, carefree and with a smile on his face.
As is often the case when it comes to footballers, Fashanu’s time in New Zealand is probably best summed up by a teammate – an impression of him forged in battle at grounds across the nation.
“I recall Justin laughing a lot and smiling a lot,” recalls his old attacking partner Chote. “I remember him being friendly and gregarious – all these adjectives for someone who is having a really good time.”
“He was and still is a very positive memory for me, both on and off the pitch.”