by Juliet Jacques
Everyone at Carrow Road, forty days into the 1980s, knew immediately that they had witnessed a moment that would transcend the match they were watching. BBC commentator Barry Davies, covering Norwich City’s clash with Liverpool for Match of the Day, instinctively knew too. That moment was Justin Fashanu’s phenomenal Goal of the Season – if not the decade.
The goal, with Davies’ commentary, was repeated endlessly on television, featuring at the end of the BBC highlights programme’s title sequence. It was a brilliant piece of team play with a breath-taking individual finish, levelling the score at 3-3 in a pulsating match: Norwich full-backs Kevin Bond and Greg Downs, high in the Liverpool half, pulled the English champions’ defence out of position, before squaring to Graham Paddon. He spread the play across to John Ryan on the right wing. He fed the ball to centre forward Fashanu, who had his back to goal, and raced on, expecting a return pass to cross into the box.
Fashanu, 18, had other ideas. With the impudence of youth, he flicked the ball up with his right foot, turned, and volleyed it into the tiny space between Ray Clemence’s head and the post. The strike was perfect – and so was the celebration. There was a split second while the crowd, and the commentator, processed its brilliance: as the fans roared, Fashanu stood alone, one finger raised to the skies as if to announce his genius. Norwich eventually lost 5-3, but the goal overshadowed the result: it made the perfect televisual image, coming as a generation of black footballers were breaking through at England’s top level, leaving Fashanu poised to become their leading light.
This bright future was derailed by Fashanu’s disastrous £1m transfer to Nottingham Forest in summer 1981 – the first black player to move for such a fee – and then a career-destroying knee injury, his homosexuality and his complex relationship with the tabloids (summarised here by Peter Tatchell). As his fortunes rose and fell, concluding with his tragic suicide in 1998 after allegations of sexual assault, his famous goal took on very different meanings.
At Forest, Fashanu struggled to score at all: he often looked nothing like a First Division player, let alone one capable of such a sublime, almost subconscious goal in which body and mind were perfectly synchronised to momentous effect. As Fashanu’s struggles with his sexuality and other deep lying issues (which possibly dated back to his parents’ break-up, his father’s leaving for Nigeria and his time in a Barnardo’s home with younger brother John, all in his infancy) played on his mind, riddling his performances with anxiety, its replication, or another equally brilliant moment became impossible. The Liverpool goal was soon recast – as pure luck.
In his first autobiography, published in 1994, Clough wrote that Fashanu’s goal “conned me out of a million pounds”. With Fashanu discredited after trying to selling false stories about Conservative MPS to the tabloids, Clough was in control of the narrative, and his insistence that Fashanu’s goal was a fluke was reiterated in many pieces written after Fashanu’s death.
However, Clough’s assertion was disingenuous – not least because he and assistant Peter Taylor scouted Fashanu several times during the 1980-1981 season, as Fashanu became Norwich’s leading scorer and moved from England’s Under-21s to the senior squad (although he was never capped). Whilst the goal was unrepresentative of Fashanu’s natural strengths – his strength, aerial ability, holding up the ball and link-up play – and of the 34 he scored in 90 First Division games for the Canaries, it was far from a fluke, having its roots in hours, if not days or weeks of practice. Norwich City’s youth scout Ronnie Brooks visited Norfolk schools looking for talent, and identified 14-year-old Fashanu as a prospect, inviting him to train with the club during his holidays and then signing him as an apprentice.
Having persuaded Fashanu to play football rather than box (he was twice an ABA junior heavyweight finalist, aged 14 and 15), Brooks spent time with him in the gym at Norwich’s training ground at Trowse, wanting him to become less one-footed and learn how to strike the ball in the air. Endlessly, Brooks would throw a ball over Fashanu’s shoulder, demanding that he turn, volley it against the wall with one foot and then hit it back with the other.
Sometimes, Fashanu did so with astonishing precision; others, he just shrugged as it limped towards the wall. “If you don’t put everything you’ve got into this, I’m going to fucking dump you!” Brooks would scream at him, and Fashanu applied himself. Once – just once – he replicated what he’d learned in a match, which just happened to be televised. For better or worse, it made him a superstar.
The BBC’s contract with the Football League allowed highlights of just one match a week to be broadcast, with goals of such quality very rarely captured. Now, with so much football filmed and made available, fans can form opinions on players far beyond those that they see live, and can far more easily contextualise moments of greatness. Then, it was far harder to evaluate players not regularly seen in the flesh, and the ubiquity of Fashanu’s goal created, on some level of consciousness, certain expectations of Fashanu as a player and person, which proved unhelpful in their inaccuracy. Many who saw it would not have realised, for example, that Fashanu celebrated nearly every goal, no matter what its significance, with his single finger salute, let alone that the finish was not typical of his style.
The goal seemed to define a moment in which young black footballers were overcoming racism (manifested in chants and bananas thrown from the terraces, which were increasingly plagued by hooliganism) through the brilliance of their play. Viv Anderson played for England and won the European Cup; West Bromwich Albion’s ‘Three Degrees’ – defender Brendon Batson, winger Laurie Cunningham and striker Cyrille Regis – illuminated the First Division as Albion finished third in 1978; skilful playmakers Ricky Hill and Vince Hilaire featured in England’s Under 21 side. Indeed, there were enough prominent black players by the early Eighties for Hilaire to name a black XI to play his club, Crystal Palace, in a friendly – in which Fashanu was involved.
Fashanu sustained a knee injury suffered while playing for Notts County on New Year’s Eve 1983 that effectively ended his First Division career. Whilst he was incapacitated, both his status as an important black player and his goal were eclipsed by John Barnes, whose exhilarating solo run and finish against Brazil in Rio in June 1984 signalled his promise on a global (rather than national) stage – which Barnes was able to fulfil, at least at club level if only intermittently for England.
Barnes’s goal, containing so much skill, could not be dismissed as merely fortunate: it helped the Watford and Liverpool winger become emblematic of a second generation of black players who – unlike Fashanu – played for the biggest clubs, won trophies and earned full international caps. These included Arsenal youth products and title winners David Rocastle, Paul Davis and Michael Thomas, 1990 World Cup stars Des Walker and Paul Parker, and John Fashanu, only 18 months younger than Justin but who, after a far slower start, finally established himself as an FA Cup winner and England striker towards the end of the Eighties, outstripping (and later distancing himself from) his older brother. They were seen more frequently on television, not just because they played for England at major tournaments but also because the Football League allowed ITV regular broadcasts of live League games (and, in John Fashanu’s case, as he co-hosted Gladiators).
After Fashanu came out as gay and tried to revive his career at Torquay United (a surreal episode, which I documented here), his goal became an albatross, continuing to overshadow all else he did – at least until his private life became more newsworthy than his professional endeavours. After his sad, solitary demise at the age of 37, it became a symbol of talent lost: a brilliant prospect destroyed by off-field matters to an extent not endured by any of his contemporaries. That Fashanu was never able to repeat that incredible moment at Carrow Road on 9 February 1980 was his tragedy. That nobody else was remains his legacy.