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Justin Fashanu | the final score

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Justin Fashanu's end game

Had the accused not fled, The Trial of Justin Fashanu would have convened at the Howard County Courthouse, Ellicott City, three miles north of Ashton Woods. It's a grey granite building, dating to 1841, with tall Georgian windows and an elegant extension added in the mid-1980s. On the ground floor level are clerks' offices, administration and the public records department. Above, are five high-ceilinged wood-finished courtrooms, off a wide corridor floored in marble.

Ellicott City was founded by Quakers. Their businesses were iron and textiles. Out-of-town shopping malls have strangled traditional commerce, but the narrow Main Street is among America's best-preserved, with formerly-thriving grocery and hardware stores now converted to the tourist trade. They sell antiques, gifts and bric-a-brac. There is an all-year Christmas shop. There are countless protected historic residences and hotels. Across the Patapsco River and up a steep slope there's the shell of an old cotton mill

Court parking is tight and facilities limited, but America might have enjoyed the trial. Maryland bans cameras from proceedings, but the network live trucks and foreign satellite up-links would have carved a Fort Fashanu in the lot. An ageing black sports star, retired with knee trouble. A white victim. An immediate flight. The formula was there: a little OJ II. The hearing had the potential to be big.

At face value, however, it could well been a short one: the forensic evidence could hardly be doubted. Even the fashion for legal challenges to science couldn't easily discredit the DNA.

But the forensic tests would only establish the sex. The question of force would then arise. By its nature rape is rarely witnessed by others, and defendants almost always claim consent. With Fashanu's dead body, a suicide note was found, suggesting he would have taken that route. "I want to say that I did never and have never sexually assaulted that young man," the memo said. "Yes, 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'."

Fashanu added: "The first I heard that I was a fugitive was when I turned on the television news. I realised that I had already been presumed guilty."

Of course, blackmailers must offer their prey time to think, and in his distraught state of mind Fashanu may not have considered how quickly his victim came forward. But in the weeks between the soccer player's flight from Maryland and the news of his death in London, DJ pondered the trial with dread. Rape victims always do.

How was it, he knew defence attorneys would demand, that he had apparently gone to sleep on the couch in the lounge and had awoken in Mr Fashanu's bed?

DJ could not answer this. He simply didn't know.

Wasn't it true that his mother, not he, was the most insistent in calling the police?

His mother was insistent, but so was he. He was outraged by what had occurred.

Could he tell the court again... and again... and again... what it was he said happened that night?

By confronting the taboo against discussing male rape, there was the consolation that weathering what would have been a painful cross-examination might have accomplished a public good. And attention would soon have shifted from the victim's motives to those of the man accused. What were the clues that explained what he did? Who was this Justin Fashanu?

*****

Incredibly, the sportsman's celebrity status had been secured with a single, left-footed kick, that propelled him to the top of his sport. Playing for Norwich City against Liverpool in February 1980, he received the ball by the right of the opposition's penalty box, spun and whacked a rising shot past the goalkeeper's outstretched hand. Like a golfing hole-in-one there was a big chunk of luck, but it became the television goal of the year. The BBC screened it weekly on Match of the Day. And Nottingham Forest snapped him up for one million.

But things were not so simple when in August, next season, Fashanu ran onto the field as the number 9-shirt striker for Forest. In the following months he clashed with the club's manager, Brian Clough, who turned against the brash 20-year-old. Clough loathed homosexuals almost as much as he despised unproductive forwards, and Fashanu had not only been seen in gay bars, but in 32 games scored just three times.

"Forest," wrote Clough's biographer, Tony Francis, "had opened up themselves, but this time with the gay abandon of a child in a sweetshop. Justin Fashanu was a hopeless misfit. It was only after paying £1m for him that Clough and Taylor realised he could not play their style of football."

Clough blew the whistle and fired him from Forest. The fall had begun, so soon.

Fashanu drifted, first to Southampton, later back to Nottingham, with Notts County. But on New Year's Eve 1983, a physical disaster struck. His right knee was punctured by an opponent's boot studs and, though his career limped on, the damage was done. He was only third-rate after that. In July 1986, he was let go by second-division Brighton which advised that "he doesn't play football again." He did trials with five other British clubs, but doctors reports made him uninsurable on the field.

Had he not killed himself and had the court case gone ahead, reporting no doubt would have maintained his celebrity, almost as assiduously as he maintained it himself. In October 1990, his agent Hall sold a string of stories to The Sun for more than £100,000, detailing how he had allegedly "bedded" a member of parliament and had "romped" at the House of Commons. Two years later, exclusives appeared about a supposed affair with the actress and Coronation Street star Julie Goodyear. And in February 1994, another story broke linking him with Stephen Milligan, the late Conservative MP, whose body had been found in compromising circumstances.

The core of these stories were for-profit fabrications and caused uproar in the sportsman's circle. After the first yarns, his younger brother John Fashanu, also a front-rank soccer striker, publicly disowned him. After the Goodyear tales, friends dating back to his teenage years stopped returning his calls. And after the Milligan deception the minor Scottish team Hearts fired him for dishonouring the game.

This descent into ruin would be quickly researched for the trial, and this material might have assisted the prosecution. A track record of lies would certainly damage his position in a stand-off against DJ's testimony. But perhaps the defence might have something to say about the events which had shaped their client. The material might well have only been in pleas for leniency, but it might have helped his critics to understand.

Fashanu's life had never been without trouble, pretty much from the day it began. He was born on Sunday 20 February 1961 - a day so foggy the River Thames's Woolwich ferry was suspended for nearly two hours. Both his parents - Pearl and Patrick - were new immigrants to Britain and after moving between now-demolished semi-slum terraces at Shellgrove Road and Gainsborough Square, east London, in 1964 broke up to start new families. They abandoned Justin, then 4, and John, 2, to the tender care of the Dr Barnardo's organisation's neo-gothic orphanage at Barkingside, complete with clock tower, church and sexual abuse.

The brothers were then fostered by a middle class white couple who lived in the Norfolk village of Shropham. Although Pearl came to visit from time to time, there were no other black people, at home, or at school, or for 15 miles in any direction. Neighbours say that both children were shy, confused about their status and that Justin openly craved to be white. He had no role models, or access to knowledge about the issues and meanings of race.

Some sources claimed later that his foster family had caused him to lose track of himself. "He never once, in my company, referred to gay or black people as anything other than a third party," an ex-lover recalled after his death. "Absolutely never in the same breath as a personal reference."

But whoever, or whatever, he felt that he was, he might have felt he could have whatever he wanted. In Shropham, he lived a spoilt life in the "Flint House", a two-story lodge behind holly and hawthorn bushes, down country lanes festooned with cow parsley. His foster mother, Betty, played the organ at the 13th century local church, where Justin was the black face in the choir. Her husband, Alf, ran a backyard engineering business, but was a loner and had a reputation as a drunk. They lavished luxuries and treats on the boys, but people said Alf had "moods".

These dislocations in themselves might have assist his defence, but something else might by then have been unearthed. According to Betty and Alf's son, Edward, who was 15 years older than Fashanu (and who slept in an adjacent room) during his teenage years Justin suffered from the most terrifying, traumatic, violent nightmares. He would sit up in his sleep and lash out with his fists, as if fighting-off some unseen assailant. On one occasion, when he was 15 or 16, he punched clean through his bedroom window, sending a shower of shattered glass onto the lawn.

Nobody knows the frequency with which these terrors descended, but in Clough's autobiography, published in 1994, the former Nottingham Forest boss reported a similar incident in adulthood. The team was staying at a Spanish hotel and members of the squad were woken at 2am by "a sound like gunshot" from the striker's bedroom. "The door was in splinters, with a huge hole right through the middle," Clough wrote. "Fashanu had been having a nightmare."

*****

Justin Fashanu | the final score
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