Proud Canaries founder says football isn’t ready for openly gay players

Di Cunningham spoke at Norwich City icon Justin Fashanu's induction into the National Football Museu

Di Cunningham spoke at Norwich City icon Justin Fashanu's induction into the National Football Museum's Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Picture: David Cleverdon - Credit: Archant

'There was a real resolve to make a change.'

Justin Fashanu and Phil Hoadley in their Norwich City days. Picture: Archant Library

Justin Fashanu and Phil Hoadley in their Norwich City days. Picture: Archant Library - Credit: Archant

That was the view from Di Cunningham, founder of Proud Canaries, of Wednesday's ceremony to officially induct Norwich City icon Justin Fashanu into football's hall of fame.

The former Canaries striker was England's first male English professional to come out as gay while still playing, back in 1990.

He took his own life in 1998, but was posthumously placed alongside some of the sport's most recognised names in a ceremony at the National Football Museum (NFM) in Manchester.

To date, he remains the only professional footballer in England to publicly come out while still playing - Miss Cunningham, who spoke at the ceremony, believes that this is why the NFM has chosen to induct Fashanu into their Hall of Fame.

Justin Fashanu playing for Norwich City Football Club against Liverpool on 9th February 1980, the ga

Justin Fashanu playing for Norwich City Football Club against Liverpool on 9th February 1980, the game where he scored his 'goal of the season'. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

She said: "Only players who have shown supreme talent over their whole careers have been chosen. With Justin, sadly the high point was at the very beginning with Norwich.

"Considering the lack of support and the stick he got for his sexuality before he even came out in the press, there's no wonder that he wasn't able to produce his talent throughout his career.

"To still be in that company despite all that shows that the decision was made because he came out."

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But despite the NFM's very public recognition for Fashanu's bravery, the founder of Proud Canaries does not believe that this move will be the trigger for more professionals to publicly discuss their sexuality.

The Norwich fans unfurl a banner commemorating the 40th anniversary of Justin Fashanu's wonder goal

The Norwich fans unfurl a banner commemorating the 40th anniversary of Justin Fashanu's wonder goal before the Premier League match at Carrow Road, NorwichPicture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd +44 7904 64026715/02/2020 - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

She said: "Even with this recognition for Justin, there was still some toxic hatred on Twitter, which shows that some still aren't ready for it."

In order for this to change, she says The FA must work with academies and lower leagues to make changes before people are in the public eye.

She said: "It is far more difficult to come out if the eyes of the world are upon you.

"We all need to work together, and leagues and The FA need to work with academies to encourage youngsters to be who they are.

"If a footballer was already out before they get to a global platform, then by the time they are there it will be a lot easier.

National Football Museum chief executive Tim Desmond described Fashanu as "a pioneer on many levels" and said the award "acknowledges not only Justin's legacy but also the importance of the LGBT+ community within football".

Di Cunningham's full speech at the ceremony

"I've been thinking about a parallel universe in which Justin was inducted here many years ago as a testament to an enduring stellar playing career replete with club honours and national caps. Maybe he'd be busy as a pundit; taking issue with Danny Murphy and Ian Wright and annoying Chris Sutton on Twitter, perhaps showcasing his niece Amal's collections on the catwalk and in Attitude magazine, hanging out at games with his old mate Leroy or with Stephen Fry and Elton John and a regular on the Graham Norton and Ellen shows.

"I love Justin deeply - as all Norwich fans do. He is universally revered by every Canary supporter and frankly by pretty much everyone in Norfolk. He was raised there and an active contributor the the community - first playing youth football as well as competitive junior boxing. Even as a first team player he hung out with fans and local people, was warm and generous and regularly supported local charities and causes. And of course for a gay supporter Justin as the elusive out gay male player is iconic. So I'm delighted that the NFM has awarded Justin Fashanu the accolade of a place in the Hall of Fame.

"But Justin's induction here is for his contribution to football in other ways - not by virtue of sustained top level play - he produced wonder goals and brilliant skills on many occasions but consistency was denied - to an extent through injury, but undoubtedly because of who he was.

"Justin had to deal with difference early on - fostered aged four, with toddler brother John he moved from London to his home with Betty and Alf Jackson in rural and predominantly white Norfolk. However supportive the local community and loving the Jacksons were he unquestionably experienced negativity as a foster-kid and lacked representation of other people of colour. And then as a young black footballer in the '70s and '80s racism literally came with the territory with bananas on the pitch and racist chants from the terraces. It's been suggested - and figures - that the occasions when Justin was sent off or behaved recklessly were escalated by freely taunted slurs and abuse - from other players as well as fans.

"Not that I advocate violence as a solution to anything but I loved to hear that Justin, an accomplished boxer as I said - had punched a National Front member who was on a demo in Great Yarmouth. I also love that Justin's debut for Norwich aged 17 was against a West Brom team featuring the three degrees (the Baggies trio of Batson, Regis and Cunningham) - and that he got a handshake from Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham in the centre circle before kick off. Accounts of the unfettered abuse black footballers received at that time reflect shamefully on football's guardians of the time - but signal heroic dignity in those players who had to deal with it alone with little or no official response.

"And then the difference of being gay. Justin had no role models for this part of his character. The bullying and homophobia from his manager at Nottingham Forest is well documented - and it must have become routine in the many club dressing rooms where he was employed thereafter (over 20 clubs in all - he never really settled after leaving Norwich as the first £1m black player.) with no other out gay player then or now there was no obvious peer support and few allies - though there was at least one!

"40 years on from the National Front demos and the unregulated racist chanting we still hear intolerable abuse in this country but less frequently (though any slurs are unacceptable) and now there are systems and a legal framework for addressing racism in football.

"But 30 years on from Justin publicly coming out no other gay footballer in the top flight has been able to do the same. Justin seemed to conduct himself in day to day life as he did on the pitch - with style and panache and I guess it would have been nigh on impossible to hide who he was. And with a childhood and youth steeped in exclusion in football, life and politics - perhaps he felt attenuated to it and ready to take on yet another intersection of prejudice.

"Dealing with homophobic fans is one thing but team mates turning their back on you something else. But incredibly he dealt with it and when asked on Anglia TV claimed not to regret it at that stage. But 30 years on - much of the environment has changed - even in football. Support mechanisms are in place ready for that player to come out but still we wait. Clearly there is something very wrong in the sport - gay men in other sports and gay women in football are able to be open about who they love.

"For all the anguish Justin endured for being out - and lets remember he died before many of the equalities now afforded the LGBT+ community - at least he didn't have to deal with social media trolls - though I suppose in his day the red top tabloids were the equivalent and he suffered plenty of sensationalist journalism and salacious headlines.

"My take on the lack of out gay top level male players is that Trolls play a key role. Fans - particularly away supporters - sure - but they will always find something, the dressing room culture again must be a factor, friends and family may be an issue and advice from agents too as well as the prospect of playing in a country where being gay has no protection in law. But the unregulated hatred online is quite something - find a phone, open Twitter and check the stream of noxious hate in the replies to the Sky Sports News Tweet announcing today's event.

"Ensuring that the game is a safe and welcoming place for everyone is not snowflakery - it's pragmatism. Stadiums without bigots make match days better for everyone and bring new communities to football - perhaps to fill empty seats.

"And we know that athletes perform at their peak when they are free to focus; that being closeted is a distraction that can lead to poor mental heath. In bald financial terms - just looking at the bottom line - leagues and clubs are neglecting their investments.

"Let's see clubs and leagues with systematic and consistent messaging on and penalties for homophobic behaviour, lets see more LGBT+ fan visibility through more clubs engaging with their Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans supporters -there are currently 40 Pride in Football groups, that means there are 50 clubs ignoring that fan community. Let's see adequate regulation of toxic online hate. And lets see all of us champion and challenge. That's supporter on supporter, pundit on pundit, player on player - if you hear something unacceptable then call it out; in the stands, on socials, in the studios (and yes, I do mean those so-called presenters and broadcasters who generate material through fomenting spite on their social media platforms).

"This week's news of both Philip Schofield and Caroline Flack crystalise for me the emotional torment that propelled Justin to take his life - and make me wonder if really much has changed - not just in football but in general. Doesn't that just confirm what a remarkable man he was? - ahead of his time.

"Honouring the first and as yet only out gay elite player - this inauguration is a milestone. Let's make it more than that because unless things change it will be an empty gesture - a milestone that shows we haven't come very far and that we still have far to go. Justin Fashanu's induction to the NFM Hall of Fame can be a touchstone, a foundation stone, a building block - and his legacy - to make football a place where everyone can be themselves."