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EXCLUSIVE: Football star Neville Southall says he wishes he could have done more to help Justin Fashanu

“Did I worry about him much at the time? Did I f***. Did I check on him? Did I f***. Do I wish I had? Yeah of course I do.”

Former Everton keeper and Wales international, Neville Southall has told OutNews Global he regrets not doing more to help Justin Fashanu when the player came out but he was a different man back then.

Fashanu faced public ridicule and homophobic chants from the stands after revealing in The Sun newspaper that he was gay.

Today, ‘Big Nev’ is an LGBT+ ally, but he remembers hearing those chants in a match against Fashanu’s team in the 90s: “We played a game against him.” He remembers. “The stick he took was absolutely disgusting.”

“It was horrendous. They were chanting about him being gay – I don’t remember exactly what but it was horrible stuff – and I think they took him off after a bit and I thought it was s*** at the time.”

Justin Fashanu took his own life in 1998 after coming out in 1990

Southall was arguably the world’s top goalkeeper at the time, racking up a record-breaking 92 caps for Wales and 751 appearances for Everton.

Meanwhile, Justin Fashanu’s career tumbled after the tabloid revelations regarding his sexuality and reported liaisons with unnamed MPs. He’d become the first black player and the first player under 21 to be signed in the English game for £1 million, by then Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough. After coming out, he ended up skipping from one club to another on ever-lower fees, eventually moving to the US where he faced sexual assault allegations from a 17-year-old boy. Fashanu fled to England and on 3 May 1998, he was found hanged in a garage in Shoreditch in East London.

Nev’ says he still thinks about it now. “Have I thought about it since? Of course I have. It was fucking criminal.” He says. “I was feeling sorry for him watching it happen at the time. I remember thinking, ‘that’s bad, I couldn’t handle that’. Football is an aggressive game but I did feel sorry for him and I asked myself afterwards how did he feel? Was he taken off because of the chanting?”

‘Big Nev’ Neville is proud to be a vocal LGBT+ ally and campaigner

Today Neville Southall works with disadvantaged children in Ebbw Vale in South Wales and often tweets in support of the LGBT+ community.

However, Neville admits he was a different man back in his playing days. “After that game with Justin, I just got in the shower and got on the bus.” He remembers. “If I’d thought at the time I would have gone to tell him I was sorry about what happened. No f***** talked to him about it, including me.

“I do look back and wish I had seen him right but as a footballer, you have to have a massive ego when you play. I was quite an arrogant nob when I played. I’m a nicer bloke now than when I played. That’s not a nice thing to admit.

“Did I worry about him much at the time? Did I f***. Did I check on him? Did I f***. Do I wish I had? Yeah of course I do.”

Neville Southall played in goal for Everton and for Wales in internationals

The reaction to Justin Fashanu and his subsequent death shocked the sporting world and cast a long, dark shadow across English football. The legacy of his treatment by fans and those around him still haunts the game today.

Southall says Fashanu almost certainly wasn’t the English Football League’s only gay player at the time: “There’s always rumours about other players so yes there were rumours about gay players when I was in the game.” He recalls.

“There were never rumours about my teammates at my club it was always at another club but let’s be honest being gay wasn’t ever a hot topic in any of the dressing rooms.”

Nev’ is talking to OutNews Global as we head into the last 3 days of our hugely successful #ComeOut2Play campaign, which has official backing from the English Football League.

He became the first football star to sign his support for gay and bi footballers and says it’s important for someone to come out when they’re ready and in their own way: “I would like to think someone will choose to come out on their own not because some tabloid journalist does it for them against their will.”

He added: “Most people don’t give a monkey’s if you’re gay. People don’t care but in the game sometimes it goes back to stereotypes.

“The way to make change is to see gay and bi people out on the pitch. That first player will get a bit of grief but it’ll be amazing for them too.

Robbie Rogers came out after leaving Leeds Utd

Southall believes the first openly gay player will become a huge household name and find success with sponsors and the media as well as on the pitch: “I think a gay footballer will make a fortune on it.” He says. “The first one will have all sorts at their feet. Columns, TV shows, appearances all sorts. The second one won’t, the third one won’t so it’s there for the taking.”

Others in the game have privately expressed concerns that if a player came out today they would face the same cruelty and career devastation as Justin Fashanu but Southall says times have changed: “Why should it be the end of their career? In fact it’ll open more doors than they ever thought possible. Look at racism, people didn’t want black players until they realised they were missing out on talent and they saw the error of their ways. Fans want good players, that’s it, and if their player is gay they’ll be there for them.

“Once you break the ice with the first gay footballer then there’ll be loads more. Your fans will protect you and love you and that’s 40,000 people on your side.”

A Stonewall and Forza Football poll this week showed 80% of  English football fans would support a gay or bisexual player but there’s no similar poll for current professional players and so far no footballer in the game today at any level has agreed to sign the #ComeOut2Play campaign.

Neville Southall says that’s a shame but he doesn’t think players would have a problem with an openly gay or bi’ teammate. “Once inside the dressing room, other players would be supportive I think. Players don’t care. I think we make a bit too much of it. Banter’s banter.

Neville Southall often tweets in support of LGBT+ rights

“They’re not going to bully them for being gay because they already have a playing relationship together.” He speculates. “Yeah we all take the piss out of each other and there’s nothing sacred but as footballers we know we might be the one to make the mistake today in the match so we protect our own. If anyone takes it too far then the dressing room and the manager has to deal with that.”

The former Managing Director of Leeds United, David Haigh, who is also leading the #ComeOut2Play campaign, recently said he knows of at least 20 gay or bi’ players in the Premier League or Championship, and some of them are out to their teammates already: “Footballers aren’t hiding it from the people they know. They go to gay bars and they don’t hide their partners.”

So why wouldn’t current footballers sign the campaign? Southall thinks he has an idea: “I think current players haven’t signed the campaign yet because clubs are so tight on what people say and nobody says what they really mean anymore.” He says. “It’s all so controlled. Everybody is so PC now that they don’t want to say something controversial.

“If a player signs the campaign the tabloids might start investigating their life and they don’t want that. Footballers are shit-scared of the media.”

There’s never been such a focus on LGBT+ inclusion in sport, particularly in English football. The new chairman of the PFA, Ben Purkiss, recently added his support to any players wanting to come out, saying: “Attitudes in society are changing. As time goes by, new players come into the game and attitudes develop, I think and hope people will feel comfortable coming out.

 “I hope they feel football is a safe environment to do that. Clearly at the moment people don’t feel that way because we don’t have any active openly gay footballers.
“It would be a surprise if there weren’t gay footballers. The role of the PFA is to be supportive and try to ensure the culture of football is safe enough so people feel comfortable being themselves.”
PFA Chairman Ben Purkiss says he wants to support gay and bi players

Neville Southall agrees that times have changed: “It’s not the 60s, 50s or 40s, men are softer and kinder now.” He says. “They can show their feelings. It used to be you go out on a Saturday night and drink pints, beat the shit out of someone, go shag as many women as possible, it’s not like that anymore, thank God.”

He admits his old self could have done more for Justin Fashanu, as could any of the players at the time, but he believes he would have supported a gay teammate. “If a player had come out to me back in the day I like to think I’d have been more protective of him.” He says. “If he came to me as a friend then I’m going to stick up for him. If someone took the piss out of him I’d be in his corner.”

Does Nev’ think a gay or bi’ footballer will come out soon? “There’s gay footballers, without a shadow of a doubt.” He says. “Why don’t they come out? It’s their choice at the end of the day and apparently, they don’t want to. Some might be married with kids. They might just be nervous. Some might want to come out but have been talked out about it by clubs or agents.

“It doesn’t matter, it’ll happen and when it does I think it’ll be a big relief for them and for the game.”

Sign the #ComeOut2Play Thunderclap campaign now!

 

 

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