Think drama, think controversy, think tragedy, think of a Saturday night spent with Ulrika Johnson and grown men rolling around in spandex and what do you get? No, not a selection of Stan Collymore’s neurosis from the best part of 1999, but a snapshot of one of the most colourful characters to have graced English football in the last 30 years, John Fashanu.
Readers of a certain age will remember Fashanu, or ‘Fash’ simply as the guy who hosted Gladiators next to Ulrika Johnson, having only to contend with scripted outbursts from a 45 year old man masquerading as a wolf. To a generation of Wimbledon fans, however, it was Fashanu who was a key component of the ‘Crazy Gang’ ethos that kept the Dons in the top flight of English football through the late 1980’s and through the early years of the Premier League era.
The early years of Fashanu’s career threatened to drift the British born Nigerian into obscurity. A frustrating spell at Norwich City, Fashanu’s first club, was followed by less than inspiring terms at Lincoln City and Millwall. In 1986, at the age of 24, Wimbledon, then a promotion chasing second division side acquired the young striker for £125,000.
As the ‘Crazy Gang’ team spirit at Selhurst Park was slowly fostered, Fashanu found a consistent level of goal scoring form as his new club were promoted to the top flight and quickly became a fixture of the first division.
Fashanu’s only silverware came as a result of one of the biggest FA Cup upsets in the history of the competition, when in 1988, Wimbledon beat league champions Liverpool, 1-0 to secure the club’s first and to date, only trophy.
From that point Fashanu acquired a cult following, and following two international caps for England in the summer of 1989, became revered as a hard working, physical target man. His goal scoring exploits in the early seasons of Premier League football attracted a bid from Aston Villa, the now 32 year old making his move to Villa Park in the summer of 1994.
Injury curtailed his spell at Villa, the forward limping out of the game, and presumably out of the limelight in early 1995. It was his involvement in the match-fixing scandal, brought about by an expose in The Sun that propelled the retired Wimbledon target man back into the public consciousness.
The legal dispute arising from the allegations, took more than two years to conclude. Fashanu was finally found not guilty of conspiracy to corrupt, after two trials at which a jury was unable to find a verdict. Fellow defendants Bruce Grobbelaar and Hans Seggars were also acquitted.
Nevertheless, the legal wrangling ultimately cost Fashanu his slot presenting Gladiators on ITV- the platform having introduced the controversial figure to a whole new generation of television viewers.
After leaving Gladiators behind, Fashanu spent several years in the wilderness. Having been dealt the financial blow of having a defamation settlement from The Sun slashed by the House of Lords, tragedy struck, when Fashanu’s estranged younger brother, Justin, committed suicide in 1998.
A revival of sorts began when the former England international was welcomed back to ITV to appear on I’m a Celebrity: Get me out of here!’ Finishing runner up in that year’s competition, a return to the small screen beckoned. However, after fronting his own show; ‘Fash’s Football Challenge’ Fashanu dropped off British television screens for good.
Recent years has seen a stint presenting the Nigerian version of ‘Deal or No Deal’, a strangely apt reflection of the man’s career. Had the banker offered Fashanu what he has enjoyed and endured over the last twenty years when a struggling young player at Norwich back in the early 1980’s, I suspect he might have just taken it.