The thing about having a child who loves football in an all-consuming and visceral way is that you quickly learn to accept an important part of their hearts will always belong to the sport, and, by extension, to those who give them the opportunity to play it.
If they sign with a youth academy, as one of mine did at the age of 10, then this bond manifests itself on a practical as well as emotional level. As the years pass, they spend more and more time away from home: in the stadium, cleaning boots; on long-distance bus journeys; at weekend tournaments and, eventually, on trips abroad. Their whole lives revolve around their training schedule and match days; all they care about is whether or not they’ve made the squad and how well or badly they perform on the pitch.
Those at the club – the youth coaches and manager – are not merely responsible for their physical welfare, they are the custodians of their hopes and dreams. They decide whether players will start or sit shivering on the bench, whether they’ll re-sign next year or be unceremoniously dumped. Admired and feared by boys hungry for approval they wield an incredible power, the kind of power irresistible to sexual predators.
And one thing we’ve learned from the litany of “historic” child abuse scandals is that if an opportunity to prey on children exists, someone, somewhere will exploit it.
Today, of course, the FA, SFA and the individual clubs have “robust” child protection measures; but given the more casual way football was run 30-odd years ago, it comes as no surprise to learn that, in the 80s and early 90s, many teenage players were targeted by a paedophile, who used his position to gain trust and access.
Rumours of widespread abuse have circulated for years – just as they did with Jimmy Savile. Several key figures including Jim Torbett of Celtic Boys Club and George Ormond of Newcastle United’s youth system have already served jail sentences for assaulting young players, as, of course, has Barry Bennell, who is at the centre of last week’s disturbing allegations.
That these latest victims took so long to put their heads above the parapet is doubtless a reflection of football’s macho culture. In a sport where no top-flight player has yet come out as gay, and displays of emotion have been perceived as a weakness, it would take immense courage to openly admit to having been raped hundreds of times from the age of 11.
Andy Woodward’s decision to do so opened floodgates that cannot now be closed. His revelations about his abuse at the hands of Bennell encouraged more players – Steve Walters, Paul Stewart, Jason Dunford and Chris Unsworth – to go public with their own ordeals. Within a few hours of its launch, an NSPCC helpline took more than 50 calls about Bennell and others, suggesting the abuse may have been more widespread, more flagrant and perhaps more systematic than previously acknowledged. Bennell had links with Crew Alexandra, Manchester City, Stoke City and Leeds United, and “an insatiable appetite for young boys” and Woodward expects the eventual number of victims to run into the hundreds.
Already the scandal has a whiff of Savile about it. There’s the eccentricity, narcissism and apparent untouchability of the man at the centre whose Peak District home was a “treasure trove” of fruit machines, pool tables and a menagerie featuring a monkey, and Pyrenean mountain dogs, and who silenced his victims with threats.
And there’s the growing suspicion that what we have already heard – while terrible – is only the tip of a grotesque iceberg moving inexorably through the sport and destined to sink reputations across the country. The idea that it will stop at the border seems naive; there have long been mutterings about alleged abuse in Scottish clubs.
We are now so well-schooled in child sex scandals that we are au fait with their trajectory; we know that, as the scale of Bennell’s depravity emerges, and the net widens to encompass more potential offenders, the big question will be: how could this have happened “in plain sight”? Did any of those in senior roles turn a deaf ear to sex abuse allegations? Worse still, did they collude in a cover-up? Already, there have been suggestions that several clubs made secret payments to buy off victims.
The sport also needs to provide reassurance that the child protection measures now in place are sufficient to protect young footballers going through the system today. Last week Pat Nevin said he believed it was possible children were still being abused at the lower echelons where there is not so much money to spend on safeguards.
So far, four police forces – Northumbria, Cheshire, Hampshire and the Met – have confirmed they are investigating allegations. The FA (which launched the NSPCC helpline) and the SFA have urged victims to speak out .
England’s national child abuse inquiry is said to be keeping abreast of developments, but public confidence in its ability – or even its commitment – to hold individuals and institutions to account has been undermined by a series of crises.
Even as Woodward was waiving his right to anonymity, it was engulfed in a fresh controversy, as a Home Affairs committee report suggested claims of bullying and sexual assault at its headquarters had not been taken seriously enough.
There have also been calls for its fourth chairman – Alexis Jay – to go after a succession of lawyers quit, while Michael Mansfield QC claimed there had been “a dismal failure to consult properly with survivors’ groups from the beginning”.
Last week, Mansfield said the inquiry might be “impossible to fix”. But the painful testimony of Woodward et al demonstrates, once again, why it must not be allowed to founder. Too many lives have already been wrecked by child abuse. We owe it to victims to we scrutinise the failings that gave paedophiles free rein; and to make sure it can never happen again.