Every Sunday morning we gather on the touchline, the other dads and I, and we chat and laugh and joke and support our sons, playing football. We might chat about work and what kind of week we’ve had. We might laugh at something funny which has happened in the professional game, the banal utterances of the megastars being a firm favourite. And we might joke about how boys have it so easy now with their 4G pitches and that they should have been around in our day, dodging the potholes and the poo.
But I imagine that joke won’t be trotted out today for who would want their kid to have been playing football back when monsters stalked the parks?
The dads are a friendly bunch and we get on so well that maybe we should be thinking about organising a Christmas night-out. During games everyone behaves themselves and adheres to the dos-and-dont’s cards the coaches got our sons to run over and hand to us before the first match – positive encouragement and all that. And we know that, aged nine, this is supposed to be about fun. But of course we dream. And the boys dream bigger.
But look at where those dreams got some poor souls – abuse at the hands of paedophiles and perverts. Men to whom they entrusted their care and safety as well as all their hopes of making it big. Men who let them down in the most terrible way, which required them to live with the horror until last week, when football’s child abuse scandal blew up.
Coaches are dream-makers – or at least during one especially intense and vital moment they can seem to be. Nothing’s certain. Get signed, move up an important stage, your boy may still not make it. But coaches wield power and influence: as talent-spotters for big clubs they can recommend the name, smooth the path to an important trial match.
Boys can believe that path to be paved with gold already and will trust the coach and be eager to please. So will the parents. When a group of mums and dads confronted Crewe Alexandra’s Barry Bennell at his home after one boy had raised the alarm, they threatened to involve the police. But as Bennell appeared to show remorse, they backed off, fearing that to report him would kill their sons’ chances of becoming stars.
Under the sinister tutelage of this paedophile, we are learning now, Bennell would scare budding footballers into trusting him even more. He’d show the boys horror films such as The Exorcist, frightening them into sharing the same bed as him. They’d be scared by the movies, no doubt, but also scared of the consequences of not doing what he wanted. “He the one who’s got the contacts,” said one victim. “He’s the one who can make or break you.” Another said: “If I didn’t go to his house I would suffer. I would be substituted, or miss out on the trips to Blackpool and Alton Towers. I wouldn’t be invited to Manchester City.”
These quotes come from a Channel 4 documentary which told Bennell’s ghastly tale, and other episodes of abuse in the game, back in 1996. Bennell has served three prison sentences in England and America between 1994 and last year and, living under a new identity and having battled cancer, he wasn’t the real story last week. The real story was the bravery of first Andy Woodward in waiving his anonymity concerning the man dubbed “football’s Jimmy Savile”, and then the others who came forward. They were seeking closure on what had been stolen childhoods, and trying to help those still suffering in silence. At the time of the documentary, England’s Football Association refused to comment. The journalist behind the programme, Deborah Davies, said last week: “We knew there was so much more to come out, and not just about Bennell. But football was a man’s game. Sexual abuse wasn’t meant to happen. No-one in the game wanted to speak.”
If they can bear to read and listen to the victims’ testimonies, many parents of young footballers showing enough promise to dream will be wondering and maybe worrying about the attentiveness of their coaches, which will be unsurprising and sad in this paranoiac age but also completely undeserving: the men who do these jobs are tested for their suitability. It’s a far more rigorous world now. The overwhelming majority coach because they love the game. Some may fancy themselves as master tacticians, the next Pep Guardiola perhaps, but that’s another story.
More players are coming forward, bigger names, and the accusations are starting to fly around. Paul Stewart, who played for Tottenham, Liverpool and England, claimed he was abused by another coach who threatened to kill his mum, dad and two brothers if he told. Aged 11 he believed every word.
As the revelations grew last week, Scotland said no new cases had been reported but then yesterday’s headlines read: “Scottish victims possible.” There have been cases here, of course, and in 1998 Celtic Boys’ Club founder Jim Torbett was jailed for two years for abusing three teenagers including Scotland striker Alan Brazil. There’s a sense now that this saga is only going to get more grim.
The renowned football factory at Crewe, a famed producer of youth talent where on one notable Saturday an entire XI of home-reared players graduated to the first team, has a lot of questions to answer, not least yesterday’s claims that a director had voiced concern in the boardroom about Bennell and even alerted the FA but no action was taken.
That the football world might have looked the other way, just as the showbiz world did with Savile, is shocking. Parents of this generation of football dreamers will not be consoled by the fact that these cases happened when there were was less scrutiny and far fewer safeguards. Now suspicion will swirl around for good men who, when they signed up for it, didn’t bank on football coaching being viewed as a haven for sexual predators.
It’s an intoxicating scene on these touchlines. Who’s going to be scouted this time? Is that a Rangers man over there, Hearts maybe? But the atmosphere will change now. The good coaches deserve our sympathy but most of it should go to the victims of abuse.