Football’s dirty secret

There’s a scandal on the horizon that I think is set to blow the world of football apart. It flips the roles of players being the villains and exploiters, and it will have wide reaching repercussions as it continues to develop.

In the last week three professional footballers have waived their right to anonymity and spoken out about the sexual abuse they received as young players in the 1980’s. Eleven more men have come forward and not yet been named, and the suggestion is that a ‘Jimmy Savile’ style scandal is about to rock the game.

Firstly former Bury defender Andy Woodward admitted he had been a victim of convicted paedophile and former football coach Barry Bennell. Bennell, a former coach with Crewe Alexandra was convicted in 1998 after admitting 23 crimes against young boys, but now 18 years later some players are taking very brave steps to reveal further crimes committed by not just Bennell, but other as-yet unnamed coaches in the game.

Yesterday former Crewe player Steve Walters also spoke out about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the monster Bennell. Walters trained at Lilleshall with the likes of Ian Wright, and at one point was tipped to have a big future in the game. Irrespective of his potential he became a victim of a pied piper style abuser who lured hopefully young players into his life, and his home.

Today another player added his name to the list of those affected by sexual abuse in football, former England and Liverpool player Paul Stewart. Stewart’s revelations however pick further at a scab hiding a nasty underbelly to our grass roots development, because his abuser is unnamed, so there is a strong suggestion it may not just be Bennell who committed these crimes. There may be other men, still involved in the game who are also guilty.

All three players have battled their demons over the years. Woodward retired from the game at just 29 and has spoken of feigning an injury on the field just to get taken off after experiencing a panic attack related to his abuse.

Steve Walters was once touted as a potential first £1m pound teenager, but a blood disorder curtailed a promising career. He fears it may have been contracted as a result of the abuse he suffered, and only after seeing the bravery of Andy Woodward did he feel able to speak out. During the original conviction of Bennell he was quizzed about his relationship with the coach and denied he’d been a victim out of fear.

Since finishing his career Paul Stewart has battled drink and drugs later in his career, and at 15 he was told his family would be killed if he spoke out about what was happening. He went on to have a good career, but perhaps never truly reached his real potential.

How far does this scandal run, and what could be the repercussions for the game in the modern day? In the 1980’s there was far less regulation of football coaches, and in such a macho, male dominated world I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying it must have been for young boys with talents to fear losing their whole career over the evil actions of people put into a position of trust.

Bennell was a sophisticated and ‘clever’ abuser. He kitted his home out with pool tables and pin ball machines, and used his position as a top coach to sell the promise of successful careers to young players. He had boys staying at his home, a veritable Aladdins cave for hopeful teens. In promising to make them top players, he robbed them of that chance in the cruellest way.

Former Wales manager Gary Speed once stayed with Bennell in his house of horrors, although both Bennell and the late players wife deny that anything occurred that might have caused his tragic suicide.

I can only see this getting bigger and bigger. A potential first £1m teenager, a £2.2m footballer from the early nineties, who else has been affected by this horrible secret? How many more players at all levels have been targeted and had their career destroyed by these people? Hopefully due to the extreme courage of Andy Woodward the true extent can be revealed and punished. It certainly won’t just be the three brave men who have been in the media recently who have been affected.

My only hope is that football responds in the correct, 21st century way. Perhaps in the mid eighties and nineties this sort of frank honesty wouldn’t have been dealt with in the correct manner, by fans or officials. However, as we enter a brave new age of awareness and heavy retrospective action I hope that football as a whole is able to offer the victims the safety and help that it couldn’t twenty years ago.

This may not be my usual type of blog, but it is important that everyone openly discusses and understands the depth of the problem. 99.9% of men involved at youth level are good people and they will perhaps feel some fall out from this story as it develops. I hope that it doesn’t suffocate our youth game, but I hope that it gives all players belief that they can speak out and have the full support of the clubs and the world of football as a whole.