Victims of sexual abuse speak out in week that truly shook football

The brave testimony of Andy Woodward has led to fears of a paedophile ring in the sport. The Football Association and clubs are under pressure to show they can handle the outpouring

English football, so often the subject of both front and back pages during frothing episodes in which scandal and shame are appended to any number of trivialities, has had a week during which those words have taken on a deadening tone.

After the former professional Andy Woodward waived his anonymity to tell the Guardian of years of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Barry Bennell, a convicted paedophile who worked for Crewe Alexandra in the 1980s and 1990s and also had associations with Manchester City and Stoke City, the shockwaves have reverberated round the game.

On reading Woodwards harrowing tale of how abuse had permanently scarred his life, better-known players came forward. David White, a former Manchester City striker and England international, who was working on a book about his experiences, confirmed he had also been abused by Bennell.

In another interview Paul Stewart, a former Liverpool and Spurs striker who also played for England, revealed he had been abused by another coach who moved in similar circles raising fears of a paedophile ring operating in the north-west of England during the period in question.

I believe there was a conspiracy and [a] paedophile ring, Jason Dunford, a youth team player with Manchester City, told the BBC. There were people at those clubs who had a duty to look after boys coming through their system.

On Thursday and Friday Northumbria and Hampshire police also opened inquiries after complaints by former players on the south coast and in the north-east, and a hotline set up by the Football Association and the NSPCC had fielded more than 50 calls in the first few hours of operation.

Clubs including Manchester City and Newcastle United have said they will assist police with inquiries. The Metropolitan police also said they had received information relating to historic sexual abuse at football clubs in London.

Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), spoke of a dam being busted after first Woodward and then Steve Walters, another player at Crewe in the late 1980s, came forward to waive their anonymity and speak of Bennells crimes.

Both players painted a picture of a talented coach who would target the more sensitive boys under his care. These are heinous crimes and they need to be investigated by the police and they will get our support, Greg Clarke, the FA chairman, said.

But while the PFA and the FA tried to get to grips with a historic crisis that threatens to spiral beyond their control, there were fresh questions over whether they were sufficiently prepared or had been proactive enough previously in providing a support network for those affected.

And while the FA insists its child-safeguarding unit and a network of designated safety officers throughout the grassroots structure makes it far less likely such abuse could persist today, campaign groups believe there is still not enough protection for would-be whistleblowers.

Woodward himself said this week that he thought the spiralling number of cases could eventually be worse than Savile. The same grim cocktail of conditions that led to the serial abuser taking advantage of children in the entertainment industry also existed in football.

Meanwhile a shadow has fallen over Gresty Road, the home of the club at the heart of a scandal rippling across the country. Crewe Alexandra, where Bennell was a youth team coach until he was sacked in 1992, has a longstanding reputation for youth development under Dario Gradi.

Now 75, Gradi has spent more than three decades at Crewe as its long-serving manager and latterly director of football. For most of that time he worked closely with the chairman, John Bowler, who backed Gradi as the club fashioned a reputation for developing a string of players that went on to bigger and better things.

After a period of numb silence, which brought criticism from the victims and their own fans, both said they had no knowledge of the abuse and the club would now conduct its own inquiry.

The questions will now turn to how many others like Bennell were out there. With the procession of those coming forward showing no signs of slowing, the FA and clubs are under pressure to show they are able to handle the outpouring.

The NSPCCs hotline is 0800 023 2642 and ChildLine for children and young people can be contacted on 0800 1111.

The National Association for People Abused in Childhood can be contacted on 0808 801 0331.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/nov/25/sexual-abuse-football-andy-woodward-football-association