English soccer has reluctantly been forced to confront its dark secrets.
With each police update, the scale of abuse of aspiring players by their coaches becomes a larger stain on the national sport. Detectives in England investigating non-recent abuse in the game said there there are 839 possible victims and 294 suspects.
One former coach will be sentenced next week for exploiting his position of power to rape and assault youngsters dreaming of a professional career. The case of Barry Bennell provided a moment of reckoning, unmasking the unwillingness within soccer to investigate the extent coaches used the cover of their jobs to molest children.
When Bennell was found guilty at Liverpool Crown Court this week of 43 sex-abuse charges, it was the fourth time the former youth coach linked to northern English clubs Manchester City and Crewe had been convicted.
Only now are wide-scale investigations underway within his former clubs and beyond, prompted by former player Andy Woodward waiving his anonymity in 2016 to set out Bennell’s crimes in grim detail. It was harrowing television testimony by Woodward that encouraged further victims of Bennell and other coaches to approach police with accounts of depravity from the previous century.
Woodward, who played in the lower leagues after starting his career at Crewe under Bennell, had already helped to convict the coach in a 1998 trial. Bennell pleaded guilty to 23 charges of sexual abuse from 1978-92 relating to 15 complainants aged 9-14. But as Bennell started a nine-year jail term, soccer quickly moved on. The game was booming, having shed its reputation for crowd disorder as the recently inaugurated Premier League grew in stature and wealth. There was no appetite within English soccer to explore dark areas of the sport. Neither, though, was there sustained interest from journalists.
The Channel 4 network pursued the Bennell case in 1997 after he was jailed in Florida for indecently assaulting a boy on a soccer tour and later deported. But the wider media appeared to be put off deeper inquiries by the Football Association, which was quoted at the time as disputing the documentary’s findings that it had “taken ‘no steps’ to ensure the protection of young players from ‘predatory coaches.’” More so, the FA praised itself for being a “prime mover among sporting governing bodies to get an effective screening process in place which aids child protection.”
The self-congratulatory statement failed footballers. The FA’s neglect was underscored by the haste an independent inquiry was called in 2016 as a stream of victims came forward with depressingly similar accounts of coaches assaulting them at their homes or on soccer tours.
“We want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traumatic experience the victims and survivors have endured at the hands of this individual, and the bravery they have shown in coming forward,” the FA said on Thursday as Bennell’s trial concluded, displaying the contrition absent two decades earlier at the governing body.
The FA’s inquiry is seeking to unravel the culpability at clubs.
Sitting at the top of the Premier League as one of the wealthiest teams in the world, Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City is a very different club from the one infiltrated by Bennell and at least one more pedophile coach decades ago. But City will not be insulated from potential compensation claims by former players as the shame of the past unravels.
“It’s a terrible history, so my feelings and thoughts are for the victims,” City manager Pep Guardiola said on Friday. “Hopefully everyone can learn from that, (and) society can learn from that, because I’m a father, so when you see what has happened, it can happen with my sons and daughters. It’s a terrible situation.”
It is harder for fourth-tier northwest England club Crewe to distance itself from the past.
Director of football Dario Gradi spent more than three decades at Crewe before being suspended by the FA in late 2016 without a cause being given. Gradi, who hired Bennell in 1985 at Crewe and provided a character reference for his 1995 trial in Florida, has not been accused of offenses. But just how aware was Gradi of rumors surrounding the coach who was fired for unspecified reasons in 1992?
Alex Carlile, the prosecutor who helped to convict Bennell in 1998 of abusing players at Crewe, told the BBC this week: “I have the feeling it was brushed under the carpet” at the club.
Micky Fallon, who was coached by Bennell at Crewe, recalled outside court on Thursday how Bennell preyed on “little boys with a dream.” Fallon wrote on The Guardian website on Friday that they were called “the pedophile lads” because of the “rumor and innuendo” around Bennell.
It took the intervention of American authorities to unmask Bennell.
Soccer seemed less determined to pursue the sex-offending coach who infiltrated professional clubs to shatter the lives of players dreaming of stardom promised by the men they trusted.
Officials, so complacent in the past, have to ensure there is no longer a hiding place for pedophile coaches to inflict traumas on future generations of players.
The danger would be assuming history cannot repeat itself.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
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