Football and the horrific abuse hiding in plain sight

How game deals with the revelations of abuse will define this period of English football history

Former football coach Barry Bennell: a diabolically clever operator who abused many of his charges.  Photograph: PA Wire

Former football coach Barry Bennell: a diabolically clever operator who abused many of his charges. Photograph: PA Wire


One of the great delights and follies of the internet age is that the Guardian newspaper, forever the rollie-smoking, Nick Drake-listening youth of the legacy media family, continues to give it all away for free. You click on to any of its sections and you are, more often than not, spoiled for choice. But anyone visiting its sports section over the past month or so has been forced to grimace at another harrowing story of the sexual abuses of former youth footballers which have been dredged up through the excellent reportage of football correspondent Daniel Taylor.

Deep down, you don’t read these. It’s more tempting to dip into the latest minor psychodrama starring José Mourinho or to seek the latest confirmation that Jürgen Klopp is the happiest manager in professional sport. One of the expectations of the Premier League is that by Christmas, it can produce enough twists to rival anything the Coronation Street script team can dream up for the Barlows and Battersbys and this year is no exception.

Still, there is a grim sense now that the current football year will not be remembered for anything that happens on the field but rather for the voices of the lost boys of the 1980s game who are just beginning to shout out in anger. The Football Association is facing what will be a long and deeply coruscating examination of its failures to protect the youngsters for whom they had a duty of care in a time when such responsibilities fell between naiveté and negligence.

What started with an interview which Andy Woodward gave to Taylor, detailing an adolescence and adulthood destroyed by the sexual degradations visited upon him by Barry Bennell, his youth coach, has broadened into a deluge and an investigation which suggests horrific practices were all too common. On Friday, the police laid the figures bare: 83 potential subjects and 98 football clubs referenced in the 639 confidential calls to the NSPCC.

It is clear, now, that Bennell was a diabolically clever operator: “the most amazing football coach I’ve ever seen. There was nobody like this guy then or now,” Jason Dunford recalled in a shocking piece he authored in conversation with Taylor.

Dunford was a promising kid and a leader: the captain of Bennell’s Manchester City affiliated youth team who learned his trade alongside future stars like David White, Andy Hinchcliffe and the late Gary Speed.

Dunford was 13 when he won a football prize of a trip to Butlin’s camp in Pwellhili for three days training with Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks and Emlyn Hughes. Bennell, his coach, was also at the camp and manipulated his way into sharing a chalet with Dunford, where he attempted to molest him. Because Dunford somehow summoned the courage to fight off his coach, this figure he idolised, the approaches stopped but for the rest of his time, he was bullied and undermined by Bennell, who set about isolating him from his group and sabotaging his chances of progressing.

Before his run-in with Bennell, Dunford was told that he would some day play for England. Maybe he never would have; maybe he would never have made it as a footballer. But he never got the chance – and that’s not even the point. What makes Dunford’s story so vivid is that it details an intersection featuring one of the shining knights of England’s football history, Bobby Moore, with a monster like Bennell.

To a generation of English and Irish kids, Moore was the epitome of uncomplicated valour and sporting glamour: he must have inspired many thousands to dream of one day becoming footballers. Sport operates on that principle. Kids’ imaginations are open to the magical possibility of being like the hero of their time. On the face of it, Dunford’s prize was a version of English schoolboy utopia: at Butlin’s with Banks and Moore. The reality of his experience is unspeakably dark.

In 2012, the Telegraph reported that while Speed, the much-loved Leeds and Wales player who died from suicide the previous November, had also been under Bennell’s stewardship. By then, Bennell had been convicted for other assaults and there was no evidence that Speed had been one of his victims.

Of course, four years ago, England was still appalled and fascinated by the Jimmy Savile revelations. In November 2012, the London Review of Books published a long, unforgettable essay by Andrew O’Hagan entitled “Light Entertainment”. It is a chilling chronicle of the culture of the sexual abuse of minors in the children’s entertainment wing of the BBC dating back to the 1950s.

“There’s something creepy about British light entertainment and there always has been,” O’Hagan writes at one point. It’s true and the tens of thousands of kids who watched Savile from the relative safety of a television tube knew or felt that at some level. When the truth about Savile broke, it was impossible to understand, as the old television clips were re-shown, just how people failed to see just how wrong and off Savile was at the time.

Savile’s evil talent was for hiding in plain sight in a world of smoke and mirrors. Football or sport was supposed to be different: an uncomplicated, male-oriented national obsession. The strangest thing about the crisis enveloping English football is that it has taken so long to materialise. The evidence against Bennell and others was presented in a Dispatches documentary 20 years ago and includes extraordinarily brave and honest testimony from another of Bennell’s victim’s, Ian Ackley.

In 1996, English football had just begun to reinvent itself after the litany of crowd tragedies which shaped its reputation in the 1980s. Perhaps the 1990s were a time when other young victims were trying to forget what had happened and did not feel able to put their experiences in the public domain. Or perhaps they didn’t think anything would come of it anyway.

But it has become clear over the past month that there was an appalling failure to protect at least one generation of youngsters whose parents entrusted them into the youth coaching culture of English football. In the Dispatches documentary, Ken Burns, a former chief scout at Manchester City, looks genuinely baffled when he learns of Bennell’s abuses. Those crimes are so far away from his experience of the football world, it’s as though he can’t comprehend them. “It never enters your head anyway,” he says of the idea that Bennell’s behaviour towards young footballers drew suspicion.

This weekend the show goes on, glitzier than ever and raining money. All clubs and youth academies have their vetting procedures and duty of care policies in place. It is a different world. But football, like all sport, is torn between the immediate future and the long, storied past. The next win or defeat absorbs the energy and emotions of players and supporters alike but it is always set against the history, illustrious or otherwise, of that team.

It is undeniable that the FA and too many of its clubs failed many, many young footballers who showed up in a state of trust and impressionability. Andy Woodward has, along with former Crewe player Steve Walters and Manchester City youth player Chris Unsworth, this week set up a body called Offside Trust.

They have appealed to the FA, the Premier League and the PFA for donations to help them “fight for justice” for others who lives have been irreparably damaged because they wanted to play football. It’s the battle that will surely define this period of English football history and against which the intrigues of the season pale into insignificance.

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