Manchester City, one of the clubs most seriously implicated in the Barry Bennell sexual abuse scandal, have been accused of putting hundreds of boys in danger after it emerged they were warned by one of their own coaches in the late-1970s it was "general knowledge" he was a risk to children.
Bennell, who is facing complaints from another 86 former footballers, continued scouting and coaching for City’s junior teams, raping and molesting countless boys in seven years connected to the club, even though high-ranking officials had been warned to keep away from a man who now faces the rest of his life in prison and has been described as having “almost an insatiable appetite” for young boys.
The revelations leave City facing a number of questions now Bennell has been convicted of a total of 43 charges against 11 boys. Bennell (64) will be sentenced on Monday. The first victim to initiate these proceedings, Gary Cliffe, has waived his anonymity to speak exclusively to the Guardian about the hundreds of occasions when he was abused, aged 11 to 15, in City's set-up.
Police documents from the 1990s question whether City were later involved in a cover-up, with one of the detectives investigating the case suggesting the club’s priority was to avoid damaging publicity, and the Guardian has seen a written admission from another former employee in which he acknowledges that “suspicions about him [Bennell] were aired on many an occasion.”
An investigation by this newspaper has also led to a taped interview in which Bennell states he had to leave his coaching role at Crewe Alexandra, the club he joined after City, because a complaint had been made against him, raising further questions about why he was not reported at the time. Crewe provided references for his next job and have been the subject of a police investigation as well as being a major focus of the Football Association’s independent inquiry.
However, it can now be revealed that Bennell was identified as a risk long before joining Crewe and that one member of City’s staff, the youth-team coach Steve Fleet, put his own job on the line when the club’s directors wanted to give the man they called “the star-maker” a full-time role as youth development officer.
Bennell was not given the job but, despite those warnings, he remained in City’s set-up, coaching at their old training ground and even abusing boys while sunbathing on the pitch at Maine Road, the club’s former ground, before moving to Crewe in 1985. He is now being identified as potentially the worst paedophile, in terms of the number of boys affected, there has ever been in sport, having preyed on young footballers for almost a quarter of a century before he was arrested on a club tour to Florida in 1994. A second trial is now likely as the police go through the complaints from other former players, mostly from Manchester City and Crewe.
People would say he was “dodgy” and if his name was brought up everyone would just shake their heads
Len Davies, who spent many years working for City as a youth-team scout, has admitted one of England's major football clubs was "beguiled and hoodwinked" and police documents recall a number of senior staff, including the chief scout Ken Barnes, being "quite evasive" and not prepared to explain why Bennell had left the club, other than citing "irregularities".
Cliffe, now 47, is convinced City ought to have reported Bennell and removed him from the club’s junior system if there were any concerns about his relationship with young boys. “If those in positions of responsibility had challenged Bennell, hundreds of wrecked lives could have been saved,” he said. “They buried their heads. They had a duty of care and they failed dramatically.”
City, who are holding a QC-led inquiry and have identified another alleged paedophile – now deceased – with whom they have “potential historic connections”, are facing the possibility of large-scale legal action and Fleet’s evidence shows Bennell continued to work in football for around 15 years after the club were warned to avoid him.
“I was an FA coach at the time and at all the coaches’ meetings, at Everton, the Cliff [Manchester United’s old training ground], City and lots of places, whenever the talk got round to Barry Bennell it was never good,” Fleet said. “People would say he was ‘dodgy’ and if his name was brought up everyone would just shake their heads. It was general knowledge and I could see it with my own eyes. He nauseated me. I just knew – instant intuition – that the rumours were sound, that he wasn’t right and that he wouldn’t be good for the club.
“When Ken Barnes and other people at the club tried to fetch him in I told them I didn’t want anything to do with it. ‘He’s a star-maker,’ Ken said, ‘and he finds good lads,’ and that was true because Bennell was a very good scout. But I also knew he was a risk. In football, like any sport where there’s young people, there are perverts and I wouldn’t even let him into our coaches’ room. I felt so strongly about it I put my job on the line.
“They fetched the directors and I still said I couldn’t work with him. I had pressure off Ken, I had pressure off the scouts, I had pressure off the directors. They called me to the office and I stood firm. ‘Don’t have me anywhere near that man – I don’t want anything to do with him.’ I had all that pressure but I still wouldn’t give it my OK.
“I couldn’t believe anyone would take him on full-time. I don’t understand how more people couldn’t see it and I wasn’t shocked at all when it came out what he had been doing. I was expecting it. What’s happened, I’d predicted for years. He offered these young boys stardom and a place on the ladder, but I knew that wasn’t his main motive.”
Along with Crewe, City are now under intense pressure to explain what they knew, what they did about it and what safeguarding measures they had in place, especially now the current Premier League leaders have confirmed “serious allegations of child sex abuse” against a second individual, who is dead but had links to the club. A number of victims have told the FA’s independent inquiry, led by Clive Sheldon QC, they believe there was no appetite to challenge Bennell because he was so skilled at finding talented young players who could eventually be worth a lot of money.
One parent wrote to City to complain that Bennell had boys in his room late at night on trips away. Yet when one director, Chris Muir, was asked about it on Channel Four's Dispatches documentary in 1997 he explained that "football allowed him to stay because he was producing the goods".
Barnes also made it clear on the same programme that he did not see any reason to be alarmed. “What do you call them?” he asked, laughing. “Piddyphiles, is it?”
What they did not disclose to the documentary-makers was that the police had interviewed them, along with Fleet and another member of the youth-team staff, Terry Farrell, when Bennell was first arrested in Florida in 1994.
Barnes died in 2010 and his daughter, Karen, says it would be wrong to suggest he did not take the matter seriously enough. “I can unequivocally state that my father was absolutely and utterly appalled to hear about the abuse suffered. He also complained bitterly that much of what he said when interviewed for Dispatches had been edited. My father was a considerate and honest man, to which any of the footballers who knew him will attest.”
According to police files, the detectives investigating the 1994 case found Barnes “very cagey” and “played his cards close to his chest”. Muir said he had heard rumours about an incident involving Bennell and volunteered a boy’s name. Barnes, however, would not give a proper explanation about the “irregularities” that meant Bennell leaving for Crewe.
"He [Barnes] wasn't really prepared to go into them at all," Detective Sergeant Geoffrey Elvey of Crewe CID says in evidence provided to the Florida police. "We found they were quite evasive at the club. It was quite a lengthy interview. Obviously we were probing to try to find out why he [Bennell] left the club and basically I got the impression that Mr Barnes didn't want or Mr Farrell really didn't want to tell us. Bear in mind they are quite a prominent professional club and possibly wouldn't want any sort of media attention drawn to the club." Farrell declined to comment to the Guardian.
Davies, who died seven years ago, admits in a 2000 book that whereas Fleet “did not ever accept him [Bennell] as a person or coach” other people at City, including himself and Barnes, drastically misjudged the situation.
“Most of us at Manchester City, including those responsible for the enhancement of junior football, were held in awe at the coaching ability of Barry Bennell. I think the majority of us … were taken in and let down. Hundreds of people, and all the kids who played for him, trusted him. I only hope that the boys and their parents who suffered will forgive us in that we, too, were beguiled and hoodwinked by this terrible person.” Davies adds that “inquiries about his behaviour never revealed his paedophiliac mentality until it was too late”.
Crewe are also under intense scrutiny and a number of victims have called for the longstanding chairman, John Bowler, and the director of football, Dario Gradi, a figurehead at the club for more than 30 years, to resign since Andy Woodward and another former player, Steve Walters, told this newspaper what happened to them, instigating what the FA chairman, Greg Clarke, has described as the biggest crisis he can remember in the sport. Gradi has been suspended by the FA, though no official reason has been given.
Crewe said in November 2016 they would hold an independent review “at the earliest opportunity” but, 15 months on, have still not started it, claiming an unnamed authority told them to hold off until the criminal case was over. City, in stark contrast, say they received no such advice.
Both clubs have been asked by the Guardian if they want to comment about the new revelations and Crewe will also have to explain why Bennell was allowed to continue in his job when their former managing director, Hamilton Smith, has turned whistle-blower to reveal he instigated top-level talks, involving Bowler and Gradi, in the late-1980s because of an allegation against a man who has since described himself as a “monster.”
Bennell was even paid expenses to take boys home during his seven years with the club and Gradi, the Guardian can reveal, was one of the people who supplied character references – his written on Crewe letter headed paper – when his colleague and friend was awaiting his 1994 court case in Florida.
In a statement, City offered “heartfelt sympathy to all victims for the unimaginably traumatic experiences they have endured. No one can remove their suffering or that of others who suffered sexual abuse as children as a result of their involvement with football. All victims were entitled to expect full protection from the kind of harm they endured.”
The NSPCC’s football abuse helpline can be called 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642. – Guardian