Friday 24 February 2017

Football can't allow itself to believe that abuse issues couldn't happen these days

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Manchester City and England winger David White. Photo: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images
Manchester City and England winger David White. Photo: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

Writing Monday columns can sometimes be tricky because Sunday writers have had their say on the previous week's events, the storylines around upcoming fixtures aren't fully processed or, like this week, it's just too difficult to care about "issues" like why teams can't cope with Chelsea's 3-4-3 system.

Usually a thought forms from watching a match or scanning articles but, in the past week, it's been impossible to read about football without the spectre of Barry Bennell and the horrors he inflicted upon young, aspiring professionals looming large.

Football likes to live in its own bubble where the bad things which happen in the outside world are ignored and everybody argues over why a particular player should be dropped or manager should be sacked.

In fairness, the best thing about sport is its detachment from the real world and most people don't want to spoil the escapism, which is why issues like corruption in the game or the presence or otherwise of performance-enhancing drugs get relatively little coverage. There's also a difference between knowing something to be true and proving it.

But then former players like Andy Woodward, Paul Stewart, Chris Unsworth and Jason Dunford sit down for an interview on BBC and the real world of what they went through comes crashing into the lives of everybody who witnessed it.

Wept

Woodward, who was the first player to go public over the abuse he suffered, wept as the others told their stories, including Unsworth's assertion that Bennell's abuse of him began at the age of nine and led to him being raped "between 50 and 100 times".

Dunford spoke about how Bennell ostracised him after he repelled his attempts to abuse him at a holiday camp, which included dropping him from the team and peddling a lie that Dunford stole money from his young team-mates.

None of it made for easy viewing, no more than it makes for easy reading, particularly with new revelations coming on nearly a daily basis, often from the Guardian's Daniel Taylor, whose work on the subject has been superb.

Ideally, nobody wants to talk about it or read about it because they don't want to believe that it's happening but the bravery of those men, among others, to waive their anonymity has started a conversation that can't be ignored.

In his statement last week, former Manchester City and England winger David White revealed he had been abused by Bennell as a child but insisted he didn't feel brave and, in one of the clearest examples of how such insidious abuse can continue to warp a perception, said he felt like one of "the lucky ones".

"I would like to say that I do not feel brave," he wrote. "This is just my story and I am now happy to tell it because despite the profound effects of 1979/80 I feel like one of the lucky ones.

"Circumstances took me away from the abuse before it escalated. I salute Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and Paul Stewart for so bravely revealing their personal tragedies. The physical abuse they and others suffered was certainly more extreme and prolonged than my ordeal, and I cannot be sure that I would have their courage."

Even after the abuse he suffered - and this is absolutely no criticism of White - the temptation for him like so many others who went through the same thing, is seemingly to downplay their trauma because others who went through worse.

As Taylor pointed out in the Observer yesterday, the amazing thing is how everything looks so obvious once the dam bursts, but by ingratiating himself with so many of the people around his victims - including, sickeningly, later marrying Woodward's sister - Bennell removed the "stranger danger" idea so often taught to children.

Taylor also pointed to a story in the Stoke Sentinel of a club whose founder went through all the proper procedures before appointing Bennell as the club's head coach in 1992, over a decade after the "1979/80" referenced by White.

"We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing but nothing negative came back at all," said Bob Bowers of the Stone Dominoes club. "It was what an amazing coach he was, so on that basis we went ahead. We took references and he came back squeaky clean."

In the BBC interview, Dunford felt that the same abuse wouldn't happen today because "it's a different world, thankfully" and "everything is safeguarded". Compared to the past, Dunford is correct when it comes to people being more open about issues and not bowing to the absolute power of authority figure, but the idea that such horrors can't happen now is something that football, and sport, can't allow itself to believe.

Throughout the game, there are many stories of would-be agents - or "intermediaries" to give them their official title - calling to the homes of promising young players looking to represent them; coaches can be "encouraged" to send players on trial to certain places, while parents have been offered plenty of sweeteners for a teenage son to pledge his future to a club.

Just yesterday, Arsene Wenger spoke to Amy Lawrence about his fears that young players are being "isolated" from a normal life and while he was referencing about the game as a whole, rather than the past week's revelations, it was fine insight into how such nefarious events can happen.

"Do we isolate them too early from normal social life?," asked Wenger. "Would it not be better for them to go to a normal school and practise after school rather than at 16 give them every day only football as a professional life, knowing about the success rate (of those who make it)?"

Pressure

"We know that in France 12pc make their living in football, in the first, second, third or fourth division. That means 88pc are there every day living like a professional football player and not having a future. Another question that raises is how we manage the parents as they have a lot of expectations and put a lot of pressure on the boy. They are under pressure very early to be successful and come in with the fear of not being successful every morning.

"Today the pressure is on. From very young. Today, they start at nine, 10, 11, 12. It raises questions and I do not say I have the answer. But I just think the longer you live a normal life the better."

The questions he poses need to be taken seriously given how one of Bennell's main weapons was that he could deliver the dream which his victims had of being a professional players, even while knowing nine out of 10 wouldn't make it.

The vast, vast majority of people involved in the game will have the player's best interest at heart but, even allowing for the increased child protection initiatives, the environment of potential exploitation of naïve young footballers remains and, even if everyone would prefer to talk about goals, managers and tactics, it's dangerous to think otherwise.

Irish Independent

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