Tuesday 6 December 2016

John Giles: There were many aspects of football during my days that were intrinsically abusive

Read John Giles every week in The Herald

Published 30/11/2016 | 18:42

The recent revelations about the abuse perpetrated by paedophile soccer coach Barry Bennell have added a sinister note to the troubles that a young, aspiring footballer finds himself in when making the trip cross-channel.
The recent revelations about the abuse perpetrated by paedophile soccer coach Barry Bennell have added a sinister note to the troubles that a young, aspiring footballer finds himself in when making the trip cross-channel.

If I was a parent of a child with a gift for football in Ireland, I would be looking at events in England surrounding Barry Bennell with horror and deep concern.

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Parents blessed with talented kids like that have a very big choice to make somewhere along the line and they are reading about their worst nightmare.

Put yourself in the position. Would you send a 16 year-old to England now after seeing what happened innocents who suffered at the hands of an absolute monster?

I would urge caution in reaching conclusions about whether it is reasonable to entrust a talented teenager to strangers; whether parents are putting their children at risk by making a call like that.

In all my time in the game, from the moment I stepped off the Munster and Leinster ferry in Holyhead with a pound note pinned to my jacket, I never came across anything like this personally or anecdotally.

But there were many aspects of the game in those days which were intrinsically abusive.

Football clubs were not community centres. They wanted to produce professional footballers and a necessary part of that process was failure.

For many clubs, their responsibility ended at the stadium gate and the idea of preparing kids for a future without football never arose.

I was on my own when I arrived in Manchester and I was just 14 but it would not have been unusual for kids of emigrant Irish parents to travel alone to catch up with parents who had left to find work.

If a club conducted their business that way now, it would be rightly seen as a type of abuse and there were many things talented young Irish footballers had to deal with which were not part of a normal upbringing.

The discipline of training was way beyond anything most children experienced. Criticism was a natural part of the process and has to be.

I remember Jimmy Murphy gave me stick over a penalty I missed in a reserve game and I burst into tears.

But I was crying because I missed the penalty, not because he was giving me a hard time.

Football is hard on sensitive souls. It was a hard life in every way possible in my day, until I had a professional contract in my hand - and even then, it was no easy ride.

Despite all the money and the suggestion that kids have a soft life nowadays, it is still a desperately difficult choice for parents to let their kids go at such a young age and very hard for a youngster, alone in a strange place.

The revelations about Bennell and others have added a very dark background note.

I'm not naive enough to think that just because I had no experience of it, child sex abuse didn't exist. Bennell is proof that it did happen and I'm sure it still does.

Predators are drawn to places where kids gather and seek out positions of power over them.

But I don't think it is widespread and the reason for that is the nature of footballers.

It is a gossipers' sport. Footballers spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen, killing time between training and games. They talk and I had a natural curiosity.

I wanted to know what other clubs were like, what the managers were like and how they worked. I was always asking questions.

I am certain that if anyone had doubts about men in the game, suspicions that they were abusing kids, the grapevine would have eventually picked up on it.

I've spoken to lads who were in the game around the time Bennell was active and they were aware of a shadow over Crewe so I think my gut instinct is correct. If I was playing or managing at the time, I would have heard about it.

The raft of investigations will tell us more about what happened to all the men who had their lives ruined and I'm sure there will be lessons to be learned for everyone.

But I think parents can feel safe in sending their kids to the Academies in England. They are all governed by licensing and a very strict code of practice.

Of course, it hardly needs to be said that there were and are many children in Ireland who never kicked a ball in their lives but have experienced terrible abuse.

The irony is that perhaps there were some talented footballers who found safe haven in England from predation at home. That's a sobering thought.

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