Sexual abuse scandal engulfs the world of British football
10 days ago, Daniel Taylor began to expose the true extent of predator Barry Bennell's crimes. Here he reflects on a week that plunged a sport into crisis
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
Over the last few days I have been looking through some of the yellowed newspaper cuttings of the Barry Bennell case, snipped out from the pages of the Crewe Chronicle, and there is one in particular to which I keep returning, from June 13, 1998, with the headline: "We could not believe Bennell guilty - Gradi".
It was here that Crewe Alexandra's manager, Dario Gradi, explained how the football club had taken the side of Bennell rather than the 13-year-old British boy who triggered the police investigation by telling his parents he had been molested on a trip to Florida. That boy, I have subsequently discovered, broke down because he was scared he might get Aids.
But Crewe stood by Bennell. "Everyone at the club found it hard to believe he was guilty when he was first arrested," Gradi said. "When we first found out what had happened we were very supportive."
Bennell had just been sentenced to nine years in prison for 25 offences, including two specimen charges of buggery, against boys aged nine to 14.
Another 22 offences against an unknown number of victims had been left on file because the Crown Prosecution Service decided it was better not to put boys of that age through the trauma of a trial. Bennell had worked in Crewe's youth system for years and Detective Chief Inspector Peter Duffy, who led the investigation, had already been quoted by the same newspaper saying he was convinced there were other victims who had never come forward.
Crewe, meanwhile, had reported back for pre-season training and Gradi's only other quote in this article is the kind of line that, for whatever reason, I find myself reading over and again. "All this is now a long time ago and we were untouched by the court case this week," the manager pointed out. "We are all just carrying on as normal."
Perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he was just trying to put on a front in what must have been a pretty horrendous time for Crewe. Except I'm at a loss, to be honest. It isn't easy, even as someone who is used to hearing all sorts of questionable comments from football managers, to discover that Crewe were apparently "untouched" at the centre of a sex abuse scandal, and that the person using those words was the man who took Bennell to the club in the first place.
But there have been lots of things troubling me over the last week, and so many questions that remain unanswered now we are finally starting to learn about the full extent of the crimes of Bennell and others. Some of those questions might never be addressed properly and, all the time, there is that nagging sense that, when it really mattered, the sport of Andy Woodward, Steve Walters, Paul Stewart, David White, Chris Unsworth, Jason Dunford and Ian Ackley - and I dread to think how many others - looked the other way.
Louis Theroux talked recently about his own guilt after failing to connect the dots about Jimmy Savile and how, when it came out that he had documented the life of a sexual predator, he was left trying "to figure out my own role in the affair and whether I was, in some way, played". Theroux was asked by one of Savile's victims in a follow-up documentary if he, too, felt he had been "groomed" - and no doubt there are plenty of people in football who are experiencing the same blur of self-doubt.
With Savile, it all seems so bloody obvious now and, to a certain extent, the same can be said in this latest case, given the number of times since I first sat down with Andy Woodward - the first victim to waive his anonymity in the Guardian - that I have heard people describe Bennell as a Pied Piper figure, and all the elements that led to Chris Muir, the late Manchester City director, once saying that "in the world of football he was looked upon as a fellow that wasn't right".
Norman Rowlinson, the former Crewe chairman, described Bennell as having a "magnetic attraction with boys" - but it wasn't just children who were won over by this guy in designer gear, driving a Mercedes and talking about his friendship with various Chelsea first-teamers from his own days in their youth system.
Bennell was flash: he could do tricks with a ball that left his players in awe of him, and he could be charmingly persuasive, which was probably useful for someone who used to have a clothes stall on Manchester's Underground Market.
And, yes, knowing what we do now, I imagine there are plenty of us thinking we would not leave our own kids with someone whose house was described in court as a "children's paradise" featuring arcade machines, a jukebox, a pool table and, most bizarre of all, what has been described as his own "mini zoo".
Yet, back then, he had the mums and dads under his spell, too. He even went on holiday with one set of parents. These people are victims too - still living with it every single day. Not just them, either. Nobody can tell me, having met Hamilton Smith and seen close-up the immense distress this has caused him, reliving his experiences on Crewe's board, that there are not good people who worked at the club, or are still there, and who have suffered immeasurably.
All that can really be said for certain is that Gradi must have had a deep bond with the man he once coached in Chelsea's junior ranks. Gradi was such a fan of Bennell that, I'm reliably informed, he once told the board: "He's more important to this club than me."
The manager used to have a clause in his contract that entitled him to 10pc of the transfer fee for any player he had brought through the ranks and, when you think about the production line at Crewe, that is a significant amount of money. My information is that Gradi went to the board and offered to cut his share, so that Bennell could get a slice. The board accepted his request - and the manager sacrificed a small fortune to look after his mate.
Bennell had enough power at Crewe to bring in an assistant youth-team manager and became so embedded in the club that, towards the end of the 1988-89 season, he wrote a three-part column in the programme. It was called The Finding of a Player and his entry for the match against York on May 1, does not, in hindsight, make pleasant reading.
"I believe you need to know the boy a lot more than 'the number six with the curly hair'," he writes.
"I've been coaching for 19 years now and I think I've gained enough experience, including seven years at Manchester City where I surfaced players such as Nicky Reid (Blackburn), Darron McDonough (Luton), John Sheridan (Leeds), Steve Kinsey (ex-Man City), Jon Hallworth and Mike Milligan (Oldham) and many more, plus of course the youngsters who are there now such as David White, Ian Brightwell, Paul Lake, etc."
Bennell, in other words, started coaching juniors in 1970, when he was 16, almost 25 years before he was finally locked up, and the really frightening thing here is that it is virtually impossible to calculate how many boys he had access to in that time. How many more are to come forward? And how many are holding back because of their own circumstances? And how many were lucky enough not to have experienced that side of him? These boys are now men, in their 40s and 50s. One rang me last week and said he, too, had been one of Bennell's victims but that he could not speak about it publicly. He was simply unable to put his elderly mother - completely oblivious to what her son had endured - through all the upset.
Others have told me how, on one trip away, Bennell somehow managed to persuade a zoo on the south coast to let him buy a baby puma. Bennell kept it at his house and, between there and his mother's flat, also had a spider monkey, two Pyrenean dogs, a snake, a tarantula and a tank filled with piranhas.
He would take the puma to Blackpool some days, letting it run wild on the beach, and walked it with a lead until it apparently swiped someone's arm in Woolworths.
The more you learn about this man, the more you realise he went by his own rules. And the more you hear about the time he spent with children, the more you wonder how he got away with everything for so long.
Crewe have chosen not to comment since Smith - the former director Woodward describes as "one of the people at Crewe who can hold their head high" - told the Guardian that he did bring up suspicions about Bennell but that the club allowed him to continue coaching for a number more years.
Crewe, indeed, appear to have given Bennell some glowing testimony, given the story in the Stoke Sentinel that a team by the name of Stone Dominoes asked the club for a reference before making Bennell their head coach in 1992, around the same time he also started working part-time in Stoke City's centre of excellence.
"We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing but nothing negative came back at all," the club's founder, Bob Bowers, said. "It was what an amazing coach he was, so on that basis we went ahead. We took references and he came back squeaky clean." Bennell went on to offend there, too.
It all feels so deeply unsatisfactory. Yet we in the media probably have questions to ask of ourselves, too. Where was the outcry, in 1996, when Dispatches provided the first in-depth reportage of Bennell's crimes?
Why did nobody apparently go back to Manchester City to challenge their antiquated old directors about what, precisely, happened when a parent wrote to them complaining Bennell was taking boys into his room late at night on trips away?
City say they are investigating everything, but the relevant people are all dead now and I'm not sure they will ever be able to give us the answers.
Did City rumble him, as at least one of Bennell's boys suspects, and was that the reason he stopped working on behalf of a First Division club and pitched up at unglamorous Crewe? What exactly prompted Rowlinson, the chairman of Crewe from 1964 to 1998, to ask City if they had any suspicions about Bennell? And if Rowlinson's former colleagues - he died in 2006 - maintain they never heard anything to trouble them, how did it possibly pass them by when there was so much rumour and innuendo within the town, and Woodward, among others, remembers it being the talk of the club?
Another article in the Crewe Chronicle catches my attention because I imagine it is how plenty of us feel now we know the stories of these poor young boys who, in some cases, were raped more times than they can possibly remember.
This one quotes DCI Duffy on the day after Bennell - described as not showing even a flicker of emotion - was jailed for nine years. "I'm devastated that someone in the position he was in as a football coach got away with what he did for so long," he says. "It is terrible that he could."