Saturday 24 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Toxic culture in football facilitated abuse'

Celtic, says Dr Marshall, should ‘be open and transparent in a similar way to Chelsea. They have to acknowledge what the victims have gone through and the impact on them’. Photo: Getty
Celtic, says Dr Marshall, should ‘be open and transparent in a similar way to Chelsea. They have to acknowledge what the victims have gone through and the impact on them’. Photo: Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Football's child sex abuse scandal means we will never be able to look at the game in the same way again.

Geoff Hurst won't just be the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final.

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He'll also be the man who refused, despite several requests, to answer questions from an inquiry into the abuse perpetrated by Eddie Heath.

Heath was a former youth coach with Chelsea sacked by then-manager Hurst under circumstances which remain unclear.

Celtic won't just be the first British club to win the European Cup.

It'll also be the club which refused to take responsibility for child molestation at Celtic Boys Club on the technically correct but morally flimsy grounds that this was a feeder club rather than an official part of the senior set-up.

Barry Bennell. Photo: AP
Barry Bennell. Photo: AP

Dario Gradi will no longer be regarded as one of the game's great coaches of young players. He'll go down in history as the man who stood by and did nothing even though he knew what Heath was doing to teenage boys at Chelsea when Gradi was assistant manager.

The 1970s and '80s can't be regarded any more as a kind of golden age, a more innocent time before the influx of big money changed the game forever. They were a dark age when sexual abuse ran rife in the game and was enabled to do so by a toxic combination of indifference and ignorance.

This story is just beginning. It's less than three years since former Crewe defender Andy Woodward went public about the abuse inflicted upon him at the club by a coach, Barry Bennell.

After that it was as though a dam had burst. Victims who'd long kept silent were emboldened to come forward by Woodward's disclosures.

The Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, about child sex abuse in the archdiocese of Boston, perfectly captured the way in which these scandals escalate.

At the beginning the reporters believe they're merely documenting the misdeeds of a handful of bad apples, by the end they've uncovered a problem of such enormous proportions it seems systemic.

We are very early in the days of football's reckoning with child abuse. There will be many more terrible things heard and many more clubs implicated.

It is to Chelsea's credit that they did at least commission the enquiry which last week reported on Heath's offences at the club.

That inquiry, led by Charles Geekie QC, involved a 17-strong legal team which conducted 139 interviews, dealt with eight police forces and took two and a half years to complete their work. Last week a statement from the club said: "The board wishes to thank all the survivors and witnesses who came forward to assist the reviews and the club apologises unreservedly for the terrible past experiences of our former players."

That's the kind of apology Celtic should make, according to clinical psychologist Dr John Marshall who gave evidence at last year's trial of Jim Torbett, one of four former Celtic Boys Club coaches to be convicted of child abuse. Celtic, says Dr Marshall, should "be open and transparent in a similar way to Chelsea. They have to acknowledge what the victims have gone through and the impact on them and thoroughly investigate like Chelsea did."

Marshall has described Celtic's response to the cases as "abysmal," while Patrick McGuire, the solicitor for many of the victims, says the club's denial of responsibility is "a stance that is hideously cruel to the survivors, insults the intelligence of every fan and the public and is a stain on the reputation of an institution set up with egalitarian aims at its heart."

In contrast to Chelsea's inquiry, there is little transparency about the one currently being carried out by Celtic. McGuire says that in the two years since it began none of his clients have been contacted in connection with it.

Sadly there is still a coterie of Celtic fans who persist in treating the scandal as some kind of conspiracy against the club. They defend the club's legalistic refusal of any responsibility though the Boys Club status as nursery club for the senior side is well known. Among other things, the two clubs shared a common child protection policy, entitled 'Aware and Confident'.

Celtic's defenders remind me of the Irish-American politicians who defended Cardinal Law of Boston's handling of child abuse in the diocese on the grounds that the media had it in for the Catholic Church. This stuff does not age well. Some things are more important than the eternal round of sectarian Scottish shit-kicking.

Such reactions are not confined to Celtic fans. Adam Breeze, a Crewe fan for 38 years who stopped supporting the club due to its response to the Bennell case, described how he was "accused of being a fake fan and worse by supporters who cannot countenance their club ever doing wrong. I believe the majority of Crewe fans are decent, fair-minded folk who want the truth, but there is a sizable faction who think every journalist is out to get them and every article is fake news."

The attitude of that minority is rooted in their affection for Dario Gradi, Crewe manager for almost 30 years, who brought Bennell to the club and has been accused of turning a blind eye to his proclivities.

These allegations led to Gradi being suspended from football by the FA in November 2016, yet he remains Director of Football at Crewe. The moral bankruptcy of this decision has now been further underlined by the findings of the inquiry at Chelsea.

Because if there is a smoking gun in the report it is the finding that "Mr Gradi is the single example of a clear account of an adult in a position of responsibility being informed about an allegation in relation to Mr Heath. The complaint was not referred to more senior members of the club and an opportunity to prevent Mr Heath going on to abuse others was lost."

That refers to a complaint in the early 1970s by a father whose son had been sexually assaulted in the showers by Heath. Gradi's reaction was to go to the child's parents because he didn't want the matter to go any further. "I'd got no intention of getting Eddie Heath into trouble," he recalled to the inquiry, "I don't remember being horrified by it. To be quite honest I think I would have tried to stand up for Eddie Heath a bit."

The boy's father remembers that in their meeting, "Gradi was defending what had happened."

Gradi told the enquiry, "the boy was blaming the sexual stuff going against him as a footballer."

Gradi is a figure of considerable standing within football, an MBE, a member of the English Football Hall of Fame, a winner of a PFA Merit Award and an award for Outstanding Contribution to League Football. There is even a street in Crewe, Dario Gradi Drive, named after him. This standing rested largely on his reputation as a nurturer of young talent. Yet it is now clear that he should have never been put in a position where he had responsibility for teenage boys.

Many more reputations will have to be re-evaluated before the whole truth about football and sexual abuse comes out. FA chairman Greg Clarke is not exaggerating when he describes it as the biggest crisis to hit the game. His observation that "All the organisations in the old days used to protect themselves by keeping quiet and closing ranks. That's completely inappropriate and unacceptable today," is apposite.

In the past the football authorities have been part of the problem. Ian Ackley, who was abused by a coach connected with Manchester City and spoke about it in a Channel 4 documentary as long ago as 1997, said the Association had been "dismissive" when his father had written to them about child protection deficiencies within the game back then.

This was a problem no-one wanted to face up to. And, just as the secretive and hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church facilitated the cover-up of abuse within its ranks, something about football clubs may have helped Bennell, Heath and Torbett to operate with impunity.

The game's cult of machismo must have made it more difficult for victims to admit to something they felt would be regarded as shameful. The code of omerta which prevails at clubs would also have militated against exposure of the culprits.

That coaches had the power to make and break the careers of the boys in their charge must have been a godsend to abusers. So must a tolerance of bullying unusual in most other walks of life. Last week also saw the publication of a report Chelsea commissioned from Barnardos which revealed that in the 1980s and '90s racial abuse of young players had been commonplace.

It was a rotten culture exploited by the very rottenest of men. There are no partisan conclusions to be drawn because there are probably few clubs unaffected at some level. Ireland has not escaped the scourge. Rugby and Gaelic games also have their tragic tales of abusers allowed free rein for far too long.

This is the saddest sporting story of all. But it cannot be ignored. When football's future histories are written Andy Woodward should have a prominent place.

He has done the game some service.

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