Thursday 22 March 2018

PFA chief claims football's sex abuse victims into 'double figures'

David White is a former Manchester City, Leeds and Sheffield United player
David White is a former Manchester City, Leeds and Sheffield United player

Matt Slater

The number of former footballers to have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by coaches when they were boys is now in double figures, according to Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor.

The players' union boss was speaking to Press Association Sport after Cheshire Police confirmed that 11 individuals have now contacted them as they expand their investigation into a coach's activities over a period of three decades from the 1970s onward.

Police have been re-investigating convicted paedophile Barry Bennell after ex-footballer Andy Woodward waived his anonymity from an earlier trial to tell The Guardian last week about his abuse by Bennell in the 1980s while he was at Crewe.

Woodward's harrowing account prompted another former Crewe player, Steve Walters, to tell The Guardian about his alleged abuse by Bennell on Tuesday, before former Tottenham and Liverpool star Paul Stewart told the Daily Mirror about his treatment by a different youth coach in the 1970s.

Taylor said: "Because of Woodward's bravery many other ex-players and apprentices are now contacting us - it is double figures now - and that is a timely warning for everybody in football about our duty of care to these youngsters.

"It is up to all of us now to grasp the nettle and we make sure we learn from this.

"I want all players, even those who didn't make the grade, to feel that the PFA is a safe haven of support for them. We will help with counselling, treatment, whatever they need."

The 71-year-old PFA chief, who played professional football from 1962 to 1980, said he had heard rumours of inappropriate behaviour by some coaches as a player. The PFA tried to investigate them through its education department, and visited apprentices at clubs, but could not get anybody to speak on the record.

Taylor said that only changed in the mid-1990s when Bennell's conviction for raping a British boy at a football camp in the United States came to light. Prior to that, Bennell had been a successful coach and talent scout who worked with Crewe, Manchester City, Stoke and several junior clubs in the north west and midlands.

Following his release in the US, Bennell was convicted at Chester Crown Court of 23 offences against six boys, aged from nine to 15, and was sentenced to nine years in jail. He was given a third sentence in 2015 when he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing another boy at a camp in Macclesfield in 1980.

Earlier on Wednesday, Detective Inspector Sarah Hall of Cheshire Police's public protection unit said: "We have been made aware of a number of people who have come forward wishing to speak to the police."

Hall added that the police were making contact with these individuals, no arrests have been made and no one else is under investigation. She also urged anybody else who has been a victim, "no matter how long ago", to contact police on 101.

Taylor issued the same call, explaining that the PFA's head of player welfare Michael Bennett set up a confidential 24-hour helpline in 2014 and the union has been funding the Sporting Chance clinic to provide independent advice and counselling.

Woodward, who was abused by Bennell when he joined Crewe's academy at the age of 11 and testified against him in 1998, told Press Association Sport the coach had "two or three favourites in every team and operated for more than 20 years".

Since his interview with The Guardian, Woodward said he has been contacted by several former players who have thanked him for speaking out and shared their own stories about Bennell.

One of those was Walters, who was a year ahead of Woodward in Crewe's youth set-up but was allegedly abused by Bennell from the age of 12 until 14 - something he has kept secret until now.

After growing criticism of a failure to respond to Woodward's interview, Crewe's long-standing chairman John Bowler issued a statement on the club website on Tuesday to say an internal investigation has been launched.

There are fears, however, that the scandal goes far beyond Crewe, a small club with a proud tradition of developing football talent.

Stewart, now 52, told the Daily Mirror he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a different coach who threatened to kill his family if he spoke out.

"The mental scars led me into other problems with drink and drugs. I know now it was a grooming process. The level of abuse got worse and worse," said Stewart, who also had stints with Blackpool, Manchester City and Sunderland, as well as winning three England caps.

He added that Woodward's revelations had "brought a lot of issues up for me" and said he believes his abuser also attacked other young players.

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