Almost five years since Andy Woodward demolished the dam of silence muffling the scale and horror of sexual abuse in football, the 700-page report by Clive Sheldon QC for the Football Association sought to explain how that hell was allowed to happen.
The stark reality of the free run predatory abusers had across England’s most celebrated sport, from grimy grassroots boys’ clubs to some of the nation’s most prestigious, remains utterly shocking from a perspective of modern safeguarding. Much of the report delves into who knew what and might have done more about the notorious abusers, including Barry Bennell, George Ormond and Bob Higgins, who have been convicted of 142 sexual offences following new prosecutions since Woodward’s landmark 2016 interview in the Guardian.
But one plain fact stands out to illustrate how threadbare child protection was, not only in football and sport more widely, but across whole areas of British society wherever children engaged in organised activities without their parents.
Frank Roper, now notorious for his sexual abuse of young boys, including Paul Stewart, who became an England international but now says the abuse left his soul “empty”, had for 20 years from the late 1960s “a close association” with Blackpool FC. Yet the report notes that Roper had been convicted of indecent assault on a minor in 1960, 1961, 1965 and even in 1984. Not only was this most basic of checks not done, then, but “there was no formal mechanism by which the club could have obtained information about these convictions”.
In the absence of any formal safeguarding culture and, Sheldon found, at a time – so recent – of profound ignorance and naivety among responsible adults about the risks of abuse, it was left to people’s “common sense and experience” to protect the children.
They failed terribly, but for those – particularly the victims – who believe that senior figures at the clubs must have known it was happening and covered it up, the result of Sheldon’s extensive inquiries came as a disappointment. Having spent four years on his investigations, including a review of all the prosecutions, Sheldon found that actual instances of abuse reported to people in authority at clubs were vanishingly rare. The victims themselves, young teenagers who dreamed of sporting stardom but were prey to Bennell, Roper, Ormond, Higgins and the rest, told Sheldon of the bullying, manipulation, fear and feelings of shame which plunged them into silence.
The page where Sheldon summarises clubs’ failures to respond properly to actual reports of abuse is painfully short, with only four instances cited from an inquiry covering a quarter century, from 1970 to 1995. One of those incidents, in 1975, threw up a hideous revelation about Dario Gradi, who failed while assistant manager at Chelsea to secure any firm action against the youth coach Eddie Heath, accused by a father of sexually assaulting his son. Sheldon recorded that in his own interview with Gradi, more than 40 years later, the once-esteemed football man had said he did not consider that somebody putting their hands down a boy’s trousers was sexual assault.
Heath, Sheldon noted, was a fixture in senior professional football clubs’ youth coaching programmes, at Leyton Orient, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Millwall and Charlton Athletic, from 1960 to 1983. Even at the start, at Orient, there had been concerns about boys staying at his flat.
Gradi, highly regarded and successful as a coach, worked his way up the football system to become the long-serving manager at Crewe Alexandra from 1983, where he was lauded for developing young players but where he twice hired Bennell, with horrific consequences. Yet despite the abuse perpetrated for years on those including Woodward, Steve Walters, Gary Cliffe and Ian Ackley who later spoke out, leading to five prison sentences for Bennell, including the 30-year term handed down in 2018, Sheldon found that no specific knowledge was ever communicated to Gradi or the directors.
At Crewe, and at Manchester City and Stoke City where Bennell also operated, Sheldon was left to pick through the rumours, Bennell being described as a “kiddy fiddler” at City, the taunts Crewe players had from other clubs, concerns about boys staying at Bennell’s house. Sheldon decided that concerns had been discussed at Crewe by three directors including the current chairman, John Bowler, and that they should have done more to check on the welfare of the boys staying overnight with Bennell. However Sheldon found, as had Cheshire police, that Bowler, Gradi and others at Crewe had not known that boys were being abused.
Overall the report identified that all of it, the predatory abusers masquerading as mentors, and the inadequate supervision of other adults around them, took place in a great sport lacking a culture of safeguarding, with none of the rules, processes, training, guidance, and criminal record checks that are now thankfully routine. Sheldon recognised that huge improvements were made in sport from 1995, but criticised the FA for “institutional failure” because they then took until 2000 to make serious progress. Some victims criticised Sheldon’s own recommendations for further improvement as weak and belated, and Ackley called for independent regulation.
It marked, the FA chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said, “a dark day for the beautiful game.” This grim, detailed report chronicled 25 years in football that generated wonderful times for so many players and supporters, but unforgivable horror for others, preyed on in the darkness and in plain sight.