After last week’s exhaustive inquiry by Clive Sheldon QC into how young people in football have been subjected to horrific sexual abuse during 25 years with no child protection, the nation this week will hear from survivors. In the testimony they give to a devastating BBC documentary series, they emphasise a constant theme: that their enforced silence for years did further dreadful damage to them, and how liberating it has been to speak out.
The programme recognises the watershed of Andy Woodward’s November 2016 interview with Daniel Taylor in the Guardian, which prompted hundreds of victims to finally come forward and led to new prosecutions, convictions, the Sheldon review itself and apologies this week from the football establishment. Woodward explains his motivation simply: “I was suffering mentally because of what had happened in my life.”
Steve Walters, a star England schoolboy international who signed for Crewe then never had the future that had glittered for him, says reading Woodward’s interview was like reading about himself, and he came next, revealing he was another victim of Barry Bennell. Survivors of the controlling, sinister Bob Higgins came forward, finally seeing him given a 24-year prison sentence in 2019 for the abuse of 24 boys at Southampton and Peterborough from 1971 to 1996. One survivor, Greg Llewellyn, urges others not to bear their ordeals in silence as he did. “I just hope that if there are people out there that have suffered, that they find the strength to come forward, and talk to the police or the NSPCC – or anybody,” he says.
Gary Cliffe was abused by Bennell at Manchester City and since 2016 has been on the journey of speaking out, then giving evidence in court and seeing a judge in 2018 describe Bennell as “sheer evil” and hand down a 30-year jail sentence. He addresses other victims with sad compassion. “Do it. You can’t carry it,” he says. “It’s not your stuff to carry.”
In his 710-page report, Sheldon described a sport without a safeguarding culture, rules, training, guidance or leadership, while its clubs had open access to boys for the business of producing professional footballers. Big, strong football men talk on the programme about the mental and emotional torments wrought on them by the abuse, compounded by years of silence.
Paul Stewart, grievously abused by Frank Roper – who operated as a coach despite three convictions for indecent assault of a minor in the 1960s – reached football’s heights, FA Cup victory at Wembley in 1991 for Tottenham, and England caps, but he laments: “I had some highs in my career, but I never enjoyed them like everybody else did, because I had this empty soul … Alone, I was dying. I was just dying inside.”
Amid the horror and pain is another deep injustice: that the innocent – the victims and some of their mothers, haunted by thoughts that they should have spotted it – speak of feeling guilt and shame. Yet the guilty seem to have no capacity even for remorse. The victims’ courage for speaking their truth contrasts with the aggressive silence of the perpetrators: Bennell, smirking in the dock; Higgins, not saying a word in 10 hours of police interviews.
The trials of these men were further traumas for survivors, and should prompt a proper public debate about our ancient, adversarial court system and whether it really is the best modern means of achieving justice. Dean Radford courageously spoke out against Higgins’s abuse at Southampton and gave evidence against him in the 1991 prosecution, but he recalls of his experience at court: “I was the lamb to the slaughter; I never stood a chance really, did I? You’ve got 12 people in the jury that don’t know you, don’t know anything about you. You’ve got another guy who’s being paid £500 an hour to make you look a liar. And it’s your word against [the defendant’s].”
Higgins was acquitted and, in January 1992, all the other charges were dropped. He remained free for a further 28 years, taken on by Peterborough from 1994-96, where he sexually abused more young people. In 2019, Radford was prominent in the group of former players from both clubs who gave evidence and finally saw Higgins brought to justice.
Walters recalls how hurtful it was in court to have Bennell’s defence barrister accuse him of “making things up”. Cliffe, a police officer himself now, says similar accusations made to him by Bennell’s lawyer were “hell” and “horrible,” and that: “I’ve been case officer numerous times at crown court, and it can be a brutal place, with a lot of nastiness.”
Ian Ackley, one of few who spoke out in the years before Woodward did, gave an interview to the Dispatches programme in 1997, firmly stating what Bennell had done to him. A clip is shown of Deborah Davies, the reporter for that programme, asking Charles Hughes, then the FA’s director of coaching, for his comments on safeguarding, and being given a brush-off.
Ackley tells this programme that part of having the truth acknowledged is to hear about the abuse itself – being forced to perform oral sex, being raped – not skirt around it because it makes people uncomfortable. He also explains the victim’s reaction of freezing, which is now understood to be the most common response but can be baffling even to many victims themselves.
“With the rape, the pain and the hurt, it was almost a welcome distraction because the pain, it made me focus on the pain and not on what was actually happening,” Ackley says. “I can only describe it as being frozen, because fighting it would cause more pain and more distress and I knew it wasn’t going to stop. The easiest thing to do was just let it happen and get it over with.”
Now he and others have borne witness, their courage and public service recognised by the FA and all of football last week. Sheldon’s report described football – and sport itself – without safeguards to protect its young players from the worst of harms. And as the survivors have all said repeatedly, everything possible must forever be done to ensure this can never happen again.
Football’s Darkest Secret starts on Monday at 9pm on BBC One, then the series is available on BBC iPlayer