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Uncovering football's heart of darkness

As the sport awaits the results of an inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse and cover-up, Harriet Marsden speaks to the victims of Barry Bennell about life after the revelations


Evil predators: former youth coach Barry Bennell

Evil predators: former youth coach Barry Bennell


Abuse victim: Andy Woodward

Abuse victim: Andy Woodward

Evil predators: former youth coach Barry Bennell

Andrew Woodward has no idea how many times he was raped as a child. In November 2016, the ex-footballer waived his right to anonymity and revealed that he had been a victim of sexual abuse for more than six years in the 1980s. The one-time Crewe Alexandra defender named his former coach, a convicted paedophile who police would later say had "almost an insatiable appetite" for young boys: Barry Bennell. Bennell has been described as the most persistent paedophile in Britain's history. He was also Woodward's brother-in-law.

Soon after, his former Crewe teammate Steve Walters also came forward as a victim of Bennell. Then Manchester City's David White, then Paul Stewart. Then another. And another. A second coach, Frank Roper, was accused. Then George Ormond. Then chief scout for Chelsea Eddie Heath. Bob Higgins. Hugh Stevenson. Jim McCafferty. Paul McCann. Week after week, the list grew longer.

British football was shaken to its core. There were so many accusations that the Football Association quickly commissioned an inquiry, led by Clive Sheldon QC, to find out who knew what. FA chairman Greg Clarke called it "the biggest crisis in the history of sport".

Woodward was hailed as the hero: a proto-#MeToo whistleblower who broke the cycle of stigma, shame and silence. Last summer, he published Position of Trust: A Football Dream Betrayed to mass acclaim - an account of the abuse and a damning indictment of institutionalised corruption and failure to protect the vulnerable. Hundreds of people credit him with finding the strength to come forward about their own abuse.

But now, more than three years later, Woodward says: "There are times when I wish I'd not done it."

Woodward has battled with alcoholism, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts.

"And, as much as I've helped so many people, it's been an absolute nightmare. I've been through hell and back," he says.

He has also been the victim of extensive online abuse and trolling. Just days after his interview, an 18-year-old in Crewe created a fake Twitter account pretending to be Bennell.

Lewis Hawkins and his father both used it to subject Woodward to a barrage of abusive messages. The following year, they were both imprisoned for 12 months.

"It's had a huge effect on so many things within my life," he says. "I've been targeted, relationships have broken down, oh, God, I can't even put it into words the effect it's had on my mental health, it's had an effect on everything in my life."

Bennell's victims are still waiting on the results of the inquiry, thanks to legal complexities as the CPS prepares further charges against the imprisoned paedophile.

Woodward, now 46, says: "I want to get across that I'm a human being - I've done the right thing, but I have had to suffer for it, hugely."

Woodward began his football career for a youth team in Stockport, where he was born in 1973. He soon caught the eye of a charismatic youth coach and scout, Barry Bennell. Bennell was well-liked and trusted by families and colleagues. He worked for Crewe and was associated with Stoke City and Manchester City. He was also a serial sex abuser and paedophile.

Bennell brought Woodward into Crewe's youth team, which had a reputation for nurturing young players.

He became everything to the boy: coach, hero, friend. Then, when Woodward was 11, the abuse began.

It would alternate between physical attacks and emotional manipulation. Bennell preyed on "softer, weaker" boys, Woodward said, threatening them, spoiling them, raping them. Woodward's nightmare would continue for six-and-a-half years.

Woodward began to deteriorate mentally, while Bennell's power over him increased. When Woodward was just 14, Bennell began a relationship with his 16-year-old sister, later marrying her in 1991.

It was like torture, Woodward says: "He had control of the whole family. And (speaking out) has had a huge effect on my family. It's had a huge effect on her and on our relationship."

Meanwhile, one of Bennell's other victims reported him and the police began investigating other allegations in Spain and the United States. In 1994, he was arrested in Florida on a football tour after a 13-year-old player accused him of rape. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years' imprisonment.

After his arrest, four players came forward to the British police. So even though he did not serve his full time in the States, he was arrested when he returned to England.

In 1998, Bennell was charged with assault and buggery over nearly 30 years, against boys aged between nine and 15. He was found guilty of 23 offences against six boys and was jailed for nine years.

Woodward later became a police officer, but was dismissed after 12 years on the force for having an inappropriate relationship with the sister of a crime victim.

"The only reason I joined the police was because I wanted to help people," he says. "And it was the worst decision I ever made. Because I didn't realise that I'd have to be dealing with paedophile cases."

By 2015, Bennell was out, living in Milton Keynes under the name Richard Jones. Police launched Operation Hydrant, which investigates historical child sex abuse and, by the end of the year, it had identified more than 17 suspects from the sporting world, at 22 sports venues. Bennell was sent back to prison for another two years for sexually abusing another footballer, David Lean.

Almost immediately after his book was published, Woodward says, his life changed. Victims began coming forward in their hundreds. One voice would become the most significant - his former Crewe teammate Steve Walters.

Walters, born in 1972, grew up in Plymouth and was spotted by Bennell at Manchester United. Like Woodward, he was brought by Bennell to Crewe and would often sleep at his house.

"Everything was so impressive about him and he had this ability to make you feel special," Walters said. "He used to promise me he would make me a better player. He would tell me I was the best young midfield player he had ever seen and that he would help me play for England. And I believed him."

The young player was soon feted as a future star, even as his champion abused him in secret. Walters, like Woodward, began to deteriorate: "I did go totally off the rails, getting involved with drinking heavily, drugs, all caused by this."

Walters and Woodward were reunited, bonded by their shared revelations. The two survivors, along with ex-Manchester City player Chris Unsworth and former team-mate Jason Dunford, were interviewed on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire show and blew the scandal wide open. More than 800 victims came forward that day.

To help cope with the onslaught, the men set up an organisation they called the Offside Trust, to support victims and campaign to keep children in sport safe. Unsworth, an ex-Manchester City player, was abused by Bennell from the age of nine. He thinks he has been raped between 50 and 100 times, but that nobody ever spoke about it.

Bennell, by then 62, had already served nine years for sexual offences, but was out of prison on licence. But, while he was behind bars, he had tried for years to contact Walters, Woodward and other young footballers he had abused.

Just last week, Woodward received a Facebook friend request from a man calling himself Richard Barry. Woodward is sure it was Bennell.

"When I saw it there, I was like, 'how dare you do that?' He had pictures with people I know he was friends with, so, yes, it was 100% him. You couldn't make it up, could you?"

By June 2017, Bennell had been charged with 55 counts of assault on four underage boys. In February 2018, he was jailed for 31 years. The judge called him the "devil incarnate".

Outside Liverpool Crown Court, Woodward, Unsworth, Walters and two other victims read statements about their abuse. The clubs expressed their sympathies, but reiterated that they had not known.

This wasn't the full story. In fact, it seemed that when Bennell left Manchester City and joined Crewe, he had already been identified as a risk. Manchester City were warned by one of their own coaches about him. People started to ask questions about whether there was a cover-up.

It emerged that Woodward had, in fact, sued Crewe for damages back in 2004 - unsuccessfully. "It was my opportunity to be anonymous," he says, "to out the football club. And I did everything I could."

Most disturbingly, Woodward says he had to visit his abuser in Wymott prison, to ask Bennell to give him a statement. "That was horrendous. Horrendous. But the reason behind it was I wanted to out that football club for what they did to me and so many others. They knew what was going on."

Woodward and Walters both believe that their abuser was part of a cross-border paedophile ring, with particular connections to Scotland where he often took youth teams to tournaments. Just this month, the Scottish FA launched an investigation into the rumoured network of predators in youth football.

One survivor claims he was abused by both Bennell and Jim McCafferty, a Celtic kitman and former boys' club coach, after he was introduced to them by Bill Kelly, another former coach.

(McCafferty was jailed last year for molesting children over 24 years. Kelly was jailed for assaulting at least 12 players over 22 years. Kelly denies having any connection with McCafferty or Bennell.)

Woodward believes Bennell colluded for a long time with at least one other paedophile, who has not been named. Since Walters and Woodward came forward, the sheer scale of the sexual abuse in UK football started to emerge. People began to ask if there was some sickness in football.

Although many sports have their own stringent safeguarding in place, even now, there is no mandatory reporting law in the UK. If you witness sexual abuse of children at a football club, you are under no legal obligation to report it to the police.

A spokesman for the Offside Trust says that introducing mandatory reporting for suspicions of abuse "would be another vital tool in making the will of abusers to seek out new settings harder, the police, local authorities and governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure as far as possible the safety and wellbeing of all children."

The relationship between coach and young athlete lends itself to exploitation, says Woodward, not just because a predator has unfettered access to the child, but because he is the gateway to what the child wants more than anything else.

And, like Woodward says with the title of his book, a coach is in a relatively unique position of trust with a child.

'Position of trust' laws - or Section 21 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 - make it illegal for adults in certain roles to have sex with a child in their care under 18. This covers positions like teacher, carers and hospital workers. This does not cover sports coaches.

The Ministry of Justice recognises that this is a loophole and a problem and has said in the past that it will expand the definition to include coaches, because, as it stands, a coach could groom an athlete until he or she turns 16 and then abuse them and claim it was consensual.

In the summer of 2018, the Sheldon inquiry reported that, after nearly two years of investigation, it had found no evidence of institutional cover-up in UK football or of a paedophile ring. The full report was expected in September, but it was delayed due to Bennell's pending retrial.

Crewe, for its part, has abandoned plans for its own independent investigation. The club let it be known that, as the police had not charged anyone else, the matter was closed. (Crewe declined to comment in relation to this story.)

A spokesman for the FA said: "The FA has commissioned an independent QC to conduct a review into what, if anything, the FA and clubs knew about the allegations of child sexual abuse at the relevant time, what action was taken or should have taken place. It is therefore inappropriate for the FA to comment on these questions whilst that review is ongoing."

Walters explains that there are about 90 people, himself included, still waiting to find out whether they will get criminal convictions against Bennell.

"Can you imagine being brave enough to come forward then find out you're not going to get a criminal conviction against your abuser?" he says. "It must be the biggest kick in the teeth possible. Why would any other football survivors come forward now, when they know for a fact that they're not going to see justice?"

The worst part, he says, is not knowing when the report will come out. "It's so difficult for all of us to try and carry on living our lives when we know that this FA inquiry is still ongoing. And I can't imagine how difficult and how many football survivors there are, so it's a huge task."

The organisation has introduced a network of safeguarding officers and new policies around referrals and reporting concerns, as well as hiring people with experience in social work and child protection in sport. It also supports survivors with counselling via Sporting Chance, practical assistance via the FA Benevolent Fund and meetings with the FA chairman.

The latest statistics, from March 2018, show that more than 2,800 incidents were referred to Operation Hydrant, and a total of 849 victims had come forward naming 300 suspects and 340 clubs - 77 of which are professional. Almost two years later, there are likely to be considerably more.

Since November 2016, narratives around exploitation, grooming and sexual abuse have changed immeasurably, particularly after the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017. Woodward, who has been contacted by the #MeToo campaign, points out how much mental health and player welfare has been talked about, with Princes William and Harry both getting involved with the FA.

Walters, who has worked extensively with abuse survivors, says the #MeToo campaign is "very important". "I know primarily it's been women but obviously November 2016 when this broke out, we kind of paved the way for the male survivors to come forward, because if the majority of these male survivors who come forward now, they've seen that we've done it - being ex-footballers, a male macho sport, if we can do that live on television, it's got to give strength to others to come out and speak, which is fantastic."

Walters is positive about progress, saying that at "all the premiership clubs and the majority of the championship clubs, the safeguarding has improved tenfold, obviously after what happened, it's improved beyond recognition".

"But," he says, "as you work your way down the leagues, all the way to grassroots levels, there are still lots of issues, because obviously at the top they've got the ability to employ the appropriate people. There are still holes and cracks within the system and that needs to change."

It's a safer world now, he says, but it's still a scary one.

According to the Offside Trust: "The subsequent months and years have seen hundreds more survivors across all sports, not just football, bravely telling their own stories and pursuing justice. More than 100 sports coaches have been convicted and there can be no doubt that youth sport is a very different environment in 2020.

"There is still a long way to go, especially at grassroots levels, but children, parents, clubs and coaches now have a far greater awareness of safeguarding issues as a result of the high-profile convictions."

Unlike Woodward, Walters says he has suffered no online trolling or abuse since he came forward, but "it has been tough".

"There are times when you feel down yourself and it's hit me financially - I've got my own business and it's had a bit of a negative impact on that, because obviously there was the criminal process and the civil process as well, so it's a lot to deal with in such a short amount of time."

It's impossible to know how many other victims, and other predators, there are or have been. Gary Cliffe, former Manchester City youth player and long-time victim of Bennell, believes there will be hundreds more.

Walters says about 1,000 have come forward, and that he knows there are more. "We all know there's still a lot of guys out there that are burying their dirty secret."

I ask Woodward whether what he has suffered since coming forward might put someone else off telling their story. But he is adamant: "No, because each individual is different."

Woodward has suffered abuse, in some form or another, for most of his life. But, he says, the positives make it all worth it. "I don't think I'm ready yet to actually grasp what I've done because I'm still going through loads of trauma - I've not grasped what I've actually done. And people have said to me, 'Do you realise what you've done?' And I don't, at the moment. But once I'm okay, I think I'll get there.

"When I get messages from people and they say that you've saved my life... it's when I get that I feel cathartic for it and I feel like I've done the right thing."

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090 or Lifeline 080 8808 800

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