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Jim Magilton hails bravery of football sex abuse victims

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland captain Jim Magilton believes players who were abused at football clubs as children no longer have to live in fear or silence thanks to the bravery of those who have spoken out about their harrowing experiences.

The sport has been rocked with allegations of child sex abuse made by more than 20 former players, with several police investigations and a Football Association review now ongoing.

Earlier this week, former Northern Ireland star Mark Williams claimed that he had been abused by ex Crewe youth coach Barry Bennell, stating that he felt he needed to stand beside his old team-mates who had already come forward.

Ex-Crewe player Andy Woodward was the first to speak out last month about abuse he said he suffered at the hands of Bennell before several others did the same.

Bennell, a convicted sex offender, is due to appear at South Cheshire Magistrates' Court on December 14, having been charged with eight offences of sexual assault against a boy aged under 14 between 1981 and 1985.

Former England internationals David White and Paul Stewart have also spoken publicly about suffering abuse as youth players with Williams the first ex-Northern Ireland player to talk about his experiences.

Magilton, who was an international team-mate of Williams, says that the disturbing revelations left him saddened and devastated for the players involved.

In his role as the Irish FA's Elite Performance Director, the ex-Southampton and Ipswich midfielder is effectively involved with youth development across Northern Ireland.

"It is frightening what we have been hearing," said Magilton.

"I was saddened and devastated for my old Northern Ireland team-mate Mark Williams and all the other lads that they had to go through what they did.

"It's so brave what these lads have done in speaking out. No longer do other players have to live in silence and live with fear.

"There is this football mentality of a closed shop. For the players who were affected I imagine there was a fear factor about speaking out and when you look back you could ask whether there was an opportunity for young players to speak to the relevant people that there is now in place at clubs or outside the game.

"What has been refreshing is a lot of clubs have instigated their own investigations and the police have been asked to investigate. If any club has brushed this under the carpet it is a disgrace."

Magilton added that as a player, who was involved in English football from his teenage years, he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

He added that processes for coaching children have changed dramatically down the years.

"In terms of where we are now we are far more advanced. For instance anyone who coaches in our programme has to be vetted and go through rigorous checks. We are trying to ensure best practice in our programme to ensure the safety and well-being of our kids."

Magilton's comments follow Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill stating earlier this week that football had to do everything in its power to address the situation, offer support to the players and to protect the young players.

Ex-Manchester United, Wigan and Northern Ireland defender Pat McGibbon, who with his Craigavon based Train To Be Smart (TTBS) programme tries to promote positive mental health and well-being for young players, said: "It's good that the players are being so brave and are speaking out about what went on in the past.

"There certainly has been progress made in recent years and improvements with child protection policies and Access NI checks. I still don't think the system is foolproof. That is very difficult. The main thing that people involved in youth coaching have to do is protect the children.

"It is important that anyone who was up to wrongdoing is brought to justice. It is also worth remembering that the vast majority of youth coaches try to help the kids, create opportunities for them and be role models.

"This issue is very emotive for everyone involved and it does make you think back to your own days as a young footballer in England. In my near 11 years over there nothing like this was ever brought up.

"At the clubs I was at there was great fabric to them, like at United, Sir Alex (Ferguson) was very protective of the kids. That was really important to him. It was the same at Wigan - there was a lot of good people there too."

Derry City manager Kenny Shiels, a renowned youth coach at club and international level, added: "I've listened to some of the awful stories of those abused and you can't help but feel sorry for them.

"What has come out in recent weeks has been bad for our sport but it is good that these players have been brave enough to talk about their experiences because hopefully it can help others affected in the past and help us learn for the future.

"Crewe have been in the spotlight and it has made me think about the time when my own son Dean and Michael O'Connor went to Crewe as kids in the late 1990s. The boys weren't affected but you do think how you would feel if your own son had been.

"Today I think the safeguarding of children in football is far better with vetting systems for people who coach kids, but you still have to be on your guard. That's not just in football. It's the world we live in."

by steven beacom

Belfast Telegraph


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