Andy Woodward ‘bitterly disappointed’ at Crewe’s stance on Barry Bennell
Bennell was jailed for 30 years last month for abusing 12 young footballers he coached between 1979 and 1991.
Andy Woodward is “bitterly disappointed” after Crewe restated their position that nobody at the club was aware of Barry Bennell’s abuse of young players until 1994.
The club’s former youth coach, who was first convicted of sexual assault in Florida 24 years ago, received his fourth conviction for historic offences last month.
Woodward, a victim of Bennell’s and a former Crewe player, believes the League Two club are putting their reputation first with their latest claims.
“Once again the victims come last, after the reputation of the club,” the ex-Bury and Sheffield United defender said. “What has happened has ruined mine, my family’s and many, many others’ (lives) that played for the club as vulnerable children.
“I’m bitterly disappointed with their response but I’d rather focus my energy on driving change so no club can let this happen again than dwelling on the past.”
In their longest statement since the abuse scandal broke in November 2016, Crewe also for the first time addressed three specific issues related to Bennell.
The most serious of those is an allegation from former Crewe director Hamilton Smith that he made his fellow board members aware of a complaint he had received from a parent about Bennell abusing one of the boys.
Smith has told the BBC and Guardian it was decided that boys should not be allowed to stay overnight with Bennell, as had been happening for several years, and no further action was taken.
The club previously denied this warning ever came from Smith or that this course of action was taken – a claim Smith has dismissed, calling the club’s long-standing chairman John Bowler a liar.
In Friday’s new statement, only the third issued by the club in relation to Bennell, Crewe said they were “aware” of Smith’s allegation that he reported a complaint to the board “in or about 1988”.
Crewe said every “available member” of the board at this time has been interviewed by Cheshire police and “each and every individual”, including then manager Dario Gradi, has denied “any recollection” of Smith raising a complaint about Bennell’s abuse.
The club claim there is no reference to Smith doing so in the “contemporaneous board minutes” held by the club, all of which have been released to police.
“Despite Mr Smith’s allegations that he raised his knowledge of Mr Bennell’s offending to board members in 1988, including to Mr Bowler, the board minutes show that Mr Smith still proceeded to nominate Mr Bowler to be chairman of the club in both 1988 and 1989,” Crewe’s statement said.
The club go even further, by noting that Smith has “apparently admitted” to being aware of Bennell’s offending in 1988 but did not report that to the FA until 2001 or the police until 2016.
Crewe’s statement adds: “Mr Smith was specifically interviewed by the police as part of their thorough investigation into the club. Despite Mr Smith’s evidence, the police were still able to conclude that there was no evidence to corroborate that the club was aware of Mr Bennell’s offending.”
The statement also responds to two more recent revelations concerning Bennell. The first is a letter from Gradi, who remains Crewe’s director of football and a board member, to parents following Bennell’s dismissal in 1992.
In that letter, Gradi advised parents to keep their boys away from their former coach.
Crewe say this was not related to any concerns about abuse but was to stop Bennell, who also worked for Manchester City and Stoke during his coaching career, poaching players for other clubs.
“The reason for this letter being written was simply because the club and Mr Gradi did not want to potentially lose any promising young players to a team coached by Mr Bennell,” Crewe said.
The second issue addressed by the statement is the character reference Gradi wrote for Bennell when he was arrested for the first time on a football tour in Florida in 1994.
Crewe acknowledge Gradi did this but point out that 57 other individuals did, too, and Gradi did so at the request of Bennell’s then wife.
Dozens of Bennell’s former players also wrote on his behalf, including some of his victims.
The statement explains that Crewe’s intention to conduct an independent review of links with Bennell was superseded by the police investigation, to which the club gave their full co-operation.
The police, the club said, believe Bennell was dismissed by Crewe because he was “unhappy with coaching responsibilities that Mr Gradi had given to him”.
The statement concludes with a message for Bennell’s victims. The club’s perceived failure to do this sooner and more publicly has been strongly criticised by the victims and anti-abuse campaigners.
“Finally, and above all else, the club wishes to make it absolutely clear that it sincerely regrets the terrible crimes committed by Mr Bennell upon young footballers over a significant number of years,” Crewe said.
“The club also wishes to reiterate its deepest sympathies to the victims and survivors of Barry Bennell.”