Former Crewe manager Dario Gradi “should have done more” to investigate concerns expressed about serial abuser Barry Bennell but was not involved in a cover-up, according to the author of an independent review into historical sexual abuse in football.
The Sheldon review, led by Clive Sheldon QC, was published on Wednesday and examines reports of abuse between 1970 and 2005 and how these were handled by the Football Association and the relevant clubs.
Two of the abusers focused on in the review – Bennell at Crewe and Eddie Heath at Chelsea – were in post at those respective clubs in periods which coincided with Gradi also being there.
Gradi was criticised for not doing more when abuse involving Heath was reported to him in 1975, and similarly for failing to act in relation to allegations about Bennell, described as the “devil incarnate” by a judge who sentenced him to 31 years in prison for abuse against boys aged eight to 15 in 2018.
I say he should have done more. I say that he should have thought outside of himself, and asked really much greater questions about what was going onClive Sheldon on Dario Gradi
In the report, Sheldon states that Gradi “did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be an assault”, something he changed his mind to accept when Sheldon insisted that it was assault.
Sheldon said overnight stays by boys were “normalised” at Crewe in a way which they were not elsewhere, with some boys staying at Gradi’s house.
Sheldon said there was no evidence Gradi acted inappropriately with boys on any of those visits or in any of his other interactions with them, but he accepted Gradi had been “vague about certain things” during his interview for the review.
He said: “I felt that he was trying to give me, and did give me, truthful answers. He may have been vague about certain things but on the whole I felt he was genuine and was trying to help out.
“There were lots of rumours about Dario Gradi being overly close to young boys, and people were also complaining about Dario Gradi having boys staying over at his house. There is no evidence that Dario Gradi acted inappropriately with any of the boys who stayed at his house or any of the boys that he was working with.
I don’t think it was a cover-up or him hiding what was going on with BennellClive Sheldon on Dario Gradi
“I think he thought that because he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that he was acting entirely innocently, well that must be the same with Bennell. I don’t think he could conceive that Bennell was behaving in a negative, inappropriate and abusive way to the boys because it was outside his own thinking.
“I say he should have done more. I say that he should have thought outside of himself, and asked really much greater questions about what was going on, and I think that should have been informed by what had taken place at Chelsea with Eddie Heath.”
Sheldon denied the suggestion that the report had given Gradi a “free pass” and added: “I don’t think it was a cover-up or him hiding what was going on with Bennell, I just think he couldn’t conceive that someone would act in that harmful way.
“I don’t think it was coming from a malicious position and I don’t think it was coming from a cover-up position either.”
Gradi has been suspended from football since 2016 and Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham said: “I don’t see that changing.”
Polly Handford, the FA’s director of legal and governance, added: “Where someone has been suspended and they remain suspended, it wouldn’t be possible for an individual to come back into football save for in very exceptional circumstances where evidence that might not have been available at the time comes to light.”
Asked why Gradi had been suspended, Handford said: “Where someone is removed from football for safeguarding reasons that will be because we have seen that there has been an assessment that that particular individual could potentially cause or pose a risk of harm to children, and that’s as far as we can go.”
The PA news agency has sought a response from Gradi.