November 25th 2016
The Assumption Of A Problem - Just A Bit Too Late

“Let’s assume there is a problem and let’s get after it”.

Those were the words of Greg Clarke, Chairman of the FA, speaking on Radio 4 last night.

He was talking about the ongoing sexual abuse issues, which are threatening to engulf football this week, as a number of former players have come forward to say they were abused by their coach’s as children.

As those words suggest, Clarke is promising action, he’s written to 30,000 affiliated clubs to tell them to investigate.

Most – not all – of the allegations so far centre around Barry Bennell, a convicted Paedophile who used to coach at Crewe Alexandra. It all came to light after Andy Woodward, a former player,  came forward to say Bennell abused him while he was at Gresty Road as a youngster.

He’s been followed by another former  player, Steve Walters (who was their youngest ever debutante) and yesterday ex Man City and Leeds winger David White waived his right to lifelong anonymity  and told the harrowing story of the abuse he received at the hands of Bennell.

Other prominent players are coming forward. Ex-England striker Paul Stewart has spoken of the problems his abuse has caused throughout his life (he was not abused by Bennell) and two more players are due to appear on BBC TV this morning.

This has led to very real fears that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that football could be on the cusp of its very own Jimmy Saville scandal.  The vile abuse of Saville and his cohorts has tarnished the BBC, and now the thought is that Bennell and the rest could do this to football.

This presents its own problems for the FA. No one can reasonably blame Clarke, or anyone else at FA Headquarters for the disgusting crimes of a tiny minority of youth coaches, but we can – and indeed should – question why no proper investigation was done.

Bennell’s crimes first came to light in 1998, when he was convicted and sent to prison in Florida. Florida Police said he had an “insatiable appetite” for young boys.

His most recent conviction was in 2015, when he was sentenced for an historic case of abuse of a 15 year old on a football pitch in Macclesfield. Giving evidence, he described himself as a “monster”, which there is no doubt he is.

But surely, we are entitled to ask why the self-imposed governing body of 11-a-side football did not – at any point after Bennell was convicted, either in ‘98 or 2015 conduct a thorough investigation into his crimes.

It is all very well sending 30,000 letters out once players are coming forward, and “assuming there’s a problem” at that point, but why wasn’t this assumption made previously? Bennell, in addition to working for Crewe, had a close association with Manchester City and Stoke City, should players he had potential contact with at those clubs been contacted at the very least? And shouldn’t Crewe Alexandra have apologised to Woodward or Walters? As of yet, they are yet to do so.

Woodward himself has remained stoic throughout the ordeal. He met with Clarke yesterday and  told the waiting reporters he wasn’t interested in reliving the demons of the past: “My concern is not looking back now, it is looking at what to do now, what to put in place to protect children even at grassroots,” he re-iterated.

Manchester City released a statement themselves and explained: “The club is aware of allegations that Barry Bennell had an association with Manchester City Football Club in the 1980s. As a result the club is currently undertaking a thorough investigation of any past links he might have had with the organisation.”

Laudable sentiments, of course, but Bennell – and we’ll keep coming back to this – was convicted in 1998. Had the fact Bennell had associations with them not been clear then?

Ultimately, it appears that there could have been at least some investigation into this getting on for 20 years ago. That there was not might be construed as kicking the issues into the long grass at least.

As Edmund Burke put it: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  It does appear that since 1998 no one did much at all – until the courage of Andy Woodward.

Andy Thorley

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