Former Crewe manager Dario Gradi has apologised for “not recognising signs of abuse” carried out at the club by paedophile Barry Bennell.
Bennell – who worked at Crewe in the 1980s and ’90s – is serving a 34-year sentence after being convicted of child sexual abuse five times.
On Wednesday an independent review found Gradi, Crewe’s manager from 1983 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2011, “should have done more” to investigate concerns about Bennell, but said he was not involved in a cover-up.
It is the first time Gradi has issued an apology on the matter and comes a day after a victims’ group called for him to be stripped of his MBE.
“I wish to express my deepest sympathy for the survivors and their families,” Gradi, 79, said.
“I sincerely and personally regret that the harm being caused to these young people was not discovered at the time.
“I apologise for not recognising any signs of abuse at the time.”
The review, led by Clive Sheldon QC and commissioned by the Football Association in 2016, focused on the abuse of children within football between 1970 and 2005.
On Thursday, League One Crewe Alexandra apologised to all the survivors of Bennell’s abuse and acknowledged “more could have been done to monitor” him.
Gradi’s statement added: “I am of course satisfied with the findings of the review in which it is acknowledged by Clive Sheldon QC that I did not act improperly towards children at any time and that I was unaware of the unlawful activities of Barry Bennell.”
Sheldon said that when working with the club’s former youth coach Bennell, Gradi “was not aware of any allegations of abuse by Bennell and did not see anything done by Bennell”.
The report added: “But what he did know was rumours about Bennell and he did know that boys were regularly staying over with Bennell, and I’ve concluded that Dario Gradi ought to have monitored what was going on, and he ought to have spoken to the boys who were staying with Bennell to see if they were OK. Had he done that it may well be that they would have told him of the abuse that they were suffering.”
Gradi denies he is banned from football
Gradi – who has always denied wrongdoing – said it was “disappointing” sections of the review “have been taken out of context by the media in a series of soundbites”.
FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said on Wednesday that Gradi was “effectively banned for life” from football, but could not go into the reasons.
The FA’s director of legal and governance, Polly Handford, said it was “for safeguarding reasons” but that was “as far as we can go”.
However, Gradi has denied he is banned from all football-related activity.
“I would like to make it clear that this is not the case,” he said.
“I am suspended indefinitely from certain specified activities with players under the age of 18 years and whilst I do not agree with it, I understand how the decision was arrived at.”
Gradi was suspended in 2016 pending an FA investigation and retired from his position as director of football at Crewe three years later.
The report stated Gradi “did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be an assault”, but that he changed his mind after Sheldon insisted it was.
Gradi said he was “uncertain of the definition of what can amount to an assault and when Mr Sheldon clarified this I corrected myself”.
“Under no circumstances do I condone or excuse the behaviour of placing hands beneath the clothing of another or believe that it is anything other than wrong and unlawful,” he said.
Gradi also said it is “of note” Sheldon’s review did not find he failed to report allegations against Chelsea coach Eddie Heath in 1975, although it said he should have done more.
A previous report accused Gradi – then a coach at Chelsea – of failing to tell more senior club staff about an allegation regarding the sexual conduct of Heath, brought to him by the parent of a young player.
“Although this was almost 50 years ago, I have always maintained that I took the matter further in reporting it,” Gradi said.
“We now live in very different times and education and information regarding risk to young persons has significantly advanced, but I welcome the recommendations of the review.”