Warning: This article contains accounts of sexual abuse.
Last week, a long-awaited report into football’s biggest child sex abuse scandal detailed how the governing body and individual clubs failed to protect hundreds of boys from paedophile coaches.
The 700-page, four-year Sheldon review said there were known to be “at least 240 suspects and 692 survivors” – with the actual number “likely to be far higher”.
Since 2016, there have been convictions for abusers such as Barry Bennell, Bob Higgins and George Ormond.
Now, in a new three-part documentary series beginning on BBC One, Monday 22 March from 21:00 GMT, some of those survivors talk harrowingly about the abuse they suffered as children – and the power of finally speaking out.
Woodward was abused by Bennell between the ages of 11 and 15 at Crewe Alexandra academy.
In 2016, aged 43, he decided to waive his anonymity in an interview with the Guardian and, shortly afterwards, spoke on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show.
“It’s a dirty secret, but it’s also a hidden secret, deep inside you,” Woodward tells the documentary. “It’s like a stutter. Even if you want to say it, there’s something in your mind that stops you. That’s why a lot of people will take it to the grave.
“I was suffering mentally because of what had happened in my life. It was a case of speaking to him [Guardian journalist Daniel Taylor] and seeing if he knew how I could get it written down in some way.”
Woodward says the plan was to do it anonymously until two days before publication. “I pressed the button,” he recalls. “The relief was unreal. And it gave me the belief that there was going to be more.”
In the days following, several other people waived their anonymity to tell their own stories. An NSPCC hotline set up with the Football Association dedicated to footballers who had experienced sexual abuse received more than 860 calls in the first week.
Journalist Victoria Derbyshire describes the impact of that initial interview.
“When Andy first came on the programme, one of the texts we had was from a 13-year-old boy who was preparing to take his own life. He texted to say that, because of Andy, he was going to talk to someone.”
All of the men in the film describe the same sense of shame and guilt that prevented them coming forward earlier.
David Eatock, who was abused by George Ormond at Newcastle United, says: “The reason I never came forward all these years was a fear that I wouldn’t be believed, that people would think I wanted this to happen.”
Colin Harris, who was abused at Chelsea, describes looking at photos of himself as a child and thinking “you must have deserved it”.
Speaking out helped many of these men come to terms with what happened. Moreover, it helped to bring convictions. For Bennell, that meant, in 2018, he was sentenced to 31 years, for 50 counts of child sexual abuse. Detective Sarah Oliver says in the film that thousands contacted police services.
Outside court, Woodward told the press: “I hope that I’ll help so many other people in different walks of life to have the courage to speak out and to let go of this horrible feeling that we’ve all had to suffer for so many years.”
Former Manchester City, Liverpool and England player Paul Stewart was one of the men who spoke publicly of his ordeal after Woodward had waived his anonymity. He was abused by youth coach Frank Roper.
“He told me that you had to do this in order to make it in football,” Stewart says in the film. He says Roper threatened to kill his parents and brothers if he told anyone.
The experience has left him with struggles throughout his life.
“I had some highs in my career, but I never enjoyed them, because I had this empty soul,” he says. “I was dying inside. I masked it with drink and drugs.
“I still find it difficult to show affection to my own children, to my wife. And I find it uncomfortable if they show it to me.”
Roper died before he could see justice, but Stewart says he was inspired by Woodward’s story to help others.
“If I can help one person that’s suffering like I’m suffering, then it’s worth coming forward.”
Ackley was nine years old when he was scouted by Bennell. Over three and a half years, between 1979 and 1983, he estimates Bennell raped him hundreds of times.
Ackley describes trying to process abuse as a child.
“I can only describe it as being frozen, because fighting it would only cause more pain and distress, so better to just get it over and done with.”
Bennell invited young players to stay at his home, where he abused them. Ackley describes a frightened culture of silence.
“You’d get up in the morning and say nothing and the other boy wasn’t saying anything and he [Bennell] was bouncing around all jolly. I don’t think I knew any better to challenge this adult who seemed to act as if this was normal behaviour.”
In 1994, police in Florida charged Bennell with sexually abusing a 13-year-old British boy on a tour.
The prosecution struggled to find others to come forward. Ackley did.
“It just broke my heart,” he says. “Not only that Bennell was still doing this, but also that here was this 13-year-old boy who had been brave enough to tackle this and yet no-one would come and corroborate his story.”
Bennell was sentenced to four years in a US prison.
After coming forward, Ackley says he was told that his own case would be dealt with next, but “again, they couldn’t find anyone that was prepared to come forward and corroborate my story”.
In 1997, a Channel 4 Dispatches film called Soccer’s Foul Play was made about abuse in football. While others were still not ready to speak, Ackley waived his anonymity.
The documentary even explored how senior people at Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra had suspicions about Bennell, but never spoke out.
Chris Muir, former director at Manchester City, said Bennell was looked on in the world of football “as someone that wasn’t right” but was allowed to continue “because he produced the goods”.
However, Ackley was left disappointed by the reception from the press, public and authorities.
“There wasn’t a media storm, there wasn’t anything. So I’d told all these people for absolutely nothing. Friends didn’t know how to react. Strangers were making comments in the street,” he says.
The Sheldon review found that, following high-profile convictions of child sexual abusers from the summer of 1995 until May 2000, the FA “could and should have done more to keep children safe”. It failed to ban two of the most notorious perpetrators of child sexual abuse, Bennell and Bob Higgins, from involvement in football.
Radford was abused by Bob Higgins as a Southampton youth player from the age of 13.
In the film, he describes the dangerous regard Higgins was held in at Saints then.
“It was like a cult and he was the messiah,” he says.
Chilling archive footage shows boys chanting his name and the film describes how Higgins even groomed children to write him love letters.
Radford describes feeling confused as a child and wanting to win Higgins’ affection. Lots of other men share very similar experiences of grooming in the film.
“One morning, he pulled me towards him. I just pulled my head away,” Radford says. “The next morning, he didn’t talk to me, dropped me from the team and he was looking to release me.”
Radford did confide in former youth team manager, Dave Merrington. The film explains that, when Merrington confronted Higgins, he became aggressive and resigned shortly afterwards.
Following this, Radford spoke to police and, in 1991, aged 21, Radford and six other people brought cases against Higgins. The judge decided to split these into six individual cases. Radford’s was tried first and Higgins was found not guilty. Following that, the other five cases were not tried.
Radford said he only learned recently that the other cases never even got to trial. “I was the lamb to the slaughter,” he says.
Afterwards, Higgins was allowed to continue working as a football coach.
Dion Raitt, who was abused by Higgins at Peterborough in the mid-nineties reflects: “If they’d have got their justice the first time around, then I wouldn’t have even met him.”
Like Ackley, Radford also waived his anonymity to talk publicly on Dispatches in 1997, hoping it would lead to his day in court. Like Ackley also, he was frustrated that nothing was done still.
“I felt as though it just wasn’t important to anybody.”
In 2016, after seeing Woodward talk, Radford also went on to the Victoria Derbyshire programme. A score of other men came forward and Higgins was tried. Eventually, following a trial and then a retrial, Higgins was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse against 24 boys and sentenced to 24 years in jail.
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