At the current count as I write, eleven men have now contacted Cheshire police to report sexual abuse committed against them by Barry Bennell and/or other paedophile abusers from the world of professional football. Everyone who understands the dynamics of these cases fully expects the reports to keep coming. Once the seal has been broken, the lid will rarely go back on the jar.
When I was around 11 to 13, I played in a kids football team which in one respect was very, very different to Whitehill FC or Crewe Alexandra Juniors, where Bennell first met Andy Woodward, David White and other boys he abused. They were a hugely talented group, some of whom who would go on to play for top professional clubs and even the national team. We were abject rubbish. Really. If the circumstances were different I could tell you some hilarious stories about our incompetent blunders. Right now I don’t feel like laughing.
We did, however, share one significant detail. As with them, our coach was a serial and prolific child abuser.
I can say that now because he’s been convicted and imprisoned, on two separate occasions, of offences committed back in the 1980s. I considered naming him here – he has no entitlement or right to privacy, dignity or discretion, but the truth is I can’t face personalising it too much. I saw him last year, at a funeral of all places, and he was a broken, pathetic, shell of an old man. He never looked me in the eye nor even tried. All things considered, I’d rather just let him rot away.
To be clear, he never abused me, beyond a bit of excessively physical horseplay, perhaps. Others were less fortunate. Besides the football club he was also a scout leader and worked as a janitor, sometimes in sports centres, sometimes in schools. With hindsight there were so many alarm bells ringing that he might as well have had a T-shirt with CHILD MOLESTER branded across the front.
Despite the football pitches having their own changing rooms with showers, he rented a cellar over the road and made us change there. He had his own cine camera and 8mm projector and would occasionally arrange film nights where he’d invite boys to watch movie reels with an AA or even (most excitingly) an X-certificate rating. And of course he had his ‘special boys’ the ones who were invited to his flat, the ones who were bought presents and treats. The ones who were always slightly evasive about what went on when the gang weren’t around.
Now, at this point you are probably asking yourself how he was able to get away with it (and he did, to my knowledge, for at least a decade but I’d be astonished if it wasn’t a lot longer.) Part of the answer is that those were more innocent – or more accurately, more naïve – times. This was before there was much public understanding of child abuse and paedophilia, child molesters were strange men who shouted at you out of cars to offer sweets or to come and see some puppies. They weren’t well-liked, trusted, church-going scout leaders and volunteer sports coaches.
But here’s the kicker. We knew. We always knew.
We told each other stories and rumours and gossiped about what he got up to. There was the kid who giggled and told us about the time he had been offered cans of Coke and Mars Bars in exchange for showing his willie. We knew there was something a bit off with the boys who spent Saturday afternoons at his flat after football matches. There were always stories about something that had happened in a tent at a scout camp the year or two before.
And yet, at the same time, we knew this was going on in the exact same way that we knew FOR A FACT that Bruce McKillop had definitely seen a UFO over Kinnoull Hill one night and we knew there was DEFINITELY a shop in Dundee where you could buy nudey books for 10p and the man didnae even ask how old you were and that’s nae nae nae kidding.
In the years since, I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t tell anyone about the rumours, tell anyone what I knew or what I suspected. Just maybe someone could have intervened. Just maybe I could have said something at the time which could have saved any number of boys from god knows what. But the answer is really pretty simple. I didn’t tell because I was a kid. The adult world, particularly the adult world of sexuality and all that rude stuff was a mystery. I didn’t really know that what was going on was not normal, it was all just part of the strange spectrum of what grown-ups would get up to.
I now have less sympathy for the adults around us at the time, the other team coaches, scout leaders, church members, sports centre staff and all the rest. Because if we kids suspected, guessed or knew, then I can be damned sure that they did too. Of course they didn’t have proof. I very much doubt anyone ever opened a door and happened upon a rape. I’m sure they told themselves that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions and how awful it would be to make an accusation and for it to turn out to be false. They probably didn’t even know who to report to, what to say, how are you meant to react to rumours?
But deep down they knew. Someone knew. Someone always knows.
This is the lesson from the Catholic Church. This is the lesson from Savile at the BBC. If the Football Association, Crewe Alexandra and the other clubs involved ever get around to fully and properly investigating what happened to the boys entrusted to the care of Bennell, then I do not doubt that they will learn that there too, someone knew. They might not have had proof. They might not have known what to do. But they knew. Someone always knows.
In the years since, I’ve also asked myself what could have prevented the abuse from happening and there is one answer that I return to again and again. It is not just about structures and systems and checks. A determined offender can too easily find ways to game any system. It is not even about strict child protection policies, reporting policies or any of the other developments we have seen in the past 20 years or so – welcome and essential though they are.
The one thing which I believe could have helped us as kids, which perhaps could have saved some of his young victims from their horrific experiences, would have been knowledge and power. That bastard was able to rape and molest his way through my friends and team-mates, in large part, because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know what healthy sexuality was and we didn’t know what abusive sexuality was. We didn’t have the knowledge to interpret what was going on and we didn’t have the language to describe what was going on.
My own kids now spend most of their spare time in sports and fitness activities. We trust them to the care of adults we barely know, for many hours every week. There is no way we were going to allow our kids to be sheltered, to be wrapped in cotton wool from the world. But from a very early age they have known the underpants rule. They have known that no adult should ever tell them to keep a secret. They have known that they will never, ever get in trouble if they tell us that a grown-up has been rude or made them feel uncomfortable or hurt them, whoever that adult might be, however close, however friendly to the family, however trusted.
The sad truth is that none of us can ever guarantee that every child will be safe from abuse, safe from harm. What we can do is give them the strength, the knowledge, the confidence to keep themselves as safe as possible.
I don’t know what will come out from the revelations around professional football. I sincerely hope the men now coming forward can find some measure of peace, justice or healing.
I do know what the world of football owes to them, owes to my childhood friends and team-mates, and that is to investigate where we went wrong and learn, learn, then learn some more. We cannot protect the children of the past. We can just possibly protect some in the future.