Protecting the guilty

As with Jimmy Savile, writes Eddie Ford, the sex abuse scandal reflects unequal power relations in society

Over the last few weeks almost every day saw new ghastly revelations about ‘historic’ sexual abuse in football, obviously with a lot more to come. Post-Jimmy Savile, we encounter a depressingly familiar litany: predatory manipulators, disempowerment, establishment complicity, cover-ups, guilt, silence, etc. Turn the clock back only a little bit and abuse and rape seems almost routine - part of the British way of life.

The accounts of child sexual abuse by former football coaches began to emerge in mid-November, with former professional footballer Andy Woodward, now 43, who described his own experience out of a desire to liberate himself from the “massive, horrible burden” that had shaped and distorted his life.1 He detailed the horrific abuse he suffered from the age of 11, whilst a Crewe Alexandra trainee, at the hands of coach, scout and - as we now know - serial sex abuser, Barry Bennell, who has also worked for Leeds United, Stoke City and Manchester City.

Woodward, naturally, knows of other former professional players who were also targeted by Bennell - not to mention the many more that never made it as professional footballers, who could number hundreds. His own career ended at the age of 29, as he was unable to cope with the traumatising impact of what he had endured - feeling forced during one game to fake an injury because he was having yet another panic attack. Woodward said he has been suicidal “on probably 10 occasions” and spent his professional life battling depression and anxiety.

As for Bennell, he is due to appear in court on December 14 charged with eight counts of sexual assault - a familiar situation for him. During a 1994 tour to the United States with the Staffordshire team, Stones Dominoes, Bennell was arrested in Florida on six counts of “sexual battery” and sentenced to four years imprisonment. In the meantime though, a 1996 UK Channel 4 Dispatches programme featured further allegations of abuse. As a result, Bennell was arrested again on his return to England, this time being sentenced to nine years imprisonment after admitting 23 charges of sexual offences against six boys aged nine to 15 (a further 22 offences were left on file because the crown prosecution service decided it did not want to put young boys through the trauma of a trial). Then in May 2015, Bennell received a further sentence for abusing a former Preston North End player in 1980. Yes, Barry Bennell had quite a career in football.

Then we had the story of George Ormond, a former Newcastle United youth coach imprisoned in 2002 for sexual offences and described by the judge at the time as a “predatory abuser”. Derek Bell - who later played for Newcastle - accused management of a cover-up, claiming he alerted the club in 1998, but Ormond was not investigated or reported to the police until three years later. On December 2 we had an even more dramatic, and equally sordid, cover-up allegation from Gary Johnson, of Chelsea, who said he was paid £50,000 not to go public about how he was sexually abused from the age of 13 by the team’s coach, Eddie Heath (Chelsea immediately apologised “profusely” to Johnson).2 Just as shocking, the following day The Independent reported a Chelsea youth player’s anonymous allegation that Dario Gradi, then the team’s assistant manager, visited his family’s home to “smooth over” a complaint of sexual assault against Heath going back to 1974 - recalling that in the course of the one-hour meeting, Gradi admitted that Heath “gets a bit close to the boys” and also said “sorry if he’s overstepped the mark in his fondness this time”.3 By coincidence, Gradi was Crewe Alexandra’s manager when Barry Bennell was coach and in 1998 was awarded an MBE for “services to football”.

Ex-Southampton manager Harry Redknapp made an informative appearance on the BBC’s Today programme (December 6). He revealed that “rumours” about Bob Higgins being a prolific abuser had been “rife” for years, yet, quite incredibly, Higgins set up his own football academy after getting dismissed by Southampton in 1989 after one allegation too many. After watching the Dispatches show, Redknapp assumed “that would be the end of him”, but was “just amazed that he’s been involved in football since that day”, albeit in a minor league.

In 1989 the Football League sent a letter to every club urging them not get involved with the Bob Higgins Football Academy, and in 1997 the police and social services sent a joint letter to schools and youth groups warning them that “Mr Higgins poses a risk to children” - not that anything was done about it.4 Higgins told Dispatches that he was a born-again Christian and faith healer, saying he baptised players at their request (but they always kept their shorts on).5

Gagging orders

The allegations piling up, on November 24 the Football Association established a helpline in collaboration with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They received over 50 calls within the first two hours and the total has now passed the thousand mark, which, according to the charity, is “more than three times as many referrals as in the first three days of the Jimmy Savile scandal”. John Cameron, the NSPCC’s head of helplines, said he was “astonished” by the volume of men who had come forward after Woodward’s Guardian revelations, pointing out that “what’s special about this is that men are coming forward” - there had always been a “real problem about getting men to talk about non-recent abuse or indeed young boys talking about current abuse”.

Maybe panicking slightly, the FA hastily produced a film about keeping children safe in the sport, featuring England captain Wayne Rooney. Furthermore, on November 27 it announced it was to set up an internal review into exactly what Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City knew about Barry Bennell and others at the time of the alleged offences, and what steps the FA took to address those allegations from the 1970s up to 2005. The end point for the inquiry has been chosen on the grounds that that was when an Independent Football Commission report gave the game a relatively clean bill of health for the safeguarding policies it had introduced since the late 1990s.

By now, according to a victim support group, “calls and emails are coming in all the time” from players claiming - like Gary Johnson - to have been forced by clubs to sign non-disclosure agreements (ie, gagging orders) in return for compensation. If proven, the damage this could do to the FA - and football in general - is incalculable: a deliberate and conscious strategy to hush up victims of child sex abuse in order to preserve the good reputation of the footballing authorities and, probably more importantly, keep the money rolling in.

Unsurprisingly, the FA has been criticised by Conservative MP, Damian Collins - chair of the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport committee - for being “too slow” in reacting to the avalanche of allegations. Collins wanted to know whether the review has “the power to go wherever the FA has jurisdiction” and - even more importantly - if the “only grounds for not publishing his report in full should be that it might prejudice a criminal investigation”. The Tory MP added that “we can’t have [a] situation where the FA board edits a report simply because they don’t like it”. Similarly, former Labour sport minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, has talked of “previous concerns” about how the FA dealt with the governance of sport and youth development - such as scrapping a project in 2003 meant to ensure children were being protected from sexual abuse.

In many respects typifying the immense problems facing victims of child sexual abuse is five-times world darts champion Eric Bristow. Inviting disgrace, he moronically tweeted: “Might be a loony, but if some football coach was touching me when I was a kid, as I got older I would have went back and sorted that poof out”. Later, making himself look truly wretched, he posted: “Sorry - meant paedo, not poof.”

Inevitably, and deservedly, Bristow was sacked by Sky Sports from the commentary job he had held since the 1990s. Eventually he came out with a fairly mealy-mouthed ‘apology’, but the damage has been done. Mixing overt homophobia with a hyper-masculinity, Bristow attempted in his tweets to shame child abuse survivors as “wimps” - the unmistakable message being that real men do not effeminately cry or spill their guts to TheGuardian.

Such a toxic attitude, that regards victims of child abuse as weak and therefore easily intimidated into silence, can only mean more people will suffer: it is part of the problem. Frighteningly, Bristow is coming out with such primeval views now - so imagine what it must have been like in the 1970s and 1980s, both in football clubs and wider society. The pressure to conform must have been overwhelming: after all, who wants to be a wimp?


Obviously, sexual abuse is not confined to football - it must affect every elite sport. Operation Hydrant - a police investigation into allegations of “non-recent” child sexual abuse - has confirmed that allegations relating to other sports had been received, although at the moment the “vast majority” have come from the world of football. We shall wait and see.

Crucially, we are dealing with vertical power relationships in a situation where very young men and women are being offered a life-transforming opportunity. Becoming an Olympic cyclist or professional footballer means you are not fated to a life in poorly paid, soul-crushing, insecure work or the dole: you can actually be a contender. But because there are so many people wanting to do it coaches and scouts have enormous power. Football teams recruit hundreds of kids every year, but also have ruthless clear-outs. With so much at stake, you are almost bound to become compliant towards the coach: do what he wants, when he wants, whatever it is.

Clearly, communists do not disapprove of measures like making sure coaches - or whoever - are not left alone with kids, and so on. But what about life outside the football stadium or cycling club? Ultimately, the power relations in football, or any other elite sport, are a reflection of those in society as a whole. Look back at Savile - who gave him the keys to Broadmoor hospital? None other than Margaret Thatcher, upholder of family values, who year after year invited the holy fool round to Downing Street for Christmas dinner. But what say did the doctors and nurses have, and how come the hospital authorities allowed a sociopath to roam the hospital wards at will? No-one seems to have questioned this arrangement, which was like something from a horror movie. If they had, however, what would have happened to them? You can reasonably surmise that it would not have helped their career.

Savile, on the other hand, ruthlessly milked his apparently endless connections at the top of society to exploit and abuse vulnerable patients and staff on an industrial scale. Savile was not even particularly subtle about his loathsome exploits, opening admitting in 1990 that being awarded a knighthood was a “gi-normous relief” because it got him “off the hook” - a ‘get out of jail free’ card, as for a few years previously the tabloids had been “sniffing about” in the hope of catching him out.6 Virtually a confession. But no matter. Not only was he knighted: he was a friend of the royal family and Margaret Thatcher. After all, he had raised millions for charity. In other words, he was protected by establishment institutions right up until his death.

The same essentially goes for the ongoing football scandal. Here we are not dealing with mere rotten apples like Bennell or Higgins, but a deeper sickness at the heart of society, whereby a small elite has acquired staggering amounts of power, influence and money at the expense of the majority. No inquiry led by a judge or QC will ever question these assumptions.



1. The Guardian November 16 2016.

2. www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/dec/02/gary-johnson-says-chelsea-paid-him-50000-for-silence-about-abuse.

3. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/dario-gradi-child-sexual-abuse-football-fa-investigation-crewe-alexandra-a7459546.html.

4. www.theguardian.com/football/2016/dec/05/football-league-warned-all-its-clubs-about-bob-higgins-in-1989.

5. Ibid.

6. Reprinted in The Independent June 29 2014.