The Football Association, Premier League and major clubs have issued a formal apology after a landmark investigation said generations of young footballers suffered horrific sexual abuse due to the complete lack of policies to protect the football. childhood, ignorance and naivety.
Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the investigation concluded that the FA was guilty of “institutional failure” in its delay in introducing protection after 1995, when Barry Bennell and some high profile aggressors in other sports had already been prosecuted and convicted.
“The FA has acted far too slowly to introduce… appropriate child protection measures [from 1995]. These are significant institutional failures for which there is no excuse. During this time, the FA did not do enough to keep the children safe. “
Bennell’s mistreatment of footballer Andy Woodward was first reported by the Guardian in 2016, prompting hundreds more victims to come forward, police investigations and convictions, and the FA to initiate the Sheldon investigation .
The 700-page Sheldon report has been recognized by major football institutions and the FA has accepted all of its key recommendations, mostly on safeguarding. “Today is a dark day for this great game,” said Mark Bullingham, FA general manager. “A situation in which we must recognize the mistakes of the past and make sure we do everything to prevent them from happening again.”
But Bennell’s abuse victim Ian Ackley and other survivors criticized the strength of the recommendations, arguing that such measures should have been introduced immediately after the scandals erupted in 2016.
The revelation from the report that Dario Gradi, the veteran coach who worked alongside Bennell at Crewe, also told Sheldon in an interview that he did not consider one person putting their hands in another’s pants as a assault, also sparked widespread outrage. Gradi saw it as a “little touch”. Sheldon said he told Gradi it was assault, “and then he came to terms with it.”
The investigation identified breaches of adequate action following complaints or rumors of sexual abuse at eight professional clubs, including Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Southampton, Peterborough – and Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra and Stoke City , where Bennell was a youth coach. Sheldon found that, in general, football and the young people who played the sport were exposed to abuse due to the lack of a safeguarding culture, that victims were intimidated, frightened or silently manipulated, and very few specific reports of abuse were made within clubs. , or to the FA.
Prior to 1995, Sheldon said the FA was “not proactive in addressing safeguarding and protecting children from child sexual abuse in sport.” There was no guidance, training or general awareness of child protection issues between 1970 and the mid-1990s, and people working in football “did not detect the signs of potential abuse ”.
However, Sheldon absolved the FA of criticism during those decades in which the sport did not have child protection in place for its young players, placing this in the context of general attitudes of the time. “I don’t consider the FA’s inaction during this time to be to blame. For most of this time, child abuse was generally seen as something that happened in the family setting or in residential settings, not in the world of sport. “
Sheldon added, however, that when incidents of abuse were reported in clubs, “their responses were seldom competent or appropriate”, and when there were “warning signs”, such as rumors of inappropriate behavior, the staff often missed them or did not act.
“It was usually out of ignorance or naivety. There was often the feeling that without “hard evidence” or a specific allegation from a child, nothing could or should be done, and there was therefore a reluctance to investigate or monitor, let alone confront it. perpetrator and interfere with his actions. As a result, in many cases the perpetrators were able to hide in football and use their positions to ruin the lives of many children.
During two spells at Crewe, Bennell severely sexually abused young players, including Woodward. Given disputed accounts of what senior club officials knew about Bennell, Sheldon concluded that they had not received any specific reports of abuse, a conclusion also reached by the Cheshire Mounted Police.
However, Sheldon said he believed concerns about inappropriate behavior, including the boys staying at Bennell’s, had been discussed by then-president Norman Rowlinson, manager John Bowler who succeeded Rowlinson as as president, and another director, Hamilton Smith.
“I am also convinced that during Bennell’s time at the Club there were rumors circulating about [Bennell] and his sexual interest in children who have been heard by some Club staff, including Dario Gradi. Sheldon said the club “should have done more to check on the well-being of the boys” and monitored Bennell’s activities.
Similar criticisms have been leveled at Manchester City, where Bennell was associated as a coach in the early 1980s, and Stoke City, where he went after leaving Crewe in the early 1990s.
It was found that Chelsea had given no protection to a young player who reported abuse by youth coach Eddie Heath in 1975. Sheldon said he could not decide whether Gradi, who was then manager deputy at Chelsea, had informed the acting manager of the club, Ron Suart. , concerns raised during a meeting with the player’s father. Either way, Gradi’s or Suart’s response was inadequate, he found.
“Aston Villa FC should have reported sexual abuse disclosures by [the youth coach] Ted Langford to the police when his scouting role ended in July 1989, ”the report states.
Newcastle has delayed further reports of abuse from George Ormond, who was convicted in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison; he stayed at the club for “several months” after the reports were written.
Peterborough and Southampton were also aware of rumors about the behavior of their young coach Bob Higgins, Sheldon found out, but did not take steps to monitor him: “If Higgins had been properly monitored it might have prevented some of his abuse of young players.
Sheldon also pointed out the lack of criminal background checks for adults working with young children. Frank Roper was convicted of criminal charges in 1960, 1961 and 1965, but was still heavily involved in youth training, attached to Blackpool FC, and serialized abuse of young players, including Paul Stewart, one of the victims who spoke out on abuse.
While acknowledging the overhaul of AF child protection after 2000 and the substantial improvements since, Sheldon made 13 recommendations for further improvements. These include: having full-time qualified backup agents in Premier League and Championship clubs and qualified officers in League One and League Two clubs dedicating at least 50% of their time to backup ; for a member of the FA board of directors to be named a “child protection champion”; for the FA to develop a five-year strategy “to support the voice of children”, expand spot checks of amateur clubs, organize a “national football save day” and publish an annual save report.
The Offside Trust, which is run by survivors, said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed that an opportunity to create a world-class standard for the protection and safeguarding of children in sport has been missed.
“The recommendations are ones that would have been blindingly obvious to anyone within weeks of the scandal erupting. The FA should have immediately made the most basic changes in training, awareness, spot checks and transparency without waiting for a 700 page report. “
The FA, despite Sheldon’s conclusion that his inaction had not been “to blame”, offered a “sincere apology” to the survivors and appeared to accept some responsibility that the abuse was not recognized and avoided.
The Premier League and EFL have also apologized for the abuse and said they will implement the report’s recommendations. Manchester City, Newcastle, Southampton and Peterborough have issued statements apologizing to the victims; Southampton said: “For a professional football club it is inexcusable not to prevent these abuses or not to be able to support anyone who speaks up to report it. “
City, which released an investigation by Jane Mulcahy QC into abuse at the club by Bennell and two other historical abusers, John Broome and Bill Toner, said they had a survivor program in place in 2019 that offers compensation, paid and personal advice. apologies from a senior council director.