The testimony and the ensuing fallout form the basis of Daniel Gordon’s three-part documentary, which is set to coincide with the government’s report on the scandal, released last week. (In a tangential anecdote, one of the executive producers is Jon Ossoff, who was recently elected Democratic Senator to Georgia.)
In November 2016, former professional footballer Andy Woodward came into contact with The Guardian reporter Daniel Taylor. At the age of 43, Woodward was finally ready to share the secret, the “enormous and horrible burden” that he had carried for most of his life. As a young player, he had been one of the victims of Barry Bennell, the serial scout, trainer and pedophile. Woodward hoped his story might encourage other people to come forward. He was right. Over 800 have done so, involving 340 clubs and 300 individuals.
Like HBO / Channel 4’s documentary Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland, this first film gives the interviewees a space to talk at length about what they have endured, shot face to face on a dark gray background. The camera rests on Paul Stewart, David White, Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and others telling their stories, often in tears. While many clubs were involved, the program says that in Crewe Alexandra, Bennell presided over the almost systematic pedophilia. The club were known for the quality of their young team, and the film claims that other senior executives have turned a blind eye to the rumors surrounding Bennell.
It’s a heartbreaking film, for the same reason that it took victims so long to come forward. As the archival footage reminds us, these men were playing in a more macho era. The players weren’t vegan environmentalists like Hector Bellerin or food poverty activists like Marcus Rashford. It was the days of Psycho and Gazza and Merse, pints and pies and lines. Young working class boys who grew up in the ’70s and’ 80s weren’t supposed to share their feelings, especially about something like that. The abuse they suffered has been silently acknowledged but unspoken, believed to be part of a Faustian pact that may one day let them play for England.
“The actual acts of what happened is something people don’t usually talk about,” says Ian Ackley, a former young footballer and one of the most eloquent of those interviewed. “It’s such a difficult and uncomfortable thing for people to hear. Part of me thinks it’s a good thing. People should feel uncomfortable, realize the devastation it causes, the rape, the pain and the pain. Ackley has previously said the government exam is “as watered down as Vimto for 2-year-olds.”
Beneath their hard surfaces, these men were traumatized by the abuse they suffered in silence throughout their childhood. Like the music and film industries, football offers sparkling prizes in front of desperately motivated children. The potential for abuse is enormous. The viewer, especially the football fan, remembers that he is one of them. We are not left with a closure or relief, but a more uncomfortable question: what else do we not know?
‘Football’s Darkest Secret’ continues March 29 at 9 p.m. on BBC One