English football has been rocked by allegations of historical sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s. Norfolk Constabulary are one of the latest police forces to announce that they are investigating “an allegation relating to child abuse in football.”
The claims, which initially centred on clubs in the North West but have expanded to across the UK, first came to light on 16th November following Andy Woodward’s allegations against former Crewe Alexandra youth coach Barry Bennell in the 1980s.
Bennell has now been charged with eight offences of sexual assault and over 20 footballers have since come forward alleging they were sexually abused.
Bennell, who worked for the Cheshire club in the 1980s and 1990s, first came to prominence in relation to sexual abuse in 1994 when he was charged with sexually assaulting a British boy on a football tour to the USA. He was subsequently jailed again in 1998 – this time in the UK for nine years – and then once more in 2015 after pleading guilty to two counts of indecent assault and two counts of enticing a boy under the age of 14 to commit an act of indecency, dating back to 1980.
Questions have been raised over the safeguarding of children in the 70s and 80s, with it emerging that it was common practice for coaches to have youth team players stay at their private homes on the night before a match. It is known that Bennell was one of a number of coaches to do this.
Bennell’s crimes appear to be the tip of the iceberg, with several UK police forces now investigating claims of historic sexual abuse against young footballers, including Norfolk Constabulary. It is not yet known at which club in the area the offence is alleged to have happened. Clubs in the wider East Anglia region have also been subject to police enquiries, with Cambridgeshire Police confirming that investigations are ongoing in relation to alleged historical sexual abuse at Cambridge United and Peterborough United.
Hampshire Police said it was looking into claims of “non-recent child abuse within the football community,” while Cheshire Police confirmed that eleven people had come forward after ex-England international David White revealed he had been the victim of abuse by Bennell while at Crewe.
Another alleged victim of the abuse, Paul Stewart, believes there could be “hundreds” of victims yet to come forward, sparking fears of a scandal larger than that surrounding Jimmy Savile in 2012. The former Tottenham midfielder, now 52, spoke of how Bennell promised to “make him a star” while forcing him into horrific sexual abuse between the ages of eleven and 15. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Stewart said: “I was always under threat, if I was not playing well, he would threaten me with violence as well as sexual abuse. He was a monster.”
“We went away for a tournament. He abused me there too. I could never tell my teammates.”
“The mental scars led me into other problems with drinking and drugs. I know now it was a grooming process. The level of abuse got worse and worse.”
Two weeks after Woodward’s allegations, Bennell was taken to hospital after being found unconscious at his Hertfordshire home. An ambulance was called for the 62 year old following a ‘fear for welfare’ incident.
Following the incident, Bennell was arrested and charged with eight sexual assault offences against a boy under the age of 14 between the years of 1981 and 1985. He is scheduled to appear before South Cheshire Magistrates’ Court on 14th December.
The investigation surrounding Bennell has had a knock on effect in the wider footballing world, with over 350 victims coming forward to report child sexual abuse within football clubs. Chelsea stand accused of paying ‘hush money’ to silence a former youth player when he approached the club three years ago to make allegations about Eddie Heath, a former club scout from the 1980s. Newcastle United have also been accused of covering up abuse after Derek Bell revealed he made abuse known to the club in 1998 but no investigation was carried out and the police were not informed until Bell himself did so in 2001.
These two clubs, along with many others, are set to become part of a large scale FA inquiry into historical sexual abuse in the game.