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The ugly side of the beautiful game: child sexual abuse in UK football clubs

Abuse lawyer Alison Millar examines the ugly side of football as the World Cup gets underway in Russia

Football match from goal mouth
Alison Millar leads the abuse claims team at Leigh Day.  Catriona Rubens is a trainee solicitor in the abuse team.  
Last week, 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Moscow. For millions of football fans, it marks the opening of the most exciting sporting competition in the world. Young football hopefuls across the UK will eagerly watch their heroes and imagine that, one day, it could be them walking out onto the pitch. 
The picture is painfully different for survivors of child abuse in football. Their early sporting dreams were overshadowed, and in some cases shattered, by adults who took advantage of their enthusiasm and early ambition.

Since November 2016, there has been an explosion of reports of child sexual abuse in UK football clubs dating back to the 1970s. All of the survivors’ stories share a common thread: the abusers were older men who wielded huge power and control over the lives of the young trainees. 

Many former junior players have described a strict hierarchy towards club staff, and particularly in favour of the coach. Often a ‘God like’ figure at clubs, the coach had specialist knowledge, connections in the football establishment, and, most importantly, the final say as to who was chosen to strap on their boots on match day. Speaking out against abuse by a coach or senior staff member was often an impossible task for a young hopeful. Some victims have reported that there was no choice but to suffer in silence: like muscle strain or early morning sprints, sexual abuse became a part of their daily regime.   

The potential scale of the abuse that has occurred at football clubs across the UK cannot be underestimated. In March 2018 Operation Hydrant, the nationally co-ordinated police investigation into non-recent child abuse, announced that it had received 2,807 referrals of abuse in connection with local and national football clubs. From this, 300 alleged suspects have been identified. 

Some of the perpetrators are now being brought to justice. In February this year, Barry Bennell, the former coach and youth scout at Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra, was convicted of subjecting junior players to hundreds of sexual offences.  The judge sentencing him recognised the huge influence that Bennell wielded. He told Bennell ‘You knew that to each of these boys football was their life – the career for which they would give anything. And it was the career for which you would take anything and everything they had to offer’. 

Many survivors are now questioning whether the abuse they endured could have been prevented. In response, the Football Association has set up a barrister-led review into what officials and clubs knew about potential abuse between 1970 and 2005. 

The cut-off date for the FA’s review is controversial: in April 2017, it was reported that 46 incidents of alleged abuse referred to Operation Hydrant had taken place after 2005.  Some of the managers and members of club establishment at the time of alleged abuse in the 1980s and 1990s are still in post today. It is hard to see how the FA will obtain a full-picture of the scale of abuse, and clubs’ responses to allegations, by failing to examine what has happened in the past ten years.    

The review is due to report in September this year.  Its findings will be closely scrutinised not only by survivors, but also the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse  which has confirmed that it will examine the report in detail, before deciding whether any further action should take place. 

Professional football hopefuls are some of the most determined young people in the country who often dedicate their entire adolescence to the sport. It is clear that positive youth training experiences boost confidence, build self-esteem and lead to the development of first class football players. 

Irrespective of which team wins the World Cup this summer, football can only flourish in the UK if the FA, as well as individual clubs, is committed to uncovering how a culture was able to develop in which abusers manipulated training environments for their own predatory gain. Survivors’ testimony has shown that fear of speaking out against those higher up in clubs of all levels has been a huge inhibitor to reporting child sexual abuse. It is now time for the FA and clubs across the country to pass the megaphone and allow their voices to be heard. 

Updated on 4 July 2018:

Bennell’s conviction has been followed by further criminal trials for child sexual abuse against other figures in prominent English clubs. George Ormond, a former coach at junior clubs in the North East, and former kitman and driver for Newcastle United, was convicted on 3 July of 36 charges of sexual assaults and indecency against youth players over a period of 24 years.

A similar story of Ormond’s power over players’ future football careers was recounted by the complainants in his trial. One witness described Ormond by saying ‘there was a fear that if you crossed him, things would not quite go as smoothly football-wise’.

Alison Millar, Partner in the Abuse Team at Leigh Day commented:

"The trials of former coaches such as Barry Bennell and George Ormond for sexual offences against junior players have helped to expose the scale of abuse that young football hopefuls have endured in UK clubs for decades.

"These men used their positions of influence to manipulate the sporting ambitions of junior trainees for their own predatory gain; I would now urge the FA’s own inquiry – which is due to report in September this year - to carefully examine how they were able to use the coaching relationship as a mask for widespread abuse, and act with impunity for so many years."

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