In recent months, there has been a great deal of shock about the extent of child abuse in football with the revelations in court over the Barry Bennell case making headline news. This weekend Paul Stewart talked about how he was also abused by a youth coach. I’m sure this will not be the last we hear of it; indeed, it is probably only the beginning as people finally feel able to talk.
It did not surprise me that it is such a widespread problem. When I was 16 I used to go drinking in pubs on my own quite a bit, often sitting reading school books. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was quite a vulnerable kid and I probably looked it too.
One such time, a man followed me into the toilet. He was in his early 30s. He stood beside me at the urinal as I voided my bladder, waited until I’d finished and then, even though I was still unzipped, grabbed me by the arms really tightly, pushed me backwards, shook me and told me in no uncertain terms what he was going to do to me, right there and then.
I was scared, at first just by his aggression, because it took a few moments for what he was saying to properly sink in. Random pub-based violence was not uncommon in the late 70s and that was what you feared most when out drinking. The idea that I might be sexually assaulted wasn’t even on my radar. I didn’t even know such things happened to lads.
I tried to pull away from him but couldn’t get free. He pushed me into the cubicle and pulled violently at my jeans, then grabbing me around the neck in a choke hold. Now I could feel his skin against mine and even little innocent me worked out what he was doing to himself. You think you’d fight back, that you’d kick and bite and scream, but you don’t. Or at least I didn’t and for a long time I felt guilty about that, like I’d let myself down.
But I was lucky. My assailant hadn’t been able to get the cubicle door closed and at that moment, an older man in his 50s walked into the toilet, immediately clocked what was going on, grabbed him and dispensed the sort of ruthless violence that only a steelworker who spends his days hauling pig iron can. His fists, like massive knots of old rope, pounded the man in the face leaving him dazed and bleeding on the broken-tiled floor, scrabbling to get up and get out the door.
My saviour told me the man was ‘known’ for this sort of behaviour and that he was a games teacher at a private boys school somewhere outside the region, who also coached a kids football team. He apparently often went ‘shopping’ for boys some distance away from where he lived. I remember being amazed that this was common knowledge and yet the man still got away with it, but he got away with it because no-one talked about it. It was never suggested I report this to the police. Indeed, I wasn’t even sure if it was a crime. That was the world we lived in. We must not let this still be the reality.
The attack had lasted maybe 90 seconds, two minutes at most. Incredibly, I just went back to the bar and my pint of lager and lime, feeling a bit numb and not knowing where to file this experience. It was easier to pretend it hadn’t happened, than to think about it. So that’s what I did. The woman behind the bar asked me what had happened, having seen the bleeding teacher exit. I told her the older man had hit him but that I didn’t know why. She leaned on the bar so she was closer to me. “Are you alright, luv?” she asked. Looking back, of course, she must’ve known what had happened. But like everyone else, wouldn’t voice it.
I have no idea if he abused the kids he taught and coached, but I’d be amazed if he didn’t. History tells us it was far from a rare thing. And he’d done it before. That was obvious. He’d probably done it to loads of kids and those kids would have kept quiet, just as I did. I see now that such men get into jobs that allow the likes of Bennell to indulge their evil.
What happened to me was absolutely nothing compared to the victims of that heinous, vicious bastard and I wouldn’t seek to say it was. It was very low on the scale of man’s inhumanity to man and was just a single short if terrifying incident.
The Bennell case seems to have crystalised the issue in the minds of many. Eighteen years ago, when I first started writing for F365 there’s no way I could have dared write this piece, let alone have it published to a huge audience because it would have fallen on largely deaf ears. There was no appetite for taking the lid off this particular cesspool.
I, and others, still get the ‘stick to the football, lads’ attitude, any time I stray into social and political issues. But I always say football is part of life and life is political and I firmly believe such negative attitudes are rooted in the ‘put up and shut up’ culture that has let people like Bennell get away with their crimes for so long. It bullies people into keeping quiet and not talking about such issues for fear of ridicule, worry of looking weak or of being seen as merely attention-seeking. But silence is the compost into which these perpetrators sow their evil seed, and it is a cloak of invisibility that hides them from view. An open, inclusive and liberal culture is finally allowing people to talk about what they have gone through and put people like Bennell behind bars for a long time.
The fear is that even in 2018 abuse is still going happening and kids are still too scared to talk about it. After all, there are a lot of football clubs in this country and I don’t believe somehow such abusers have gone away or evaporated. They’re still around and presumably still inveigling themselves in the lives of young and/or vulnerable children and young adults.
It is important that the game at all levels has an open and understanding culture which supports and understands victims and educates all about how to spot abuse and how to report it. And we as fans have duty to support and to facilitate healing, as well as helping get perpetrators punished.
Such abuse is as old as time. It isn’t part of some modern-day collapse of morality. It was just well hidden and no-one dared say anything. It is just the same situation with the #metoo hashtag. Women are not suffering a wide variety of degrees of sexual abuse more than ever, they’ve always suffered from it; pretty much every woman you’ve ever met or known, in fact. But only now can they talk about it, be believed and understood. And once people feel they can talk about it, it opens a Pandora’s box and suddenly everyone has got a story and we can finally take a stand
against it that is meaningful and effective.
If you’re a fella who has suffered sexual abuse, there is support available. You’re not alone. All decent people will walk this road, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm with you, until these vicious bastards can no longer inflict their abuse on anyone anymore.