Crewe Alexandra: The Paedophile’s Playground

by | Mar 21, 2021

Crewe Alexandra supporters have some difficult reckoning to do. This has been the most disastrous week in the history of their football club, and the horrible fact of the matter is that, so far as the club itself is concerned, it is entirely self-inflicted. Indeed, some might reckon that the club has received nothing like the amount of opprobrium that it should have, by now. Furthermore, convenient though it might be to gloss over the details of the club’s sordid past on the basis of it being history now, Crewe’s reaction to the shocking report which came out earlier this week absolutely isn’t history. This is Crewe Alexandra in 2021, and it’s disgusting.

When this story first truly broke in 2016, I wrote that, “there was a whisper of innuendo that followed the club’s success in bringing through young players over a considerable period of time.” There’s no pleasure to be taken in being shown to be right about such matters. By the time of his fifth conviction last year, more than 100 victims are believed to have come forward to allege that they were abused by the serial paedophile coach Barry Bennell, who has now been convicted of sexual abuse against 22 boys and will hopefully spend the rest of his life in prison.

But this story doesn’t end with Bennell’s imprisonment, because it is very clear that he wasn’t the beginning, middle or end of football’s abject failure to protect young players. On the basis of what we know, though, Bennell was the most prolific offender of all. he had worked for at least four English professional clubs: Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra (from around 1984 until he was sacked in 1992 for reasons that were then not made public), Stoke City and Leeds United, and from 1992 to 1994 was the head coach of Staffordshire non-league club Stone Dominoes.

During a 1994 Dominoes tour to the United States, a 13-year-old club player claimed that Bennell had sexually abused him. Bennell was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida, and eventually charged on six counts of sexual battery and lewd and lascivious behavior. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He didn’t serve his full prison term there, but was arrested immediately upon his return to the UK and appeared in court pleading not guilty to charges of indecent assault, buggery and attempted buggery dating back to the 1970s and 1980s through to 1992, against children aged between 9 and 15 years old.

He was found guilty of 23 offences against six boys and received a nine-year jail sentence, with a further 22 offences being left on file. In 2018, with further charges having piled up, he was convicted of 50 offences against 12 boys, and was sentenced to 31 years in prison. More than 100 victims are believed to have come forward to allege they were abused by him. In total, the FA acknowledges that 692 people are known to have been victims across the board, and it’s likely that this number is substantially higher. Four players previously connected with Bennell are known to have committed suicide, including the Wales manager Gary Speed and the former Manchester United winger Alan Davies.

The results of the much-needed inquiry into all of this was released last week, and they were damning. Led by Clive Sheldon QC, the report ran to 709 pages and concluded that generations of young footballers suffered sexual abuse because of the wholesale absence of child protection policies, ignorance and naivety. It found the FA culpable of “institutional failure” over its delay in introducing safeguarding after 1995, stating that, “These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse. During this period, the FA did not do enough to keep children safe.”

The inquiry identified failures to act adequately on complaints or rumours of sexual abuse at eight professional clubs – Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Southampton, Peterborough United, Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra and Stoke City – and that young players were left vulnerable to abuse by an absence of a safeguarding culture, that victims were bullied, scared or manipulated into silence, and very few specific reports of abuse were made within clubs, or to the FA.

Most of those involved have apologised profusely for this dereliction of duty. The FA issued a “heartfelt apology” to the survivors and appeared to accept some responsibility for the abuse not having been recognised and prevented. The Premier League and EFL also issued apologies for the abuse, and said they would be implementing the report’s thirteen recommendations. Manchester City, Newcastle, Southampton and Peterborough issued statements apologising to the victims, and there is little reason to believe that these apologies aren’t sincere. Manchester City City published an inquiry by Jane Mulcahy QC into the abuse perpetrated at the club by Bennell and two other historical abusers, stated that they had set up a scheme for survivors in 2019 which offers compensation, paid counselling, and issued personal apologies from a senior board director.

Not all clubs, though, have reacted the same, and the reaction of Crewe Alexandra has been so appalling that it can only really leave one wondering whether they gave a damn for the seriousness of what they are known to have been involved with. The club’s weasel worded official statement used carefully  chosen words to avoid apologising directly to survivors, and was subsequently heavily criticised by The Offside Trust, the charity set up by survivors of sexual abuse in sport:

Crewe’s belated statement is welcomed ‘if’ it is indeed sincere. We are pleased to see the club finally say ‘sorry’, shame it has been delivered in such cold, mealy-mouthed, legalistic fashion. The emphasis on their lack of culpability makes it sound almost begrudging. The Sheldon Report recommends that safeguarding training is undertaken by club directors. The FA might want to do the first one of these at Gresty Road.

It was noted in the report that long-time manager Dario Gradi (who also worked at Chelsea, another club implicated in this scandal) “should have done more” to investigate concerns expressed about Bennell. Gradi was banned from football in December in 2016 and has since retired and, talking to Sky Sports on Wednesday, the FA Chief Executive Mark Bullingham stated that:

Dario Gradi is banned from football. Now that, unfortunately, I can’t go into further details on. There are a number of reasons why someone might be banned from football, but just to say that he is and will remain so. Effectively he’s banned for life.

Polly Handford, the FA’s director of legal and governance, added that:

I think where someone’s removed from football office for safeguarding reasons, that will be because we have we have seen that there’s been an assessment that that particular individual could potentially cause or pose a risk of harm to children.

Interpret that as you wish, bearing in mind that Handford will be hyper-aware of the legalities of what she can and cannot say over such a sensitive story.

The report could find no evidence that Gradi had been involved in anything himself, but Bennell himself claimed in a 2003 court case that senior staff at Crewe Alexandra, including Gradi, knew about his crimes and let him get away with it for years. Bennell named Gradi in court documents and described as “ridiculous” the suggestion that nobody at Crewe had any idea that their youth-team coach was a paedophile who was raping and molesting young boys. Arguably most damningly of all, Sheldon noted in the report that when discussing allegations made, Gradi told him he “did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be an assault”, which is staggering.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there was even worse to follow. At the end of last week, The Times reported that, following an apology by current manager David Artell, Crewe had intervened because their directors were “uncomfortable with the ‘sorry’ thing”. Artell’s press conference was held by Zoom to a small number of local journalists, but those reporters were contacted by the club afterwards and told that should Artell’s comments “go national” – ie, reported in the national media – the club may cancel future Zoom press conferences. This led to some not reporting Artell’s apology, while one news website took it off their site completely, despite having initially published it. When contacted about it by The Times, Crewe’s press officer Rob Wilson stated that, “The board were uncomfortable with the thing about the ‘sorry’ thing and that was the way it was”, but also that: 

It wasn’t a threat at all. Do you want me to be honest? I said to them I have to be careful then, when I speak on a local level, if it was going to a national level — because we’ve got to cover our manager.

I was worried if you record a Zoom press conference it can go anywhere in the world.

I don’t think it was a threat. I said we would have to rethink how we do press conferences on Zoom. That’s my quote to you. I have to rethink, going forward, about recording Zoom press conferences if it goes from a local level to a national level [and about] protecting our manager and directors.

Perhaps the press officer (and the directors) of Crewe Alexandra should be thinking a little more closely about their reputation. Because at the moment, it feels very much as though Gresty Road was a paedophile’s playground for years, and if the club genuinely believes that the biggest issue at this stage is “protecting our managers & players”, then all we can really say is that it’s a terrible shame that they didn’t seem particularly interested in protecting young footballers for years and years.

Chairman John Bowler’s position is clearly untenable. He was vice-chairman until 1987 and has been chairman ever since. His predecessor as chairman Norman Rowlinson is known to have contacted Manchester City because he had heard rumours about Bennell. The rest of football – the rest of society, most likely – doesn’t really give a damn about whether Bowler and his fellow directors are “uncomfortable with the ‘sorry’ thing”. It’s been more than three years since Lord Carlile, who was the prosecuting barrister at Bennell’s original trial, stated that, ““I believe the Crewe board should have addressed this issue, and I’d be very interested to see the board minutes of the time because I feel sure the board would have discussed it in some way, but I have the feeling it was brushed under the carpet.” The club seems to have been attempting the same thing, last week.

This horrible story is one of the most shaming in the entire history of the game in this country, and if this one football club, which is front and centre of it all, doesn’t like that then, frankly, tough shit. Crewe Alexandra Football Club exposed children to a man later described in court by a judge as “the devil incarnate” for years and years, and they don’t even seem remorseful about that fact now. If they’re feeling uncomfortable about that now, they only have their own negligence to blame. The BBC’s forthcoming documentary, “Football’s Darkest Secret”, may sharpen a few of their minds, should they watch it.

All of this means that Crewe’s supporters have horrible decisions to deal with. Their club is now irrevocably tarred with the brush of being the poster boys of child abuse in professional football. It’s too early to say whether this stain can or will ever been scrubbed from the club. All we can say for certain is that the club’s behaviour over the last week (and some would say since Bennell was employed by them) has done nothing to clean thatv reputation. Supporters now have to decide whether they can live with this or not. With football culture being what it is, it’s unlikely that this will be forgotten any time soon, and many would understand if supporters decided that they couldn’t reconcile this with their consequences and drifted away from the club.

It is, however, worth remembering that the scale of this disaster doesn’t end at Crewe. Numerous clubs have been implicated, and over the years many coaches, scouts and others associated with clubs have either ended up in prison or with their reputations deservedly smashed to smithereens as a result of their behaviour. The FA should offer as much support to former players affected by abuse, and should handsomely compensate those who were debased. The clock cannot be turned back, and the whole of the game of football has to be clearly reminder that reparations and sincere apologies should be the start of the healing process, and not its end. This must never, ever, ever happen again. Similarly, tempting though it is to pin the whole of the blame for everything that happened at every club on Barry Bennell, others absolutely must not be left off the hook. Every story relating to this matter is sickening. It’s just that Barry Bennell’s is probably the most sickening of all.

And to serve as a reminder that this whole wretched, sordid story does impact across the whole of the game in this country, here are some details about some of the others who have been located and either charged, convicted, or who died while the allegations against them were still active.

  • George Ormond, a former coach at Newcastle United, was convicted of 12 indecent assaults and one attempted indecent assault on seven boys between 1975 and 1999. In July 2018 he was convicted on 36 counts of sexual abuse against 18 victims over a 24-year period between 1973 and 1997. The club was notified by a victim of his past behaviour in 1998 but, although Ormond’s employment ended, his conduct was not investigated or reported to the police until 2001.
  • Frank Roper, a scout for Blackpool FC, abused children in his teams for two decades from at least 1965 to 1990/91. Roper had been convicted in 1960, 1961 and 1965 for indecent assault on male children, was not properly vetted and it was later found that his abuse was “an open secret” at the club which first-team players would joke about. Roper died in 2005, but a civil claim brought against Blackpool FC by an anonymous player last year resulted in the club having to pay £19,000 in damages and compnsation. The judge found that the club was “financially rescued by two particularly lucrative transfer deals”, one of which was the 1987 sale of Paul Stewart to Manchester City. Stewart has spoken openly of the abuse that he suffered at Roper’s hands, although he didn’t give evidence in this particular case. Blackpool had contested the claim, arguing that the club was not liable for the abuse as Roper was not an employee and that the claim was brought too long after the event.
  • Eddie Heath, a former coach at several London clubs, died in 1983, but in August 2019 Chelsea’s board apologised “unreservedly” for allowing Heath, a “prolific and manipulative sexual abuser”, to operate “unchallenged” at their club. Allegations going back to the 1960s have been made against him.
  • Bob Higgins, a former coach at Southampton, was sacked by the club in 1989 after allegations were made against him. He then set up the Bob Higgins Soccer Academy, which prompted the Football League to write to all clubs in April 1989 warning them against any involvement with it. He was acquitted of six charges in 1991, after no evidence was offered against him. On 23 May 2019, Higgins was found guilty of 45 charges of indecent assault against teenage boys and not guilty of five counts of indecent assault, with the jury unable to reach a verdict on one final count. He was sentenced to 24 years and 3 months in prison.
  • Christopher Gieler had complete control of QPR’s youth system between 1979 and 2002. There is a record of only one complaint being made at the time. Then chairman David Bulstrode carried out an investigation and concluded Gieler had no case to answer, but how thorough this investigation was has been questioned.
  • Ted Langford worked at Aston Villa for two periods in the 1980s and also at Leicester City. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2007 for acts of indecent assault against four individuals and died in 2012.
  • Hugh Stevenson was an assistant referee and a club official at Eastercraigs Boys Club between the late 1970s and mid 1980s, before being asked to leave after attempting inappropriate contact with a boy at another club. He then moved to the Glasgow-based Chelsea Boys Club. He was investigated by Strathclyde Police in 1993 and 1996, but died in 2004.
  • Jim McCafferty, former kitman for Celtic, Hibernian and Falkirk, admitted abusing teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s while coaching boys’ and junior teams in West Lothian, and at Celtic between 1990 and 1996. He pleaded guilty to eight charges and was jailed for 3 years and 9 months. In May 2019, he was sentenced to a further 6 years and 9 months after pleading guilty to 11 charges of abusing teenagers between 1972 and 1996, while working for the Celtic Boys Club.
  • Kit Carson, a former youth coach with Peterborough United, was charged with 11 counts of indecent assault and one of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity between 1978 and 1996. Carson was bailed and committed suicide by driving his car into a tree in 2018.7
  • Harry Dunn, a youth scout who had worked at Liverpool, Rangers and Chelsea, was arrested by Scottish police investigating allegations of historical sex abuse. Dunn died awaiting trial.
  • James Torbett, a former Celtic Boys Club manager, was found guilty in 1998 of shameless and indecent conduct with three juvenile players between October 1967 and March 1974 and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Torbett moved to the USA and vehemently denied the claims, but returned to the UK to face trial, and in 2018 was found guilty of five offences against three boys and sentenced to six years in prison.
  • Gordon Neely, a youth coach at Rangers in the 1980s was dismissed after abuse allegations were made. He’d previously been sacked by Hibernian in 1986, but they did not inform the police or his new employers. He died in 2014.
  • Gerald King, a former chairman of Celtic Boys Club, was charged by police with non-recent sexual offences. He faced ten charges of alleged abuse between 1965 and 1986, including indecent assault, gross indecency and lewd, indecent and libidinous practices and behaviour, and denied all of them. He was convicted of nine of the charges, and was sentenced to four years in prison in 2019.
  • Robert Smith was jailed for 27 months in 2016 for sexually abusing three boys aged between nine and 12 who played for a football team he was coaching in Glasgow during the 1980s, and then to a further 20 months over a further six charges.
  • William Toner was jailed for three years and two months on four counts of indecent assault against a teenage boy in the 1990s. The trial heard that he preyed on a junior footballer after claiming to work for Manchester City.
  • Norman Shaw was jailed for nine years for sexual abuse against boys between August 1979 and December 1989 when he was involved with a children’s team called Perth Rovers.
  • David Hayes, former press officer at Bangor City, was charged with 13 offences in 2015.  He escaped to Spain, but was brought back to the UK and was found guilty of 12 sexual offences, including rape, against a girl and boy who were aged 10 or under at the time they were subject to his abuse. He was jailed for 23 years.
  • Phil Edwards, once a physiotherapist at Watford, was arrested in early 2019 on suspicion of sexual activity with a teenage boy in the 1990s, and died while an inquiry into the alleged offence was under way. Further allegations of sexual abuse were made by more than 20 people and Watford launched their own investigation, as well as providing further information to the wider inquiry.
  • Dylan Lamb, a coach, sexually abused five teenage boys in South Yorkshire between the 1970s and 2000. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The NSPCC’s hotline is open twenty-four hours a day on 0800 023 2642.