Football’s Darkest Secret is a Darkness the Game Deserves

by | Mar 24, 2021

Content warning: This piece contains explicit references to child sexual abuse, rape & paedophilia.

You can see it immediately. It’s right there in front of you. It’s in his stammer, in the look of hurt in his eyes, and in his posture. He carries the demeanour of a man who doesn’t look like he knows whether he should be addressing an audience of millions, but feels compelled to nevertheless. His name is Andy Woodward, and his nervous presence in front of the camera heralds the start of a story that none of us want to hear, but that all of us need to hear. Because Football’s Darkest Secret isn’t overselling itself with its name, and the only route out of the tunnel of evil, denial and obfuscation that professional football in this country has been treading for decades is to confront his demons, and those of others like him.

It would have been both easy and completely understandable for Woodward, and Steve Walters, David White, Paul Stewart, Ian Ackley and the others who sat before the cameras to recount their stories of abuse to remain behind a mask of anonymity, or not to have told them at all, to continue to internalise them and in the hope that something in their brain chemistry will one day alter and it’ll all go away. With its lengthy history of shitty war analogies, football likes to talk about ‘bravery’ a lot. For those amongst us who watch Football’s Darkest Secret in its entirety, ‘bravery’ may never be seen in the same sense again. Blocking a tackle or throwing oneself at a header palls as an act of bravery in comparison with what these men have done.

The first episode of this story starts from the end and works its way back to the beginning. Woodward, a former youth player with Crewe Alexandra, contacts journalist Daniel Taylor because he cannot carry his burden alone any more. The original intention was for his story to be told anonymously, but at the last minute Woodward decides to put his name and face to what happens to him, and after the story breaks, others join him, including players such as David White and Paul Stewart, both of whom were household names in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The NSPCC opens a hotline for victims of abuse to speak out, and finds itself overwhelmed by the number of calls it receives on the morning that it launches.

The Victoria Derbyshire Show on the BBC picks up on the story and holds harrowing interviews with Woodward and others, but then the story snaps back to Barry Bennell, telling – with harrowing detail – the story of how the serial paedophile groomed players while Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City (who, to Bennell’s considerable chagrin and for reasons unknown, although we can guess at what these might be, at least refused to offer him a position on their staff) seemed to turn a blind eye to it all. The interviews don’t steer clear of some excrutiating detail, but at no point does any of it feel exploitative against the victims. This is distressingly revolting detail that we need to hear, if we are to truly understand the scale of of what was going on at the time.

The second part of the series focuses, to start, on Bob Higgins, who was involved at Southampton and Peterborough United. Another tranche of players abused by a paedophile, with patterns of behaviour very similar to Bennell. When Southampton coach Dave Merrington overhears his youth team talking about Higgins’ behaviour, Higgins is confronted in meeting. Rather than discussing or denying them, he immediately becomes angry, threatening to sue anybody who makes the matter public, and resigns from his position a week later. When the first set of his crimes are brought to trial, he is acquitted.

The common theme here is the title of the second episode. “Missed Opportunities.” Southampton don’t take the allegations against Higgins anything like as seriously as they should. Crewe Alexandra continue to claim that they knew nothing whatsoever about allegations against Bennell until he’s convicted of child sex offences. Interviewed about Bennell’s crimes in Florida (for which he was later convicted, spending four years in prison before being deported upon his release), Terry Thomas, a special investigator with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, recalls being told of a child who’d asked his mother, “If I have white stuff coming out of my butt, does that mean I have AIDS?”. When Thomas goes to England to try to gather more evidence, he finds a wall of silence and denial, even from the boys themselves. Even after his guilty plea in Florida, Bennell continues to protest his innocence, with his lawyers claiming that it was a “plea of convenience”. He serves less than two years of his sentence.

The extent of our ignorance and football’s cruel state of denial has a harsh light shone upon it. Channel Four’s Dispatches series reports on Bennell as in 1997, but Dario Gradi claims that there he saw nothing wrong with children staying at Bennell’s house because, “they all seemed to be happy but quite contented kids”. A former head scout of Manchester City admits that Crewe had been in contact with them with their concerns over Bennell, contradicting Crewe’s later complaint that they didn’t know anything about it.

The denial and silence continues. Charles Hughes from the FA ignores questions asked in a letter sent by the Dispatches team and then blanks their investigating journalist Deborah Davies when she tries to question him about it on the steps of Lancaster Gate. “Football ignored it in the hope it would go away,” she says, “and guess what… it went away.” Ian Ackley, who was prepared to go public by being interviewed on Dispatches, says, “There wasn’t a media storm. There wasn’t anything. So I’d told all of these people for absolutely no reason”.

When Bennell is finally convicted for his crimes against Ackley, he receives a sentence of 15 months. As Ian Ackley pointedly notes, “It’s probably less than a day per offence.” Higgins trips up in court despite denying everything, but is only found guilty on one charge of indecent assault and not guilty on another, with the jury unable reach a verdict on the remaining 45 charges. A retrial is ordered. And even after all of this horror, there’s still a punch to the gut at the end of this second episode, at least for those who are unfamilar with the story.

“Reckoning” is the title of the third and final episode. There are further stories of abuse at Newcastle United and at Chelsea, and an emphasis elsewhere on those who survived it. David White talks powerfully about his own children, while Ian Ackley describes the perception of those abused as “broken individuals” who won’t be taken seriously. But, as the title suggests, this final episode does at least provide some degree of closure for some of the victims. George Ormond, the coach involved at Newcastle, is sentenced to twenty years in prison, but even this comes at a cost to one of the victims. Newcastle United did not reply to a request for comment from the BBC. Barry Bennell’s last trial ends in a similar result. Crewe Alexandra’s response to the entire story, in which they played a central role, has been an utter disgrace from top to tail.

It is critical that we understand that the extent of what had happened – and may still be happening – may never be known, and that it absolutely was not limited to the clubs that were under the microscope in this particular series. The final slide of the final episode of Football’s Darkest Secret spells this out as clearly as possible:

Between November 2016 and March 2018, 849 survivors came forward to police in relation to historical sexual abuse in football. Over 300 alleged suspects were identified and 332 clubs were named.

Of course, we all hope that those affected in these horrible cases found some degree of closure in their conclusion, but Football’s Darkest Secret leaves some questions dangling because we do not have answers to them yet. How many other victims were there that we do not know about? How many other serial abusers might there have been? And how many children might still be the victims of such behaviour?

Football’s Darkest Secret is an uncomfortable watch, just as it needs to be. We are all, whether players, commentators, or fans, culpable – part of the ecosystem of a sport which allowed this vile practice to flourish for years and then, as it became apparent how big it was, continued to stick its fingers in its ears and pretend that it wasn’t happening. The warning signs were routinley ignored. The victims were not believed. Clubs ultimately became culpable by their negligence.

We need to confront these demons, and perhaps all of us should recalibrate how we judge the nature of ‘herosim’ in football. Great goals, medals and silverware are all very well, but the bravery and persistence shown by Andy Woodward, Steve Walters, David White, Paul Stewart, Ian Ackley and all the others who told their stories, whether in a courtroom, in front of a television camera, or wherever it needs to be heard, have taken that particular concept to a whole other level. They told their stories so that no-one would have to go through what they did again. We all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for their bravery.

All three episodes of Football’s Darkest Secret are available on BBC Iplayer.

The Offside Trust is a charity set up by former victims of child sex abuse in football which campaigns to safeguard children in sport and to support survivors.

The NSPCC’s hotline for victims of child sex abuse in football is open twenty-four hours a day on 0800 023 2642.