In Focus

Football’s Darkest Secret: a dark shadow over the ‘beautiful game’

Documentary about historical abuse in football revealed the shocking scale of the crimes

As a youth coach at Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City, Barry Bennell fed “dreams of being the next big star” to the boys in his care, said Kyle O’Sullivan in the Daily Mirror. A charming man with a “mesmerising” personality, he easily won the trust of parents, who’d think nothing of letting their sons stay overnight at his house. But Bennell’s charisma was a front: he was a predatory paedophile who “destroyed a succession of young lives” in a career lasting from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. And we now know he was one of many such men in English football. The horrifying scale of abuse over this period has been laid bare by a new BBC documentary, Football’s Darkest Secret, which follows the publication last week of an FA-commissioned report into historic abuse in the game

The “landmark inquiry” shows what a “free run predatory abusers had”, said David Conn in The Guardian. It documents hundreds of cases of abuse, and a notable failure to act. Talent scout Frank Roper was at Blackpool FC for two decades, despite having multiple convictions for sexual assault on a minor to his name. Most victims never complained at the time, being “bullied, scared or shamed into silence”. But the game’s authorities were culpably slow to respond when the scale of the problem began to emerge. Bennell received his first conviction in 1995 – yet it took the FA another five years to establish anything like a proper safeguarding culture. 

Daniel Gordon’s documentary was horrific to watch, said Carol Midgley in The Times. Seeing men in their 40s and 50s break down before the camera high-lighted the damage inflicted by Bennell and his ilk. The boys they abused suffered irreversible injuries that never healed no matter what they went on to achieve. Paul Stewart, one of Roper’s victims, said he’d gained no pleasure from a successful career with Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool. “Alone,” he said, “I was just dying inside.” The courage he and others have displayed in coming forward beats “anything you’d see on a football pitch”.

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