Football’s Darkest Secret: who are the child sex abuse survivors featured in BBC documentary – and when is it on TV?

Andy Woodward, Paul Stewart, Ian Ackley and Dean Radford share their harrowing stories in a three-part series looking at the abuse inflicted by the likes of Barry Bennell and Bob Higgins

Monday, 22nd March 2021, 5:40 pm
Updated Monday, 22nd March 2021, 5:47 pm

Survivors of football’s child abuse scandal will have their stories told in a BBC documentary.

Football’s Darkest Secret is a three-part series giving survivors a voice to share their harrowing experiences decades after their stories were first overlooked.

It follows the long-awaited report into historical child sex abuse within the game, which detailed how hundreds of boys were failed by football’s governing body and individual clubs.

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Former footballer and survivor of abuse Andy Woodward will tell his story in a new BBC documentary. (Pic: Getty Images)

The Sheldon review looks at how the FA, clubs and individuals handled reports of abuse made to them between 1970 and 2005 - and makes recommendations on safeguarding.

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Abusers Barry Bennell, Bob Higgins and George Ormond have been convicted since 2016.

These are the survivors featured in the BBC documentary.

Andy Woodward

In a 2016 interview with Daniel Taylor from the Guardian, Andy Woodward waived his anonymity to speak on the record about the abuse he suffered at Crewe Alexandra’s academy.

He was aged between 11 and 15 at the time he was abused and didn’t tell his story until 43.

“I was suffering mentally because of what had happened in my life. It was a case of speaking to him [Taylor] and seeing if he knew how I could get it written down in some way,” said Woodward.

“It's a dirty secret, but it's also a hidden secret, deep inside you. It's like a stutter. Even if you want to say it, there's something in your mind that stops you. That's why a lot of people will take it to the grave.”

Woodward was the first to speak out and others followed in the days after - a dedicated NSPCC hotline was set up with the FA which had more than 860 calls in the first week.

Woodward’s testimony led to others speaking out and in 2018 Barry Bennell was sentenced to 31 years in prison for 50 counts of child sexual abuse.

Paul Stewart

One of the survivors inspired by Woodward was former Manchester City, Liverpool and England player Paul Stewart, who was abused by Frank Roper.

Stewart was told he “had to do this in order to make it in football” by Roper who threatened to kill his parents and brothers if he went public and broke his silence.

The documentary tells how Stewart had “this empty soul”, was “dying inside” and covered his pain up “with drink and drugs”. The experiences have had a lasting impact.

“I still find it difficult to show affection to my own children, to my wife,” he said. “And I find it uncomfortable if they show it to me.”

Roper died before he could see justice.

“If I can help one person that's suffering like I'm suffering, then it's worth coming forward,” added Stewart.

Ian Ackley

Ian Ackley said he was raped hundreds of times by former youth coach and serial abuser Barry Bennell between 1979 and 1983. He was aged just nine when Bennell scouted him.

“I can only describe it as being frozen, because fighting it would only cause more pain and distress, so better to just get it over and done with,” said Ackley.

Ackley spoke of how there was a frightened culture of silence among the young boys, that Bennell abused them at his home and acted as if “this was normal behaviour”.

Ackley corroborated with a US investigation into Bennell in 1994 when police in Florida charged Bennell with sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy. Bennell was sentenced to four years in prison.

He waived his anonymity for a 1997 Channel 4 Dispatches film called Soccer’s Foul Play.

Ackley now works as a survivor support advocate helping other ex-footballers who were abused to access therapeutic and practical help.

Dean Radford

Dean Radford also waived his anonymity to talk publicly about his experiences in 1997.

Both Ackley and Radford did this hoping for justice to be served only to become frustrated that nothing was done. “I felt as though it just wasn't important to anybody,” said Radford.

From the age of 13, Radford was abused by Bob Higgins as a Southampton youth player. Radford recalled: “It was like a cult and he was the messiah.”

Radford spoke to police in 1991, aged 21. He and six other people brought cases forward against Higgins but the judge decided to split the cases up individually.

The judge found Higgins not guilty in Radford’s case - the first trial - and following that verdict the other cases were not tried. Higgins was allowed to continue working in football.

Another player, Dion Raitt, was abused by Higgins at Peterborough United. He said: “If they'd have got their justice the first time around, then I wouldn't have even met him.”

Higgins was sentenced to 24 years in jail after being found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse against 24 boys.

When is Football’s Darkest Secret on TV?

The first episode of Football’s Darkest Secret will air on BBC One tonight (22 March) at 9pm.

The second episode will air on BBC One on 23 March at 22.45pm and the third instalment will air on BBC One on 24 March at 10.45pm.

All episodes will be available on iPlayer.