Tom Richmond: Let this be final whistle for sport’s sex predators

Former Sheffield United footballer Andy Woodward has blown the whistle on the football abuse scandal.
Former Sheffield United footballer Andy Woodward has blown the whistle on the football abuse scandal.
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LIKE all those political controversies involving malpractice – and then compounded by the subsequent cover-up – the principle of ‘who knew what and when?’ is equally applicable to the sexual abuse scandal which has rocked football to its foundations.

However this is far more serious than posturing politicians and bungling bureaucrats wasting public money because they did not know better – it involves traumatised former players who were assaulted by predatory coaches and suffered in silence for decades because no one would believe their ordeal. Some have contemplated suicide.

Only now, after former player Andy Woodward had the bravery to waive his anonymity and speak out about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his paedophile youth team coach, have other victims had the courage to follow suit.

The number of former players who have made abuse allegations since Woodward’s brave stand two weeks ago now tops 350 while Premier League pacesetters Chelsea “apologised profusely” after paying former striker Gary Johnson £50,000 in a shameful confidentiality deal to stop him lifting the lid on the abuse that he suffered as a minor at the West London club.

As Jamie Vardy, the Yorkshire-born Leicester City and England striker, said yesterday: “It’s sickening. To be honest with you we’re lucky that some have come out and spoken about it so we can get something done about it.”

Yet, with the lurid allegations having chilling parallels with the depravity of Jimmy Savile and the establishment cover-up which masked the television presenter’s reign of terror until after his death, it’s now claimed that the footballing authorities were warned 15 years ago about the prevalence of child sexual abuse at the sport’s grassroots.

As custodians of the game, the Football Association not only needs to urgently review the adequacy of current safeguarding protocols but disclose whether its senior officials knew about historic allegations. Sports Minister Tracey Crouch should oversee this process and publish a draft report by December 31. It’s that urgent.

It’s the same with the Gordon Taylor-led Professional Footballers Association. Though it has lauded those individuals who have gone public with harrowing ordeals about how they were groomed by paedophile coaches who would determine their future in the sport, did it know of any of the lurid accounts which have come to light? If not, was it because the PFA was pre-occupied with representing ‘big time charlies’ – the superstar players caught up in disciplinary or contractual palavers – or that victims had no confidence in their union to take their claims seriously?

And what about the football clubs at the centre of abuse allegations? Many are Premier League sides, where clubs spent a record £1.194bn on transfers in the summer. They’re already preparing to spend another small fortune next month. Though it would be totally improper of them to fund the lengthy and costly police inquiries now underway, it would be proper to make a major donation to the NSPCC children’s charity and those who work in this sphere. I’m not talking a £10,000 goodwill gesture, I’m thinking of a life-changing sum more in the region of £50m – the going rate for one above-average player. After all, the FA hastily put together a video in which England captain Wayne Rooney urged victims to call the NSPCC helpline.

It was speaking to former Bradford MP Gerry Sutcliffe, who was Sports Minister from 2007-10, which convinced me that football’s response has been totally inadequate. He spoke with frustration about how his attempts to reform the FA’s governance did not yield sufficient progress and that the real power was wielded by the mega-rich Premier 
League clubs. “They are running the show,” he bemoaned.

Yet, while issues of safeguarding are now taken so seriously that youth supervisors do not, for their own sake, want to be left in the sole charge of children, Mr Sutcliffe believes that the Government will have to look again at the accreditation of coaches from every sport and every club. “It goes beyond football,” he said forlornly.

That said, Britain today is far more enlightened than it was in the 1970s and 80s. Most institutions are acutely aware that issues such as ‘safeguarding’ and ‘health and safety’ must not be denigrated and clubs, like Southampton, have not only welcomed police inquiries but promised “full support” for “as long as it takes”. Let’s hope others do likewise.

However the revelations are so disturbing that sport must root out those predatory coaches and volunteers with nefarious intentions. It’s only a handful, but the number is sufficient to warrant action to protect all those whose endeavours do represent the best of society. Their reputations must not be sullied by the inability of the FA and others to face up to their responsibilities.

In the meantime, there’s only one candidate for footballer of the year. With respect to Leicester City’s Roy of the Rovers heroes, it is Andy Woodward, who briefly played for Sheffield United in the latter stages of his career, for having the moral fortitude to blow the whistle and give voice to the voiceless. Now it’s up to the governing bodies to follow. If this was politics, heads would have rolled by now.