A lack of safeguarding in football allowed perpetrators of sexual abuse “to hide and use their positions to ruin the lives of many children”.
That’s the conclusion of the Independent Review into Child Sexual Abuse in Football 1970-2005 from Clive Sheldon QC.
It looked at abuse in football clubs between 1970 and 2005. And it found that, for part of the time, “significant institutional failings” in the Football Association put children at risk.
The victims were often young boys from poorer backgrounds who abusers could “groom” by providing things they wouldn’t otherwise have.
“A number of survivors felt they were targeted because they were from less privileged families,” said Sheldon. “There is some evidence of this.
“Some abusers would exploit the fact that some parents could not take boys to training or games (often due to work commitments or not having transport). Some abusers gave children (and in some instances their parents) gifts or ‘treats’ (including meals out and takeaway food, football kit, days out, and holidays) that would otherwise be beyond their financial reach.
“A number of survivors felt that they were targeted because they were from a single parent family or because their parents were seen not to be as attentive as other parents. There is some evidence of this.”
Most survivors did not report the abuse for years. Many described feelings of shame, confusion and fear of letting their parents down. Others felt under pressure to keep quiet because to do otherwise would wreck their football careers.
One survivor said his abuse “went on for years, from the age of 11 up to 17”. “It was systematic,” he said. “People ask why I didn’t speak out sooner. It’s because the desire is immense to be a footballer, and the power that they had over us, it was an unwritten rule, you cannot say a word.
“I remember being with another boy who I knew had been abused. We could never speak about it, but I remember looking at him and our eyes met; we just said it with our eyes.”
Another survivor described feeling unable to report his abuse because “I didn’t want to rock the boat”. “He was sort of this big figure and I’m a little dot, for want of a better word,” he said.
Another said, “You get to a point where it was too late to say anything. And it’s just about your dream, isn’t it? How am I going to keep hold of my dream? I remember trying to make adult decisions in a 10 year old’s body about whether to say anything.”
One man described how “everything was down” to his abuser in terms of whether boys progressed to become professional players. “People would ask why I never made it, saying they couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“I just said I weren’t good enough. It’s made me really bitter and spiteful. What he did has a lot to do with the man I am now.
“I was watching one of the TV programmes about the abuse and I got really emotional. The men who had come forward were just superstars to me. And when I heard the interviews it was like, ‘That was me. They’re talking on my behalf.’”
The abuse has had a devastating, long-lasting impact on survivors’ lives and their families.
Sheldon said survivors have endured “suicide attempts, excessive alcohol or drug intake or dependency, periods of depression and other mental illness, failed relationships with partners and children”.
“Some reported being unable to hug or kiss their own children,” he said.
One survivor said, “As an adult I was a very fun-loving guy on the outside but inside I was just distraught. I used to wake up every night sweating. I was drinking a lot. I had several broken marriages, and I was a very angry person.
“I ended up getting sectioned after I tried to commit suicide a few times and that’s when I finally disclosed what had happened to me. I ended up confronting my abuser and in the end he was convicted. Until that point there was always that fear that I wouldn’t be believed.”
The report found that clubs “did not facilitate, let alone encourage, young players to raise concerns”.
One survivor did tell his parents at the time but “nothing was ever done”. “The police discouraged us from pursuing it,” he said.
The report said a “considerable amount of sexual abuse of children” took place in clubs from 1970 to 2005. Child protection wasn’t taken seriously in sport “until the mid-1990s”.
“For much of the period of the Review, there was no guidance provided to those working within football on child protection matters,” said Sheldon.
After reports of abuse in the mid-1990s, Sheldon said “the FA should have acted more quickly” to bring in safeguarding measures. Yet between October 1995 and May 2000 “the FA did not do enough to keep children safe”.
“The FA acted far too slowly to introduce appropriate and sufficient child protection measures, and to ensure that safeguarding was taken sufficiently seriously,” said Sheldon. “These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse.”
“There were no routes for young players to blow the whistle on their abusers,” said Sheldon. And even where abuse is reported, clubs still failed to protect children. The report details many cases where clubs “acted too slowly or inappropriately” in response to allegations.
Sometimes this was because officials “did not fully believe the allegation”.
One club was “almost certainly aware” that an abuser had been arrested for child abuse. But it “did not stand him down from his role at a nursery or feeder club pending his trial”.