This is football’s Jimmy Savile moment. That’s what some are blithely calling the exposure of the already exposed and convicted paedophile Barry Bennell, a football scout and coach who, from the late 1970s until the early 1990s, used his role in youth development at several football clubs to sexually abuse the boys in his care.
And in a sense it is football’s Jimmy Savile moment. It’s the moment at which an institution — in Savile’s case the BBC, in Bennell’s case football — ceases to trust itself; the moment at which an institution starts to see moral corruption everywhere within; the moment at which an institution institutionalises suspicion and distrust. So the Football Association has already announced the obligatory internal review/investigation, led by a QC, and the police are busily trawling for allegations.
Why now, though? The obvious answer is because on 16 November, Andy Woodward, a former footballer for Crewe Alexandra, among others, talked publicly for the first time about the abuse he suffered while a youngster at Crewe at the hands of Bennell. The dam then burst, as one observer put it. Woodward’s admission prompted several others to follow suit, including former Premier League stars David White and Paul Stewart. While Stewart alleged that another coach abused him as a boy, with some talking darkly of a paedophile ring, Bennell, so far, is at the epicentre of this sad tale.
This is why the sheer willingness of these now retired footballers to talk of the sexual abuse they endured as boys doesn’t quite explain why football is only now turning itself inside out, its overseers suspecting abuse, as Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, put it, ‘throughout the country in the same way it has been in other professions where children are there’. Because the case of Bennell, as miserable as it is, is not new. Unlike Savile, Bennell was not a hitherto semi-sainted figure, recently exposed as semi-demonic; he is a convicted child abuser.
He was first sent down over 20 years ago, when, in 1994, a court in Florida found him guilty of molesting a British boy on a football tour, stating in unequivocal terms that Bennell had an ‘almost insatiable appetite’ for young boys. Returned to Britain, he was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998, having been found guilty of numerous sexual offences against six boys aged nine to 15. And he was convicted for a third time in May last year, for another historic case involving a 12-year-old boy on a coaching course in Macclesfield. Bennell is not a dark secret; he’s a long-open wound, a self-described ‘monster’, and the shadowy subject of a 1996 TV exposé.