LONDON -- Former English soccer players who were subjected to years of sexual abuse by youth team coaches entrusted with their care are breaking cover to expose the game’s dark secrets.
Harrowing stories of assaults on young players by men they relied on to turn them into professionals are forcing authorities and clubs to finally address how child abusers were able to exploit their positions of power and why the behavior wasn’t confronted earlier.
The abuses were first uncovered two decades ago with the conviction of English coach Barry Bennell in the United States and his homeland. Bennell worked in academies across northwest England including Manchester City, Stoke and Crewe Alexandra, which was renowned as a center for turning raw talent into the complete footballer.
The torment suffered by players is only now receiving more widespread attention along with a determination to discover how far reaching sexual exploitation of youngsters has been in English soccer.
Four police forces across England, including London, have opened investigations after being contacted about Bennell and other unnamed people. Leading clubs Manchester City and Newcastle said they are assisting authorities and the players’ union has been guiding the players who revealed their identities.
“They have been very courageous in coming forward after suffering in silence for years,” Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association, told The Associated Press on Friday.
“I think the dam has just been busted, the guys who have come forward have been a catalyst,” Bennett said, disclosing that eight more players have contacted him in the last day about going public.
Andy Woodward, who went on to play for Sheffield United, testified in Bennell’s 1998 court case and was the first player to go public recently a year after contacting Bennett.
Since then, other retired players have been emerging to tell their stories of abuse at the hands of other coaches. The prospect of boys being turned into well-paid soccer stars meant that parents often handed over control of their children to football clubs and their coaches.
“My life has been ruined until the age of 43, but how many others are there?” Woodward said. “I’m talking about hundreds of children who Barry Bennell cherry-picked for various football teams and who now, as adults, might still be living with that awful fear.”
Woodward’s story gave other victims of Bennell and unnamed coaches the courage to come forward and compel authorities to end the inertia that surrounded the 1990s revelations.
“We’re victims of a horrible, horrendous thing that happened in the early ‘80s and ‘90s,” Woodward said after leaving a meeting with the English Football Association on Thursday. “Ex-players are suffering so much and suffered in silence for so many years. We went through hell.”
Manchester City launched an investigation after David White and Paul Stewart, who played for the club across the 1980s and 1990s and went on to feature for England, came forward with their stories.
“The club is aware of allegations that Barry Bennell had an association with Manchester City Football Club in the 1980s,” City said in a statement. “As a result the club is undertaking a thorough investigation of any past links he might have had with the organization.”
City’s response came 21 years after Bennell was first convicted in the United States. In Jacksonville, Florida, the Englishman pleaded guilty to six counts of custodial sexual battery in exchange for four years in prison. He had been charged with raping a boy and repeatedly sexually assaulting a player from a youth team he had escorted to the U.S.
After serving his sentence in the U.S., Bennell was convicted again in Britain - receiving a six-year sentence for 23 offenses. The case received little publicity at the time. But Bennell was jailed for a third time in 2015 when he pleaded guilty to abusing a boy at a football camp in northern England in 1980, prompting a fresh examination of his crimes and potential abuses by other coaches. Bennell is not currently in prison.
“I believe there was a conspiracy and pedophile ring,” Jason Dunford, a youth team player with Manchester City, told the BBC on Friday. “There were people at those clubs who had a duty to look after boys coming through their system.”
A police force based near Crewe and Manchester said 11 people had contacted them already this week and that the allegations were made against more than one person.
A children’s charity has received a flood of calls since setting up a dedicated helpline for footballers in conjunction with the Football Association.
“These are heinous crimes and they need to be investigated by the police and they will get our support,” FA chairman Greg Clarke said.
There are echoes of the child molestation scandal that erupted in U.S. college sports involving Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State University. He was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and is serving 30 to 60 years in prison.