(This story tackles the issue of child abuse within football and some readers may find the content distressing)
An independent review looking into historical sexual abuse in football has stated there were "institutional failings” at The Football Association.
The findings are part of a report from Clive Sheldon QC, who in 2016 was commissioned by England’s governing body to investigate further, after former footballer Andy Woodward spoke openly about how he was abused by former Crewe youth coach and now convicted paedophile Barry Bennell.
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It focuses on a period between 1970 and 2005, when a previous review took place to look into safeguarding.
The report acknowledges that there is no evidence that The FA knew of a “systematic problem of child sexual abuse within the game in England”, but states the organisation failed to take appropriate action following a conference in July 1996, which gave advice about best practices in child protection to national governing bodies from a number of sports.
Mr Sheldon claims that The FA acted “far too slowly to introduce appropriate and sufficient child protection measures, and to ensure that safeguarding was taken sufficiently seriously by those involved in the game” and that it did “not do enough to keep children safe”.
He added that prior to that period, the lack of guidance was “a failure of sport as a whole” rather than just football.
In a lengthy statement from the FA, chief executive Mark Bullingham acknowledged this represents a "dark day for the beautiful game", while describing victims who have spoken out as "trailblazers" whose stories should have been heard a long time ago.
He apologised to everyone who has been affected, adding "it is clear they were let down by the game, the authorities and society as a whole. We all failed to protect them."
The report also claims that clubs were often “naive” about the possibility of abuse and did not facilitate or encourage young players to raise concerns.
The evidence Mr Sheldon heard from survivors found that abusers were manipulative and often used “elaborate grooming tactics” which were mainly conducted in “private”.
A number of cases have been investigated in the report, including that of Bennell, who is believed to have had more than 100 victims and is serving a total sentence of 34 years plus two additional years on licence for child sexual offences.
It states Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra and Stoke City, where Bennell worked as a youth coach or scout, did not do enough to investigate rumours circulating about their employee.
The report says clubs often missed warning signs through “ignorance or naivety” and were reluctant to look into matters if there was no “concrete evidence”. It claims this approach allowed many perpetrators to hide within football and use their positions to “ruin the lives of many children”.
Mr Sheldon, who says it is "important this terrible history is not repeated" makes a number of recommendations to The FA, including:
- The provision of safeguarding training to parents/carers and players at a professional level
- All FA Board and senior management team members, as well as the board of directors at every club, to receive safeguarding training at least every three years
- Assigning one member of the FA’s Board to the role of ‘Children’s Safeguarding Champion’
- To develop a five year strategy with specific intervention to support the voices of children
- The requirement of all grassroots clubs to make their safeguarding policy and the contact details of the Welfare Officer readily available to parents and carers of all junior players, under the age of 18
- Widen the system of spot checks for grassroots clubs to review the clubs’ safeguarding policies and practices, including overnight stays, away travel and trips, use of social media, and coaching in a digital environment, as well as to obtain the views of children and young people, and to sanction those clubs that fail to comply.
- The annual publication of a safeguarding report, which should include a statement from the FA Chairman
- A yearly National Day of Safeguarding in Football to raise awareness of the issues
If you have been affected by this story and would like to speak to someone for support, call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000, or 0800 1111 if you are under the age of 18.
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