Dealing with tragedy of sexual abuse ongoing struggle for many former British football players
Two years on from the biggest child abuse scandal in the game's history in the United Kingdom, we speak to two victims on how they are living with the past
Bravery is a term often overused to the point of absurdity in football.
Sure, it takes gall to contest a 50/50 challenge or an aerial duel when feet and elbows are flying. But that pales into significance compared with the genuine courage shown by the former professional footballers in the United Kingdom who, in November 2016, began speaking out about harrowing childhood sexual abuse they suffered decades previously at the hands of predatory youth-team staff around the country.
Two years on, the scale of the scandal is staggering: hundreds of former players have now come forward with allegations mostly dating from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Several others had died before the full horror of their experiences came to light. Many of the paedophile perpetrators have since been prosecuted and jailed.
But there is still work to be done.
Arguably the most high-profile victim was Paul Stewart, now 54. The former England international had what, on the face of it, seemed an enviously successful career, firing in goals for three of the current top four sides in the Premier League: Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. He remains the last Spurs player to score in an FA Cup final, in the 2-1 triumph over Nottingham Forest at Wembley in 1991.
But until two years ago, Stewart had carried a crippling burden for four decades: as a junior player in Manchester, he was abused for four years by a youth-team coach who befriended his parents and groomed him mercilessly.
When he read an interview with former Crewe Alexandra defender Andy Woodward detailing similar suffering, published in The Guardian on November 16, 2016, Stewart knew he needed to use his status as a well-known former player to ensure the story was not brushed under the carpet.
“Me telling my story was in the hope that other people who had suffered, like I did, could come forward, could somehow try to piece their lives back together and not go through the devastation,” he tells The National.
“What people don't understand is that when the abuse stops, it doesn't really stop. I class myself as fortunate, in terms of I'm still here. Some of our colleagues are not around to tell their story. Some have gone into a life of crime.
“I didn't expect the tsunami of individuals who came forward on the back of my story. I knew that other people had suffered, but I didn't know the extent of how far this was reaching.
"This ever-escalating number of victims just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and that's the enormity of what happened back then.”
At the height of his playing career, Stewart descended into drink and drugs. But telling his story was the start of a journey that is slowly helping him piece his life back together.
Central to that was writing his autobiography, Damaged, and his work with Save, an acronym for Safeguarding and Victim Engagement. He set up the association with fellow former footballers Ian Ackley, Derek Bell and David White. All victims of the abuse scandal, they decided, in the words of Bell, to join forces to “do something positive”.
Save works with the English Football Association from the Premier League all the way down the pyramid to amateur teams and players' parents.
After supporting several victims in court, “it gathered momentum”, Bell says, and now “through the money raised, we're able to train other victims of abuse in safeguarding”, who in turn educate clubs and make sure there are trained welfare officers on hand.
“We're doing a lot of work at grassroots levels and professional clubs, raising awareness, safeguarding,” Stewart explains.
“I don't want this to repeat itself in 20 years. I don't want another glut of men coming forward because we haven't got the right measures in place today that weren't in place all them years ago. If we can get safeguarding right at grassroots level then they won't be able to infiltrate junior football clubs and prey on the youngsters there.
“There are lawsuits being placed on clubs and these lawsuits will be successful,” he says of current legal action. “There was a duty of care that should have been in place. It wasn't.
"Safeguarding wasn't even a word back in the 70s and 80s – there was no such thing.”
Former Newcastle United midfielder Bell, also 54, was one of many victims of prolific paedophile George Ormond, a coach who earlier this year was jailed for 20 years for dozens of offences. Bell's ordeal proved almost too much to bear, but he says that working with Save is helping him work through the aftermath.
“It didn't come as a surprise if I'm perfectly honest, the amount of people who have come forward,” Bell says. “I knew that I wasn't the only one. I knew this guy was continuing in football.
“I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm on medication and probably will be for the rest of my life. I tried to commit suicide three times. I've been locked up under the mental-health act for my own safety for three months in a mental institution.
"Even to this day, I still have flashbacks of what happened. It's had a massive effect on my life. But putting it out in the open has helped me from a therapeutic point of view to talk about these issues.”
When Stewart was interviewed on the Keys and Gray Show on BeIN Sports circa the scandal breaking, it was almost too difficult to watch – he looked utterly broken.
Speaking at a recent event in Dubai in conjunction with the Official UAE Spurs Supporters Club, Stewart spoke candidly about his ordeal, occasionally pausing to compose himself when the memories became overwhelming. The scars of the abuse are rarely far from the surface, but his trajectory finally feels like an upward one.
Two years on, however, players are still coming forward for the first time, and the fight continues for justice and to prevent history from repeating itself.
"I believe there's a clear and present danger right now,” Bells says. “These [kind of] people haven't gone away – they're still out there.”
And for many of the footballers who had the innocence of their youth snatched away, the mental struggle will be lifelong.
“I kept this inside for 42 years,” Stewart says. “By doing the work that I'm doing, it is cathartic for me. Speaking about it as much as I do, it does help.
"But I still have bad days. It hasn't gone away. I don't think it's going to go away overnight. Every day is another step in recovery. I manage it as best I can.
"I think I'm getting better at managing the bad days.”
For more information on Save, visit www.saveassociation.com
Updated: November 15, 2018 10:10 AM