The Guardian’s horrifying revelations of the sexual abuse of youth team footballers in the 1980s and 1990s have exposed a dark secret in the game that has been pushed into the public eye. Four former players, including ex-Sunderland striker Paul Stewart, have now chosen to waive their anonymity to admit they were victims of sexual abuse during their youth careers. Since then there have been dozens of reports to the police and the NSPCC of similar cases.
Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and David White all told the Guardian that they were abused by serial paedophile Barry Bennell during their time at Crewe Alexandra and a Manchester-based junior team respectively. Stewart told the Daily Mirror that he was also abused by another coach, who can not be named for legal reasons, who is known to have had links with Bennell.
Stewart said in an interview with the newspaper that his abuser attacked him between the ages of 11 and 15 but constantly promised that he would "make him a star". It was emotional blackmail that an impressionable child would be victim to - a tactic often employed by predatory paedophiles.
Most young boys dream of being footballers but only a select few actually realise that goal. Being told by a coach that they are a ‘special talent’ forges a huge amount of trust between the player and the senior staff. They look up to them knowing that if they do the right things and listen to their coaches, they could be making it as a professional.
Bennell, and other abusers like him, knew this and also knew the fear they could create if they threatened to take this dream away. Speaking to the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, Woodward explained that he would find himself out of the team if he upset Bennell. He added: "at any point he’d tell me, ‘you will go, you will disappear and that dream won’t happen.’"
Each player has spoken of their own personal torment having to live with his secret for so many years. For some football was the escape - ninety minutes of being away from the demons - but for others the mental anxiety continued throughout matches. It is a testament to their character that they were able to actually forge careers in the game at all despite the years of horrendous abuse.
Football is not a sport where people open up to one another. Despite being a unifier of many creeds and colours, it is bound by a culture of masculinity where any admission to feelings is seen as a sign of weakness. Only in recent years has the sport confronted issues such as addiction and depression - sadly, but the concept of a player coming out as gay is still completely alien.
For these players to speak about the abuse they suffered at the hands of someone in the game they thought they could trust is an incredible demonstration of their strength of character. It is the courage to tell their story, in the hope that others also feel able to come forward and speak out against these crimes, that make them truly brave.
Where that leaves football is another matter entirely. As more and more reports are lodged with the police and the NSPCC, the game could be dealing with a scandal on a scale similar to the Yewtree operation. Eyes will point to the clubs and the FA and questions will be asked as to why there was not a full investigation into Bennell and others of his ilk at the time of the offences.
Football clubs and governing bodies have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable members under their supervision - whether that be young supporters or youth team players. These cases highlight how badly they have been let down by the organisations that are designed to shield from horrific crimes like this.
As the scale of this scandal unfolds and more victims come forward it is key to commend the bravery of the victims that have chosen to tell their story.
That takes real courage.