“Significant institutional failings” by the Football Association meant it “did not do enough to keep children safe” – according to the findings of an independent review into historical child sexual abuse in the game.
It found the FA was “too slow” to have sufficient protection measures in place between October 1995 and May 2000.
It said there was no evidence the FA knew of a problem before summer 1995.
The report focused on the abuse of children between 1970 and 2005.
It said: “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. These are significant institutional failings for which there is no excuse.”
The long awaited 710-page review, led by Clive Sheldon QC and commissioned by the FA in 2016, found:
- Following high-profile convictions of child sexual abusers from the summer of 1995 until May 2000, the FA “could and should have done more to keep children safe”.
- There was a significant delay by the FA in putting in place sufficient child protection measures in football at that time. In that period, the FA “did not do enough” to keep children safe and “child protection was not regarded as an urgent priority”.
- Even after May 2000, when the FA launched a comprehensive child protection policy and programme, “mistakes were still made” by the FA.
- The FA failed to ban two of the most notorious perpetrators of child sexual abuse, Barry Bennell and Bob Higgins, from involvement in football.
- There were known to be at least 240 suspects and 692 survivors, yet relatively few people reported abuse and the actual level was likely to be far higher.
- Where incidents of abuse were reported to people in authority at football clubs, their responses were “rarely competent or appropriate”.
- Abuse within football was “not commonplace”. The overwhelming majority of young people were able to engage in football safely.
- While several of the perpetrators knew each other, there was not evidence of a “paedophile ring” in football – Sheldon says: “I do not consider that perpetrators shared boys with one another for sexual purposes, or shared information with one another that would have facilitated child sexual abuse.”
Sheldon’s review has made 13 safeguarding recommendations, and he said: “Understanding and acknowledging the appalling abuse suffered by young players in the period covered by the review is important for its own sake.
“Survivors deserve to be listened to, and their suffering deserves to be properly recognised. As well as recognising and facing up to what happened in the past, it is also important that this terrible history is not repeated, and that everything possible is done now to safeguard the current and future generations of young players.”
The Football Association will publish its full response to the report at 15:00 GMT.
How did this start?
On 16 November 2016, former footballer Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity to talk about how he was sexually abused by Bennell at Crewe Alexandra from the age of 11 to 15.
Several other people contacted police in the following days, before former England and Tottenham player Paul Stewart said he was abused as a child by a coach, later named as Frank Roper.
Children’s charity the NSPCC set up a hotline with the Football Association dedicated to footballers who had experienced sexual abuse – more than 860 calls were received in the first week.
After investigations involving several police forces started, the FA announced an independent inquiry into non-recent child sex abuse, led by Sheldon.
The independent review made its first call for evidence in January 2017, writing to all football clubs in England and Wales, amateur and professional, asking for information about allegations between 1970 and 2005.
Sheldon’s review said the FA was not aware that abuse had actually occurred in football prior to the summer of 1995, before Bennell had been convicted in Florida in connection with a football-related tour. The report found that the provision of child protection guidance was “not something which was happening widely within sport”.
Who are the offenders?
Barry Bennell – the former Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City coach is serving a 34-year sentence after being convicted of child sexual abuse five times. He has been convicted of sexual abuse against 22 boys in total, although it is believed more than 100 victims have come forward to say they were abused by Bennell.
George Ormond – the former Newcastle youth coach was jailed in 2002 for six years after being found guilty of abusing seven boys under 16 between 1975 and 1999. Other victims subsequently came forward and Ormond was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2018 after being found guilty of 36 counts of sexual abuse against 18 victims between 1973 and 1998.
Eddie Heath – Chelsea announced in November 2016 they were investigating allegations of sexual abuse by former chief scout Heath, who died in 1983. Evidence from 23 witnesses detailed how Heath groomed and abused young boys aged 10 to 17 in the 1970s. An external review said some adults at Chelsea must have been aware of Heath’s abuse but “turned a blind eye”. Chelsea apologised unreservedly after the review was published in 2019.
Bob Higgins – the former Southampton and Peterborough youth coach was jailed for 24 years and three months in 2019 on 45 counts of indecent assault against teenage boys. Six players alleged abuse against a former Southampton employee, who was later named as Higgins, in December 2016.
Michael ‘Kit’ Carson – the 75-year-old killed himself by crashing into a tree on the first day of his trial in 2019. He was accused of sexually abusing boys under 16, from 1978 to 2009. Carson had worked for Peterborough United, Cambridge United and Norwich City.
Frank Roper – worked as a scout in the north west of England. Roper, who died in 2005, sexually abused young footballers while recruiting players to Blackpool’s school of excellence.
Phil Edwards – former Watford physio who died in 2019 while on bail for an alleged child sex offence. Hertfordshire police were subsequently contacted by 16 people who made complaints about Edwards.
Some of the former players affected
Andy Woodward – was abused by Bennell as a junior Crewe player from the ages of 11 to 15. He told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme the abuse had a “catastrophic” impact on his life.
Chris Unsworth – the ex-Manchester City youth player was abused by Bennell from the age of nine. Unsworth told the BBC he had been “raped between 50 and 100 times”.
Steve Walters – was abused by Bennell and said it began at the age of 12 when he would stay at the former coach’s house in the town during the school holidays. He told the BBC the abuse was “absolutely petrifying”.
Paul Stewart – the former Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool player was abused by Roper daily for four years up to the age of 15. “He was threatening that he would kill my parents and my two brothers if I ever spoke out. I was just absolutely frightened,” Stewart told the BBC.
Paul Collins – played briefly for Charlton Athletic and was groomed by Heath with free boots and holidays. The trauma Collins suffered led to him quitting the game early in his career. Watch the interview here.
Gary Johnson – the ex-Chelsea player joined the club as an 11-year-old in 1970 and said he had been groomed by Heath from the age of 13. He said the club paid him a £50,000 settlement that included a confidentiality clause.
David Eatock – the former Newcastle United player told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show he had been groomed by Ormond from the ages of 18 to 21. He said he “froze” with fear during an assault in Ormond’s van.
Tony Brien – said he was abused by Langford from the age of 12 when he was playing for a local youth team Dunlop Terriers in the early 1980s – a feeder team for Leicester and Aston Villa. Former Villa managed Graham Taylor is alleged to have discouraged Brien from going public with his allegations. Taylor died in January 2017.
What about the individual football clubs?
The report said that for much of the period the review covered:
- club staff and officials were generally unaware of child protection issues;
- they were not trained in child protection issues;
- they did not identify or respond to signs of potential abuse;
- and if they were aware of the signs, they did not examine them with curiosity or suspicion.
The report said that Manchester City senior management were aware of rumours and concerns about Barry Bennell’s conduct in the early 1980s. “The club did not investigate these rumours. It should have done so. The club should also have investigated the arrangements for boys staying at Bennell’s house.”
Crewe Alexandra have reiterated that they were not aware of any sexual abuse by Bennell until 1994 when he was convicted of sexual assault, and did not receive a single complaint about sexual abuse by him.
The Sheldon report said: “It is likely that three directors of Crewe Alexandra FC discussed concerns about Bennell which hinted at his sexual interest in children. There is no evidence that the advice of a senior police officer to the club’s former chairman to keep a ‘watching brief’ on Bennell was heeded. The club should also have ensured that there were appropriate arrangements in place for boys staying overnight at Bennell’s house. The boys should have been spoken to periodically to check that they were being properly cared for. Had such steps been taken, this might have led to boys making disclosures to the club”.
Stoke City were “also aware of rumours about Bennell” during his time associated with the club in the early 1990s, said the report, and steps should have been taken to monitor his activities.
Premier League clubs Aston Villa and Leicester paid damages to five victims of Langford in March 2020. The report said Aston Villa should have reported disclosures about sexual abuse by Langford to the police when his role as a scout was terminated in July 1989.
And on Wednesday, Southampton admitted “considerable failings” and said they were “deeply sorry” to young footballers abused by Higgins.
The report found that Southampton and Peterborough FC were also aware of rumours about the inappropriate behaviour of Bob Higgins, and were aware that boys were staying at his home. “This awareness should have resulted in greater monitoring by the clubs. Had Higgins been properly monitored this might have prevented some of his abuse of young players.”
At Chelsea, in relation to Eddie Heath, the Sheldon report said steps should have been taken to protect the young player who had made a disclosure about abuse in or around 1975.
Newcastle United should have acted more quickly following disclosures of abuse by George Ormond at the youth club “Monty’s” in early 1997. Ormond was only removed from the club many months later, and after Ormond had been permitted to travel abroad with young players. The report found that despite being aware of the allegations, no additional safeguards were put in place by the club.
What are the review recommendations?
Among Sheldon’s recommendations are the introduction of safeguarding training at several levels in the game, including all players and young people as well as the FA board and senior management team. He also recommends there should be safeguarding officers employed by all Premier League and English Football League clubs.
Reaction to the Sheldon report
Julian Knight MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, said: “The failure of the FA to keep children safe is truly shocking.
“There can be no excuses for the critical delays to act or provide guidance to those working on child protection. We could be looking at the biggest safeguarding scandal in football’s history.”
Former Manchester City junior player Gary Cliffe was another survivor of Bennell’s abuse. He said the ex-coach abused him hundreds of times between the ages of 11 and 15.
Cliffe told BBC Sport this was an “absolutely monumental day” as a result of the publication of the findings.
“It matters so much because it’s impacted on my life and numerous other people’s lives,” he added. “We are hoping and looking for answers and culpability within that report.”
But Cliffe said he was disappointed with the suggestions in the report that suspicions of abuse were not acted upon.
“I don’t think he’s gone far enough,” he said.
“Throughout the whole report that I’ve read, there’s a theme that people knew or suspected, but none of the officials had the gumption to raise it with anyone – police, social services – anyone at all. It’s a theme running through it, so it’s disappointing from that respect.”
Ian Ackley was a youth player when he was abused and raped by Bennell over a four-year period. Now working as an abuse survivor support advocate for the Professional Footballers’ Association, he said it would be “naive” to believe abuse had been eradicated.
“Make sure your children are safe,” he said. “Don’t assume that just because someone has got a badge, whistle or tracksuit that they’re OK to leave your children with.”
Former England international Stewart, who was abused by Roper, told BBC News that there were “suspicions and rumours” of abuse, but they were “totally ignored”.
“It caused a lot of survivors a lot of damage as we got on through adult life,” he added. “I don’t think the report has shown how damaging the effects of abuse have been to individuals.
“We have to make sure we don’t get complacent and the abuse doesn’t happen again.”
- Football’s Darkest Secrets – a three-part series examining historic child abuse in youth football all across England between the 1970s and the 1990s, airs on BBC One, from Monday, 22 March.