The football child abuse scandal just keeps on growing

Daniel Taylor
Operation Hydrant has received reports of child abuse for every year from 2005 – the year the FA’s inquiry cuts off – through to 2016. Photograph: Alistair Berg/Getty Images

After everything that has emerged about football’s sexual-abuse scandal – including some extraordinary new details that can be reported today about the lack of co-operation from a number of high-ranking Football Association officials – it can come as a jolt to realise that the problem is not just restricted to what used to be known as the good old days.

Until now, it has widely been thought of as the property of another age. Words such as “historical” or “non-recent” have been applied and the FA certainly seemed to think as much. When the governing body announced in early-December it had commissioned an inquiry into the scandal the terms of reference made it clear it had a cut-off point “up until around 2005”.

That suddenly does not seem so clever, judging by the figures obtained by this newspaper that show 46 of the incidents reported to Operation Hydrant since November, when Andy Woodward’s interview with the Guardian set off what the FA chairman, Greg Clarke, has described as a “tidal wave,” relate to the period from 2005 to 2016. There is not one blank year and, though it can never be an exact science, it would be a mistake to believe this could not involve the sport at its highest level. The specialist police unit in charge of the investigation calculates that 23% of all the referrals (1,016 at the last count) relate to clubs from England’s top four divisions.

These are the numbers, in other words, that dismantle the theory everything goes back to the era – the 1970s and 1980s, predominantly – relating to the majority of the victims, now in their 40s and 50s, who have felt emboldened enough to talk publicly about their ordeals.

Instead, it turns out there have been 187 reported incidents of sexual assaults on junior footballers from the 20-year period beginning in 1996. Twenty-three relate to the years from 2011 onwards and, as if that is not alarming enough, it is also worth keeping in mind the true figure will be considerably higher.

For starters, this data actually goes back 10 weeks to 13 January and therefore covers only the first two months since the scandal erupted. The updated figures will be released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council later this month and it is worth getting the take of Dino Nocivelli, a specialist child-abuse lawyer, on the number of reported incidents – 83 – from 2000 onwards.

Nocivelli has worked on cases involving the Roman Catholic church, the Scout Association and various local authorities and knows from experience that it is often not until victims are in their late 30s or early 40s that they speak out. He is now representing a number of football child-abuse survivors and hopes that the age range will come down on the back of the latest scandal. Nonetheless, he says the figures since the millennium “are very likely the tip of the iceberg”.

For now, all that can really be said with certainty is that it was naive to think this scandal should be talked about only in the past tense and it leaves some awkward questions for the FA bearing in mind its decision, in 2003, to withdraw all funding from a major review of its child-protection policies.

Would football have been a safer place if that five-year research programme had not been abandoned three years early? Would it be too much of a stretch to think a completed project might even have prevented some of the more recent cases? Nocivelli, for one, thinks it is legitimate to link the two. “Questions remain as to why the FA decided to drop the review into safeguarding and whether or not children were subjected to abuse as a result of this decision.”

At the same time, it would certainly be useful to know why so many people at the FA, as well as the sport in general, were openly hostile and obstructive to the team of academics, led by Celia Brackenridge of Brunel University, who conducted the study.

An internal report, seen by this correspondent, states that only four of the 14 FA staff who were asked for interviews bothered to respond. Others, it claims, were “prevented/bullied” from not talking, in keeping with the “wall of silence” the researchers encountered from other areas of the game. “The football community was, in the main, helpful and cooperative about the research but there were also occasions where our fieldworkers faced rudeness, including from people in paid positions and/or in positions of significant authority within the FA,” Brackenridge writes in her notes. “One club official threw the researcher’s ID card back across the table at her; another refused to return numerous telephone calls and even pretended to be someone else on the telephone to avoid being interviewed.”

So, what was it that football objected to so much? And why were there people inside the FA who appear to have been as uncooperative as possible until the organisation’s then head of ethics and sports equity, Tony Pickerin, concluded in one letter – again, seen by this newspaper – that its child-protection budget for 2003 had to be “substantially reduced and the consequence of this will be a much lower level of research activity”? And is it purely just a coincidence that the FA was simultaneously trying to find the money to fund the huge costs of building the new Wembley?

Brackenridge has since made the point that the scale of progress since the 1990s has not been sufficiently acknowledged, saying some FA staff had been “exemplary” and pointing out that the research project, interviewing 189 children and a large number of coaches and administrators, had brought demonstrable improvement.

Yet her experiences at the time “left me asking myself whether some of the senior officers in the game might be simply using CP [child protection] as a kind of ethical fig leaf to cover their embarrassment at the many other problems facing the game – doping, crowd control, bungs and fixes, among others. The more the FA could trumpet their work for children, the better they could deflect attention from the uglier side of the game.”

The sport as a whole can seem hard-faced, to say the least, when it also transpires that the research team – collating information, let’s not forget, to safeguard children – encountered verbal attacks and felt like they were “seen as the police” by some of the people they contacted. One interviewee spoke of “rampant Freemasonry” within the sport. Brackenridge’s notes allude to “organisational inertia” inside the FA and, referring to a year-long delay to sign off the project, concludes that the governing body “did not know what right and left hand were doing”. At the end of the project she says she had to bring in lawyers to force the FA to settle its bills. “On the day we were due to go to court to sue them the money finally came through.” The whole thing sounds a mess.

Perhaps we will get some clarity when Clive Sheldon QC produces what the FA insists ought to be classified as an independent inquiry. Sheldon was appointed at the start of December to judge, among other things, if there had been a cover-up and whether the governing body had been guilty of institutional failures. Yet that, in turn, raises its own questions. However revered Sheldon is in his particular field, how can any inquiry truly be independent when the organisation that is being investigated is also footing the bill?

At least the FA is going through the system – no matter whether you or I agree with the exact processes – whereas it does seem strange that the Football Association of Wales, contrary to its counterparts in England and Scotland, has not thought it necessary when three out of the four police forces in Wales confirmed as long ago as December they were part of the investigation.

Almost four months in, it is perplexing, however, that Sheldon and his research team do not appear to have started interviewing the players who have attracted so much publicity about the events that shaped their lives. It was never going to be a quick process but, after all this time, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that some of the key witnesses, understandably put out, have started ringing ahead to find out, put bluntly, what the hell is going on.

On a similar theme, can you believe that Crewe Alexandra, even with their consistently unimpressive responses, do not appear to have arranged interviews with any of the relevant former players who have featured in the news during the last four months?

This, more than anything, demonstrates everything that is wrong with the process. It was 26 November – 122 days ago, to be precise – when Crewe announced they would be holding an independent review, declaring they were “determined that a thorough investigation takes place at the earliest opportunity”. Since then, Crewe have refused to say who, if anyone, is leading the inquiry. On Saturday, when pressed, a spokesperson for Crewe said: “Clubs have been advised not to investigate historical allegations at this stage,” and declined to comment further. They have not supplied a terms of reference and the extensive list of former players you might have thought would be high‑priority calls could probably be forgiven for wondering when, if ever, they will be required to help.

After all this time, their collective suspicion says a lot for what they think of the regime at Gresty Road – the consensus being, as one put it, they “gave up a long time ago”.

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