Football clubs risk being inundated with historic claims of sexual assault if a 1980s initiation ceremony known as 'The Glove' - carried out on Stoke City apprentices during Mick Mills' period managing the club - results in a financial damages case, a court has heard.
In a case which clubs the length and breadth of the country will be following, George Blackstock, now 43, claims he was held down on the changing room physio table to be submitted to a ritual in which Ralgex was smeared on a goalkeeper's glove and put up his bottom. He is suing former goalkeeper Peter Fox and the club for at least £5,000, citing “distress, pain, humiliation, injury, loss and damage.” His barrister, Aswini Weereratne, described the dressing room door being closed and the then 16-year-old “struggling and screaming while Mr Fox held the glove.” It took football's “macho culture... far too far,” she said. Mills, who captained England in the 1982 World Cup finals and later received the MBE, was accused of turning “a blind eye” to the “gloving” of several players with one form of sexual assault known as “The Finger” involving penetration of the player.
The case was heard three days after David Beckham revealed that his own initiation ceremony at Manchester United involved him having “to look at [teammate] Clayton Blackmore's calendar and do certain things.”' Gary Neville has also described in his autobiography being “stripped naked and having the whole United kit rubbed into you in dubbin with wire wool brush.”
Stoke City's barrister, Nicholas Fewtrell, who is seeking to get the case thrown out at Preston County Court, declared that a “Pandora's Box” will be opened if the judge examining it allows MR Blackstock's barrister to launch a full civil prosecution. “If one is taking the lid off Pandora's Box, it is not likely to be an isolated event,” Mr Feurtrell said. “Of course it is important to Mr Blackstock but the practice of punishments, pranks, initiations will have been common at clubs in all sorts across the working community.”
Other cases are pending. “We know that there are other potential claims in the wings and that other witnesses are set to jump on the bandwagon,” Mr Feutrell said. “And if it went on at Stoke….” He also told Judge Philip Butler that it would be wrong to apply 21st century values about footballers' behaviour to the 1980s. “Are we going to start trying to put right what was not probably perceived as wrong, 20, 30 or 40 years ago? There has been a change in social attitudes.”
The judge said it was important to differentiate between this case - in which no sexual motive is alleged - and other historic cases which have emerged about the 1980s. “This is an act which had a sexual connotation, even in 1986, but there is no sexual gratification,” the Judge said. “In the current climate there is rightly a focus on abuse - and I'm talking about Jimmy Savile,” said Mr Fox's barrister, John McNeill. “That case is a step up from this.”
The day's evidence painted a detailed picture of an alleged bullying culture at Stoke, with the club's former Wales international George Berry and midfielder Tony Kelly both named as perpetrators of abuse. Blackstock was allegedly subjected to the punishment because the tea he had made for the first team players was only luke warm. As a result, he was held down on the physio's table, while other players yelled: “Foxy, give him the glove!” Ms Weereratne also said a “bad call” when Mr Blackstock was running the line during a training session game provoked “the tea pot” ceremony - in which the pot was placed on the teenager's backside, in the first team dressing room, which was close to Mills' office at Stoke's one-time stadium, the Victoria Ground.
Earlier in the proceedings, the court heard that Mr Fox's then Stoke teammates, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould, were also in the room during the incident. There is no suggestion that either Dixon or Bould were involved in any wrongdoing.
The court heard a written statement from another apprentice, Ian Gibbons, who was 'gloved' a month after Mr Blackstock “I remember George had brought tea for some of the players and some complained it was not warm enough. The players held him down and the hot teapot was placed on his backside. Peter Fox went over to George and inserted his glove into his backside. I remember George being hysterical and crying. It was awful to witness.” This was not normal conduct, said Ms Weereratne. “1986 was not the primitive ages,” she said.
Mr Feurell told the court that the damage to Mills' reputation of the case being allowed to proceed to a full civil hearing was substantial and he argued that the lapse of 25 years since the alleged event took place made a fair trial impossible. Mr Blackstock claimed that he had not reported the alleged abuse sooner because it would have jeopardised his chances of getting a professional contract. But the court heard evidence that Mr Blackstock's career had by means deteriorated after he had left Stoke in 1986 - a year when none of the trainees were retained. The Youth Trainee Scheme logbook for 1986 showed no evidence that Mr Blackstock was unhappy, My McNeill said. The court heard that this was the third compensation that Mr Blackstock had made in the intervening years and that Mr Gibbons had said that at least another four complainants were “in it for the money.” Mr Blackstock now works as a driver and a store-man for a double-glazing firm. The case continues.