In November 2016, the former professional footballer Andy Woodward got in touch with The Guardian reporter Daniel Taylor. At the age of 43, Woodward was at last ready to share the secret, the “massive, horrible burden” that he had been carrying around for most of his life. As a young player, he had been one of the victims of Barry Bennell, the scout, coach and serial paedophile. Woodward hoped his story might encourage others to come forward. He was right. More than 800 did, implicating 340 clubs and 300 individuals.
The ensuing testimony and fallout is the basis for Daniel Gordon’s three-part documentary, which is timed to coincide with the government’s report into the scandal, published last week. (In a piece of tangential trivia, one of the executive producers is Jon Ossoff, who was recently elected to be a Democratic senator in Georgia.)
Like the HBO/Channel 4 Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland, this first film gives the interviewees space to speak at length about what they endured, shot face-on against a dark grey background. The camera rests on Paul Stewart, David White, Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and others as they recount their stories, often in tears. While many clubs were implicated, the programme says that, at Crewe Alexandra, Bennell presided over almost systematic paedophilia. The club was known for the quality of its young team, and the film claims other senior staff turned a blind eye to the rumours around Bennell.
It’s an upsetting film, for the same reason it took so long for the victims to come forward. As the archive footage reminds us, these men were playing at a more macho time. Players weren’t vegan environmentalists like Hector Bellerin or food poverty campaigners like Marcus Rashford. This was the time of Psycho and Gazza and Merse, of pints and pies and lines. Young working class boys who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties were not expected to share their feelings, especially about something like this. The abuse they endured was silently acknowledged but unspoken, assumed to be part of a Faustian pact that might one day let them play for England.
“The actual acts of what happened are something people generally don’t talk about,” says Ian Ackley, a former youth footballer and one of the most articulate of the interviewees. “It’s such a difficult, uncomfortable thing for people to hear. Part of me thinks that’s a good thing. People should be made to feel uncomfortable, to realise the devastation that this causes, the rape and pain and hurt.” Ackley has already come out to say the government’s review is “as diluted as Vimto for 2-year-olds.”
Beneath their hard surfaces, these men were traumatised by the abuse they suffered in silence all through their childhoods. Like the music and film industries, football dangles glittering prizes in front of desperately motivated children. The potential for abuse is enormous. The viewer, especially the football fan, is reminded they are part of that. We are left not with closure or relief, but a more uncomfortable question: what else don’t we know?
‘Football’s Darkest Secret’ continues on 29 March at 9pm on BBC One
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