Former Manchester City and Crewe youth coach, Barry Bennell has been charged with eight offences of sexual assault against a boy aged under 14.
By Dave Bowler
The inevitable anointing of Gareth Southgate was confirmed earlier today, given a four year deal that is the very definition of the triumph of hope over experience.
Should he reach a point where he is still in command of England heading into qualification for Qatar 2022, then he will have got through two tournaments unscathed, which would make him something of a magician given the materials currently at his disposal.
The man willing to put himself up for vilification, caricature, being turned into a turnip, having any foible seized upon and then, eventually, being burnt in effigy in the streets of London town seems an eminently decent fella. And in that, there may be as much of the reasoning behind his appointment as anything for if ever the Football Association needed to find a safe pair of squeaky clean hands, this is the moment.
They don’t need any kind of Allardyce-style distractions or worse in the coming months and years for the English game is on the brink of a crisis far greater than anything it has seen since the dark days of the 1980s and the very different tragedies of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough. Indeed, it is facing a catastrophe that might yet take the game to its lowest ever ebb.
With a number of footballers having come forward publicly to talk of the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of coaches as youngsters in the game. And with many more having contacted the police, the FA and the Professional Footballers Association, we are heading into uncharted waters in sporting terms.
The centre of it all, at present, is a former Manchester City and Crewe youth coach, Barry Bennell, who has subsequently been charged with eight offences of sexual assault against a boy aged under 14. Given that is now going through the courts, further comment is inappropriate but whatever the ultimate verdict there, it seems that these allegations have opened Pandora’s Box as far as football goes.
Just as was the case with the revelations of child sexual abuse in the entertainment world after the DJ Jimmy Savile’s death, it is rapidly becoming clear that we are unlikely to be dealing with a single rogue predator, but rather that football has been a hiding place where a number of individuals have been able to act with seeming impunity.
It may be that these issues are going to be found to be largely historic – football clubs seem to be far more diligent about implementing stringent child protection policies these days, not just among their young players but to cover supporters and young employees too – but it is beginning to look as if there might be a tsunami of historic cases ahead of us.
As the game’s governing body, ultimately it is with the Football Association that the buck will stop and many questions are going to be asked about just what they were doing to protect young children in the past – and present for that matter – as they invited them to play the national game. What checks, if any, were done into the backgrounds of these coaches, what safeguarding procedures were in place, how was behaviour monitored, what did they do to ensure that children weren’t put at risk?
The FA have acted quickly to institute an independent review and chairman Greg Clarke has insisted that it means just that – independent. He’s shrewd enough to realise that what is coming is going to be anything but pretty and that the FA, along with the game in general, is going to sustain huge reputational, as well as financial damage.
But what Clarke has to do is draw a line between now and then. Firstly, he has to ensure there is the most robust investigation into current practices and that, if they are failing, they must be replaced and improved, whatever the cost. What’s gone is gone, but there can be no excuse for failing now and in the future. Do that and at least the FA takes a step in the right direction.
Beyond that, he must ensure that the FA uses all of its powers to shine a light into every nook and cranny of the past. There must be no cover up and any perpetrator who played any role in this scandal, as abuser or facilitator, is rooted out and the appropriate action taken. The FA must be contrite for its part in the failings of the past, it must compensate where appropriate but above all, it must send out the clearest possible message that it will not happen again.
What they must understand is that this is unlike anything that has happened before. The game is forever mired in scandal it seems, but this is different. This cuts to the deepest fears of every decent person in the land. There can be no equivocation on this.
Justice must be done, must be seen to be done, the game must be cleaned up and to do that, the Football Association has got to grab hold of the high moral ground and prove it is fit to lead the game in the future where in the past, it clearly was not.