Sex abuse victims in football ‘could number hundreds’

Media captionPaul Stewart says he hopes that by telling his story, others will come forward too

“Hundreds” of children may have been sexually abused by figures within football, former England and Tottenham player Paul Stewart has told the BBC.

Mr Stewart, who says he was abused by a coach for four years as a child, said the sport could face allegations on the scale of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

It comes as the NSPCC said more than 50 people had rung an abuse helpline within two hours of it being set up.

It was launched after four footballers spoke about being abused as children.

Former Crewe players Andy Woodward and Steve Walters, ex-Manchester City player David White, as well as Mr Stewart have all spoken out about abuse in the game.

The Football Association is meeting Mr Woodward on Thursday, to discuss the allegations.

Easy access

Mr Stewart, 52, a former England international who started his career at Blackpool and also played for Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool, first told the Daily Mirror an unnamed coach abused him daily for four years up to the age of 15.

In an emotional interview with BBC sports editor Dan Roan, Mr Stewart said he believed there were “hundreds of victims” of sexual abuse who could come forward.

He said he finally escaped his alleged abuser at the age of 15, signing for Blackpool, where he made his professional debut at 17.

Asked if he feared the allegations football is facing could be as big as the Savile scandal, he told the BBC: “Yes, I do, for sure. I would almost guarantee it as long as the victims are willing to come forward.”

Mr Stewart revealed the heartache of having to show his family the Mirror story before it was published, saying he had been unable to show his son and two daughters in person.

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Mr Stewart, pictured during his time at Tottenham

He added: “This has not been easy for me to do.

“But I felt that I needed to do this so other people will come out and with the hope that it may stop anyone who may be thinking of doing it again, in any walk of life – not just football.”

He added: “The access to children at sport level is very easy and it is the perfect ground for them to prey.”

Sports minister Tracey Crouch said the former players had shown “incredible bravery” to speak about the abuse.

Shadow sports minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan warned the scandal could “seriously damage” UK football’s reputation.

The NSPCC said callers to the abuse hotline had raised concerns about children now and in the past, and it expected “many more” to come forward.

Information from 20 callers would be passed to police, the children’s charity said.

‘Courage and dignity’

Allegations of abuse within football surfaced last week, when ex-Crewe player Mr Woodward, 43, spoke publicly about his abuse by former Crewe coach and youth football scout Barry Bennell.

Bennell was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998 after admitting sexual offences against six boys.

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Barry Bennell was a youth coach at Crewe in the 1980s and 1990s

Cheshire Police said 11 people had since come forward, including fellow ex-Crewe player Mr Walters, 44, who says he was also a victim of Bennell.

Former Manchester City and England player Mr White, 49, also says Bennell abused him between 1979 and 1980 while he was playing for Whitehill FC junior team in Manchester.

So far, Greater Manchester Police has not received any official reports of abuse but, in a statement, it said any victim should have confidence that their officers would treat complaints seriously and thoroughly investigate them.

‘No one knew’

Crewe’s director of football Dario Gradi, who has been associated with the club for more than 30 years, released his own statement saying he knew nothing about Bennell’s abuse of young footballers until his arrest in the US in 1994.

“I knew nothing of his crimes before this time when he was employed by us,” said Mr Gradi, who managed the club from 1983 to 2007 and for short spells afterwards.

“No one at the football club knew of Bennell’s crimes until his arrest in 1994 and his subsequent prosecution in the UK.”

He said he would make no further comment until Crewe club had carried out a review.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) said it expected the number of people coming forward to rise.

Former FA chief executive, Mark Palios, told the BBC he was not surprised by the allegations.

He said it would be “naive” to suggest abuse has not gone on within the game.

“It’s an issue like racism – you can’t be complacent that you’ve actually dealt with it. But I’m pretty certain that the position today is far better than it was 20 to 30 years ago when it was pretty much un-regulated.”

The FA’s head of equality and safeguarding, Sue Ravenlaw, said the “courage and dignity” shown by the four footballers who have spoken out was “immense”.

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