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'Proper Football Men' Should Not Maintain Silence Over Child Abuse Revelations

'Proper Football Men' Should Not Maintain Silence Over Child Abuse Revelations
By Conall Cahill Updated

The circle of silence that cloaks football must be broken if the FA's investigation into child abuse within the sport is to be successful and future instances of such abuse are to be avoided.

We're all off to crash a wedding party...Goodbye!

There is a witty quip from Gary Lineker, then a chuckle from Ian Wright, then Match of the Day draws to a close for another week. But this isn't just any week. This is the week when Andy Woodward, the former Crewe Alexandra footballer, came out and spoke to The Guardian about the sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of Barry Bennell, a youth team coach at the club and a convicted paedophile. Two footballers came forward to the paper immediately following Bennell's revelations and spoke of an associate of Bennell they were aware of who had also preyed on boys.

But the whole process was still at an early stage. It was perhaps understandable, to a certain degree, that the MOTD panel didn't wish to address the story at this point. Even if there was still a willingness to joke about Wayne Rooney, and the report from the Sun the week before that carried photos of him drunk at the team hotel the evening after England played Scotland. Even if Alan Shearer and Ian Wright were allowed during the show to give their views on whether Rooney was right to do what he did.Sunday's Match of the Day 2 didn't mention Woodward's story either.

This weekend, MOTD fell at the end of a week in which several more former players have come forward and spoken about abuse they suffered at the hands of coaches - including one man who said he was abused by a coach at Newcastle United. On the front of The Guardian on Saturday the story was a former Crewe director saying the club's hierarchy were warned about Bennell but allowed him to stay on. Concerns grow about the perceived existence of a paedophile ring in football.

Some of the topics up for discussion on this week's show were: the impact of Fernando Llorente for Swansea, Crystal Palace's poor defending and whether a challenge on Burnley's Jeff Hendrick was a penalty. On the more whimsical Match of the Day 2 there was a light-hearted feature about Southampton flop Ali Dia to finish off the programme.

There was still, despite the developments, no mention of Woodward, former England player Paul Stewart (who also said he was abused) or any of the other abuse revelations. Wayne Rooney's drinking is fair cop but the abuse of young footballers isn't to be touched, it would seem, despite the fact that Danny Murphy, a guest this Saturday, played under Bennell at Crewe Alexandra and said in an interview with the 'Times' that he was "not shocked" by the revelations.

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Gary Neville is a brilliant and respected football pundit and his Twitter timeline bursts with opinion on the treatment of Rooney. But he has not once tweeted support for Woodward or his fellow victims. Ditto fellow Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher.

In fact, Neville spent part of his Sunday defending the following tweet from criticism by journalists, in a week where print journalism broke one of the most chilling scandals in the sport's blotted history:

We shouldn't hold our breath for an overwhelming response from those currently involved in the game. 'Proper football men' rarely step outside the sport's circle or break the silence on anything apart from well-trodden or safe topics.

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Recently, RTÉ aired an excellent documentary entitled Playing Straight: Reality Bites on the topic of homosexuality in football. Presenter Stephen Byrne contacted every club in the top two divisions of English football and only Alan Pardew, the Crystal Palace manager, agreed to be interviewed discussing the subject. Byrne said that "it very much felt like people (within clubs) were afraid to talk about it."

Byrne spoke to Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent of The Guardian, about the clubs' failure to adequately and publicly address football culture's repellent effect on the LGBTQ+ community. Gibson said:

When the Premier League era came in and TV companies started spending billions of pounds for television rights, wages went up and clubs themselves became these sort of mini-corporations with all the layers of PR and corporate behaviour that that would imply.

It's not a lack of awareness on behalf of these clubs but it's a lack of willingness to do overt things that will change perceptions.

In any closed-off environment that isn't open to questioning or challenge, negative behaviour and habits fester easily. You might recall we've had a few similar issues on this island.

Those involved in football have a pretty handy deal. It's a nice arrangement for them to encourage. They operate in a bubble which is mutually beneficial to all who operate within it, but it's a fickle universe to exist in. Falter and you risk being cast aside, destined to linger outside that world, a leper estranged from those still enjoying its fruits. Sam Allardyce is a 'proper football man' who was caught with his hands in the cookie jar but was partially saved from ostracisation by the number of connections he has in football and how established a figure he is.

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In April, Miguel Delaney wrote a superb piece in the Sunday Independent about football's failure to address the history of doping within the sport and evidence that it is still an ongoing issue. The wall of silence Delaney faced when he tried to ask questions was telling:

There are an overwhelming number of former and current footballers who will tell you the sport is clean, that they've never seen much evidence of doping. If that is true, however, it should be much easier to get medical and backroom employees from the game to even talk about the subject. That is emphatically not the case. Very few figures in football will go on the record about it. The 'Sunday Independent' tried to talk to a series of people, but only got the following range of excuses:

'Too complex.'

'The bosses don't want me to.'

'Too political.'

'Want to leave the issue behind.'

'Don't want to get into it.'

There is, of course, the argument that asks how footballers can comment on an issue that they might not have any personal experience of or stories about. But Richie Sadlier, formerly of Millwall and the Republic of Ireland, showed exactly how this can be done with his excellent contribution on the 'Second Captains' podcast this week. Sadlier gave an informative account of how coaches at football clubs hold in their hands the hopes and dreams not just of players, but of the players' families as well. And he made clear just how that power could possibly be used for evil purposes - as it evidently was in the case of Bennell. It was a difficult but important listen.

Sadlier is retired from football and his career as a pundit doesn't depend on maintaining trust with anyone involved in the game or staying inside football's sanctum so he perhaps feels freer than others to come out and talk about such issues. But this really should not be the case. One shouldn't have to break the umbilical cord in order to speak freely.

Rooney's manager at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, as well as rival bosses Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte were all asked for (and gave) their views on his behaviour after the Scotland game.

How refreshing and encouraging it would be if even one of them were to come out and declare their horror at the recent revelations and their hopes for a successful and open FA investigation. If one of them said that both they and their club would be fully behind any such investigation.

Because, in the face of such terrible pain and suffering, who really gives a damn if you're going to play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?

(Feature image, L-R: Andy Woodward, Steve Walters, Chris Unsworth and Jason Dunford, four of the men who have come forward to say that they were abused by Bennell)

SEE ALSO: 'I've Got So Much Anger Towards Everything That's Happened' - Sexually Abused Footballer Speaks Out


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