Ex-Sheffield United player reveals horrific abuse at hands of paedophile football coach

Andy Woodward
Andy Woodward

A former Sheffield United player has spoken out about the horrendous abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of a paedophile football coach.

In an interview with the Guardian, Andy Woodward, who briefly played for Sheffield United in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has opened up for the first time about the 'massive, horrible burden' that he has carried throughout his life.

Woodward said he had confided in former Blades manager Neil Warnock about what had happened to him but had felt unable to tell teammates.

Woodward, now aged 43, first came to the attention of coach, scout and serial paedophile Barry Bennell when he was 11 years old.

Bennell was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998 after admitting 23 specimen charges of sexual offences against six boys aged nine to 15.

Woodward, who was among Bennell's victims at Crewe Alexandra, said he fears there may be many other victims in the professional and amateur game.

He told the paper: "My life has been ruined until the age of 43.

"But how many others are there? I’m talking about hundreds of children who Barry Bennell cherry-picked for various football teams and who now, as adults, might still be living with that awful fear.

“We’ve seen with the Jimmy Savile case how people have had the courage, yet I’d say within the football world it’s even harder to speak out. Only now, at the age of 43, I feel I can actually live without that secret and that massive, horrible burden. I want to get it out and give other people an opportunity to do the same. I want to give people strength. I survived it. I lost my career, which was a massive thing for me, but I’m still here. I came through the other side. Other people can have that strength.”

Woodward said Bennell arranged for him to stay at his house on the edge of the Peak District and used intimidation to stop him speaking out.

“What he’d do sometimes, to show the fear factor and make sure I never told anyone, was get out some nunchucks,” he said.

“He was a master with them. He’d tell me to hold out a piece of paper. I’d be physically shaking. Then he’d hit it with enough force to split it in half and make a little comment: ‘You see what I can do, you see how powerful I am?’

“It was either threats of violence or he’d use football to manipulate control. If I upset him in any way, he’d drop me from the team. ‘At any point,’ he’d tell me, ‘you will go, you will disappear and that dream won’t happen.’ It was emotional blackmail, all the time.”

When Woodward was 14, Bennell started having a relationship with his victim's 16-year-old sister.

He said: “He was so much older he didn’t want people to know at first and told me I would never play football again if I breathed a word of it.

"I was frightened to death because he had complete power over me by that stage. It was like a double whammy and he would try to abuse me sometimes even with my sister in the same house. Later, when their relationship became public, he would come round for Sunday dinner every weekend, sitting with my mum and dad and my family, laughing and joking. I was so frightened of him I just had to suffer in silence.”

Bennell later married his sister, becoming Woodward's brother-in-law.

He said: "I had to live with that on top of everything else.

"I had to attend that wedding, standing in the church when I really wanted to rip his throat out. It was torture – that’s the only word to describe it.”

After playing for Crewe, Woodward signed for Bury in 1995, where he told manager Stan Ternant what had happened to him.

A police investigation began after another victim reported Bennell and Woodward was 24 when his abuser was finally jailed.

He said: “For the next two seasons I played some of the best football of my career. Maybe I felt I had got it off my chest and I could finally get on with my life. I was kidding myself but for a while I had loads of positive energy. Neil Warnock had taken over as manager and in November 1999 he told me he was going to Sheffield United. ‘I’m going to take you and [the goalkeeper] Paddy Kenny,’ he said, ‘you’re the only ones I want, my best two players.’

"It was a chance for me to play for a bigger club, even though I loved it at Bury. I went shopping at Tesco that Sunday night and – boom – I don’t know what hit me. I genuinely thought I was going to collapse and die. My heart was racing. All the adrenaline had rushed to my head. I managed to get home, called an ambulance and went to hospital and they explained it was a panic attack.”

He said he had another panic attack during a game the following week and confided in Warnock but not his teammates.

Woodward said: "In 2016, at least people have an understanding of anxiety and panic attacks. Back then, I suffered in silence. That was the way football was – and it was horrendous.”

He did move to Sheffield United but made only three appearances for the club before moving to Scunthorpe on loan. His career ended at the age of 29 after short spells at Halifax and Northwich Victoria.

Woodward said he had contemplated suicide several times.

He said: "I’ve parked in my garage with a pipe. I’ve been to woods with a rope. I’ve had tablets, ready to go. I took it to the point where I couldn’t be here any more. I’ve been there, physically, and it frightened the life out of me. People talk about it being for attention or a cry for help but I can say, categorically, mine was because I didn’t know how I could live. The only thing that ever stopped me was knowing the devastation it would cause others.”

Bennell, now 62, was jailed for two years in May 2015 for another historic case involving a 12-year-old boy in Macclesfield.

Woodward said he believes Bennell colluded with at least one other paedophile who has never been detected and has spoken publicly about his experiences in an attempt to get other victims to come forward.

He said: "I’m convinced there is an awful lot more to come out. I also know this will not be a total shock to some people within football that others were involved. This has taken an immense amount of strength and courage but I need closure. I can finally have a voice and I want to give others a belief. We were victims in a profession where we were all so desperate to succeed as footballers. Some of us were fortunate to experience that, yet others weren’t. We all suffered the same pain.”

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