New investigation into football coach who abused ex-Sheffield United player expands

Andy Woodward previously played for Sheffield United
Andy Woodward previously played for Sheffield United

A police investigation into a football coach who sexually abused a former Sheffield United player when his victim was a child has grown as more people have come forward.

Police have been re-examining convicted paedophile Barry Bennell's activities after ex-footballer Andy Woodward waived his anonymity from an earlier trial to tell The Guardian last week about his abuse by Bennell in the 1980s while he was at Crewe Alexandra between the ages of 11 and 15.

Woodward's harrowing account prompted another former Crewe Alexandra player, Steve Walters, to tell The Guardian about his abuse by Bennell on Tuesday, before former Spurs and Liverpool star Paul Stewart told the Daily Mirror about his treatment by a different youth coach in the 1970s.

Eleven people are now understood to have come forward to Cheshire Police in relation to child sex abuse in football.

Detective Inspector Sarah Hall of Cheshire Police's public protection unit said: "As of today, Wednesday 23 November, we have now been made aware of a number of people who have come forward wishing to speak to the police.

"At this stage we are in the process of making contact with them, and to date no arrests have been made and no one else is under investigation.

"Cheshire Constabulary takes all reports of sexual offences extremely seriously and has specialist trained officers to provide advice and support.

"We urge anyone who has been a victim, no matter how long ago the incident took place, to contact police on 101."

Today's update follows an earlier statement on Monday when the police said six people had come forward with new claims.

Bennell, now 62, was a successful football coach and talent scout who worked with Crewe, Manchester City, Stoke City and several junior clubs in the North West and Midlands.

But in 1998 he was convicted of 23 offences against six boys, aged from nine to 15, and was sentenced to nine years.

He had already served a four-year sentence in the United States and, in 2015, was given a two-year sentence for sexually abusing another boy at a training camp in Macclesfield in 1980.

Woodward, who was abused by the coach when he joined Crewe's famous youth academy at the age of 11, has told Press Association Sport that Bennell had 'two or three favourites in every team and he operated for more than 20 years'.

Since his interview with The Guardian, Woodward, who briefly played for Sheffield United in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said he has been contacted by several former players who have thanked him for speaking out and shared their own stories about Bennell.

One of those was Walters, who was a year ahead of Woodward in Crewe's youth set-up but was also repeatedly abused by Bennell from the age of 12 until 14 - something he has kept secret until now.

Walters told The Guardian that "loads of boys" used to stay at Bennell's house and, like Woodward, he is very critical of Crewe's lack of care at the time and failure to properly address what happened.

"I feel massively let down by Crewe," said Walters.

"There were always rumours going round about Crewe. The club need to get their heads out of the sand, make an apology and say something properly.

"It was the worst-kept secret in football that Barry had boys staying at his house but nobody at Crewe, as far as I can tell, used to think anything of it."

Crewe's long-standing chairman John Bowler issued a statement on the club website on Tuesday to say it had launched an internal investigation into the allegations.

"When things come out of the blue like this, you first want to make inquiries and reflect from within. That is the process we started last week," said Bowler, who has been on the League Two club's board since 1980.

There are fears, however, that this scandal goes far beyond Crewe, a small club with a proud tradition of developing football talent.

Stewart told the Daily Mirror he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a different coach who threatened to kill his family if he spoke out.

Now 52, Stewart played 600 games during a long professional career that included stints with Blackpool, Manchester City and Sunderland, as well as three England caps, but said he has always struggled to cope with what happened to him as a young player.

Stewart said: "The mental scars led me into other problems with drink and drugs. I know now it was a grooming process. The level of abuse got worse and worse."

He added that Woodward's revelations about Bennell had "brought a lot of issues up for me" and said he believes his abuser also attacked other young players.

Sue Ravenlaw, head of equality and safeguarding at the Football Association, said she applauded Woodward's courage for speaking out.

She added that the FA takes all matters of safeguarding and child protection seriously and encouraged anyone who may have experienced or is experiencing abuse in football to contact the NSPCC or Childline.

An NSPCC spokesperson said the FA "has made progress" in recent years in terms of child protection but "there is more to be done in the world of sport".

"It is time for the government and sports organisations to work together to close gaps in child protection and make sure that the thousands of sports clubs across the country have robust safeguarding policies in place," the spokesperson added.