There is one story, however, from his time in prison that probably shows the arrogance of the man and the incredible hold he had over his players back in the days when Norman Rowlinson, then the chairman of Crewe Alexandra, and Ken Barnes, formerly the head scout of Manchester City, another of the clubs where Bennell had a long association, talked of him having a “Pied Piper” influence with young boys.
Bennell was serving nine years after admitting 23 specimen charges of sexual offences, including buggery, against six boys aged nine to 15. He had been arrested when he was deported to England on the back of a four-year prison sentence in Florida for raping and indecently assaulting a 13-year-old British boy while on a football tour.
One of his victims at Crewe, Andy Woodward, was raped more times than he could possibly remember, but certainly in the hundreds. How many others there were, who can really say? Andy, now 43, reckons it is potentially hundreds bearing in mind Bennell was involved in junior and professional football over three decades and described by Florida police as having “almost an insatiable appetite” for young boys. Others are already finding the strength to come forward, inspired by Andy’s immense courage, and no longer willing to suffer in silence. So many, in fact, there is the strong likelihood this story is going to run and run.
Yet it has taken many years to reach this point and, even in prison, Bennell was still finding ways to get into the heads of his players, still thinking that he could get them dancing to his tune and use them for his own means.
He started writing. Letters were sent to various players he had coached over the years. There was no explanation for what he had done, nothing to suggest any shame or contrition, just a few lines asking for a favour and reminding them that their old coach – “Benny” he used to call himself – knew how to get in touch. He wanted money, anything they could afford, for reasons he did not explain, and a few days ago I sat opposite one of the players who received one and saw, close-up, his eyes smouldering with anger. That player had felt empowered to get in touch on the back of Andy’s interview and told me how, at the age 13, he suffered his own abuse from Bennell for a year.
Andy’s own ordeal started when he was 11 and it is a constant source of wonder that he can talk about it with such eloquence and – on the surface at least – manage to keep it all together. We have been in touch for several months now and, right from the start, he has always made it clear he had to do this for his own sanity.
It has been inspiring to see how he has dealt with everything and the way, despite all the unspeakable horrors of his childhood, he can still light up a room with his nice, easy manner. The charity Enough Abuse has invited him to become one of its ambassadors and my hope is that last Wednesday, when the interview was published, was the first day of the rest of his life.
But the story-telling process hasn’t been easy, as you can imagine. Some of the more difficult passages, often relating to what Bennell directly told him, have been kept from print because of the effect it would have on others.
Andy is also extremely aware about trying to spare his own family too much hurt when they, too, have suffered immeasurably. Every single day is a struggle but the reaction to his story has shown how football and society has changed, thankfully, since the old Dispatches documentary, Soccer’s Foul Play, provided the first serious reportage of Bennell’s offending and the lack of protection within the sport.
It hasn’t been easy finding an old recording of that documentary – it was first aired on Channel 4 in January 1996 – but it certainly helped to fill in a few gaps and build a picture of how Bennell was allowed to get away with it for so long.
There was the moment the investigative reporter, Deborah Davies, approached the FA’s then director of coaching and education, Charles Hughes, outside its old headquarters in Lancaster Gate and asked whether his organisation should bring in rules to protect children. Hughes did not even break stride, marching straight past as if she did not exist.
Dario Gradi, then the Crewe manager, was interviewed saying there was never “any cause for concern” that Bennell used to have boys staying with him at weekends and over school holidays. Davies, a brilliantly tenacious reporter, seemed perplexed that this could go on and Gradi’s response certainly jarred with Rowlinson’s admission that he was worried enough about Bennell’s “magnetic attraction with boys” to ask his contacts at Manchester City if they had their own suspicions.
Bennell had run junior teams for City for seven years and Davies’s exchange with Chris Muir, one of the club’s directors, was extraordinary. “In the world of football he [Bennell] was looked upon as a fellow that wasn’t right,” Muir said. “Football is a macho game and suspicions were shown that he might have been ‘the other way’, which is very, very rare that you ever hear of that in football, it’s a macho world.” Why, he was asked, did football not do anything about those suspicions? “Football allowed him to stay because he was producing the goods,” he replied.
Nobody can watch this without getting a better understanding why Woodward, and many others, felt the sport back then was not ready to listen. Muir’s account was that there were “no firm complaints” yet Barnes, his colleague, admitted that the parents of one boy wrote a letter to the club to report Bennell for having boys in his room late at night on one trip away. City, it transpired, did not see any real cause for alarm. “What do you call them? Piddyphiles, is it?” Barnes asked, and he was actually laughing. “I’ve never come across it in sport because you’re a sportsman, it’s a macho thing, so it never enters your head.”
If we are going to be generous, they were different times and there were lots of clubs in those days operating with these attitudes. Bennell was not the stereotypical dirty old man in a long, brown mac. He wore designer labels and he had a reputation as one of the best coaches and talent-spotters in the country, helping to bring through, among others, Andy Hinchcliffe, David White and Rob Jones, all England internationals, and of course Gary Speed, a future Wales captain who was one of the boys who stayed at his house.
Bennell was also brazen beyond belief with his crimes and so likely to reoffend that the state’s attorney in Florida wrote to Fifa to point out the obvious if he resumed coaching once he arrived back in England. Fifa, according to the American authorities, never even replied.
But what of Crewe in all this? It isn’t easy to know because, quite simply, they have pulled the shutters down. I had been warned there was a “Crewe way” of dealing with the media and, sure enough, it has been a frustrating process. I did eventually manage to track down the club’s press officer, Rob Wilson, but there has been zero contact beyond that apart from a text saying he had mentioned it to the chairman, John Bowler, and there was nothing the club wanted to say.
It is a difficult, complex and emotive situation and I am not expecting the club to be grateful for the publicity. There is actually a lot of sympathy here for the many decent people connected to the club and all those supporters who presumably feel very uneasy about what has already come out and what might be next.
But to say nothing? Just try to imagine what it must be like for Bennell’s victims, and everybody else who has been affected, to see the club being so seemingly dismissive, or what they must have felt when Bowler described his MBE as recognition for Crewe’s work with academy-age children.
At the very least, would it have been too much to express some form of public sympathy and point out what lessons they had learned and what had changed? “With Dario Gradi, we’ve worked to produce an academy of which we’re very proud,” Bowler said when he was awarded the MBE in 2014. And yes, the production line of talented kids has been immense, earning Crewe a certain kudos over the years.
Yet there are so many questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. Bowler, 79, has been on the Crewe board since 1980 and was made chairman in 1987. What a cop-out, what a dereliction of duty, for the club, the directors and their media department to think this can be swatted away like a bothersome fly.
At least the FA and the Professional Footballers’ Association have tried to say the right things and, more importantly, we can be assured the sport has the right procedures in place now.
It is still a scandal, however, that it took something of this nature to prod the FA into action. Bennell also had links with Stoke City in the past, he coached children on football camps at Butlins and was prominently involved with junior teams in Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire going back to the early-1970s. He was sentenced to two years in prison in May 2015 for another historic case, this time involving a 12-year-old on a coaching course in Macclesfield. Bennell is 62 now and our information is that he is out on licence.
Andy visited him once at Wymott prison in Lancashire to try, almost out of desperation, to elicit some answers from a man who has described himself in legal proceedings as a “monster”. How he managed to summon the strength after everything he had been through is anyone’s guess. But that’s one of the things his clinical psychologist, Dr Lee Martin, says: that Andy has remarkable inner strength. He walked through the doors of Wymott because it was part of his recovery process. Bennell, the rotten bastard, gave him nothing. He would not even look him in the eye.