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The Offside Trust: A force for good in ending child sex abuse in sport

  • The NQ's Nick Purdham looks into the work done by the Offside Trust charity which has been tackling the issue of historic and current sexual abuse of children in football

Former professional footballer Andy Woodward waived his right to anonymity last November, telling the Guardian about the sexual abuse he suffered as a youth player at Crewe Alexandra, at the hands of former youth team coach and scout Barry Bennell in the 1980’s. The bravery Woodward displayed in choosing to publicly share his story has inspired a number of other ex-professional footballers to come forward and talk openly about the abuse that they suffered.

The Guardian interview was the catalyst for a series of revelations which rocked British football. It soon became clear that Woodward’s tale was unfortunately not an isolated one, as 20 more former players spoke out about the abuse they suffered from more than 50 clubs across the UK being linked to claims of abuse.

According to the BBC, as of the 21st December, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said that there were 429 victims, 98% of which were males aged between four and 20 at the time of their abuse. They also stated that they have identified 155 potential suspects, with 148 clubs ‘impacted’. Clubs across all tiers of the British game were implicated in the scandal, including newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea. Former player Gary Johnson accused the London club of paying him £50,000 not to talk publicly about allegations that he was abused by former chief scout Eddie Heath in the 1970’s.    

Two of those inspired to speak out following Wodward’s heart-wrenching interview were former Crewe Alexandra Midfielder Steve Walters and former Manchester City youth player, turned professional golfer Chris Unsworth, who, alongside Andy Woodward joined together to form the Offside Trust.

An impromptu press conference was called on December 5th, 2016 at Manchester’s historic Midland Hotel, to announce the formation of the trust. Woodward, sat alongside Walters at the press conference passionately explained how the trust was fighting for justice, as well as reform. Stating, “we want to move forward, to be able to say that we can protect those children who are suffering now in all walks of life, never mind football.”

Walters also called for backing from more high-profile sports figures, saying: “we need more high profile sports people coming forward supporting this because it’s happened everywhere throughout the years. We need the bravado of football has got to stop now.”

In coming months, the Offside Trust received no shortage of endorsements from very high profile figures in sport and beyond. Liverpool legend and former England international Robbie Fowler is one of the Offside Trust’s most vocal supporter’s, saying: “The right thing to do is to safeguard the children and help our beautiful game grow. I’m delighted to support the Offside Trust, now and always.”

Five-time world snooker champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan also expressed his support for the trust, tweeting: “I support the work of the Offside Trust and hope you will too.” High-profile figures from the world of showbusiness have also been keen to get on board and voice their support. Comedian and Liverpool FC fanatic John Bishop stated: “I’m very happy to support the Offside Trust. Football is a game to bring people together and it should always be place of trust and safety.” Endorsements like these have done wonders for the profile of the Offside Trust, who have seen their Twitter page (@OffsideTrust) reach 12.1k followers in only six months.      

The Offside Trust has been met with mixed reception from the mainstream media, with The Daily Mail publishing an article entitled, “Revealed: How the Offside Trust set up by brave victims of football’s sex abuse scandal is already falling apart” in March of this year. The story focusses on the departure of founding member of the Offside Trust, Andy Woodward as a director. Woodward left the trust in February to work on a documentary with US broadcast giant HBO, and the split was thought to amicable, with Woodward set to continue as an ambassador. However, the article in the Daily Mail suggests that Woodward’s departure was not on good terms. It also goes on to talk about Prosperity Law’s split from the trust citing a ‘conflict of interest’, while questioning how the Offside Trust could ask for funding from organisations like the FA and the Premier League, when they could potentially be suing them at one point.

Manchester’s own Victoria Derbyshire on the other hand, has been very supportive of the trust since interviewing the founding members of the Offside Trust, alongside fellow ex- footballer Jason Dunford, on her show late last year. The segment received critical acclaim and won the BAFTA for best news coverage at the 2017 awards ceremony. Upon receiving her award, she dedicated it to those who had the courage to share their story on live televisions. She later took to Twitter to show her gratitude, stating that she was ‘privileged that four ex-footballers trusted us with what they had to say.’

A 2006 report entitled ‘Child Welfare in Football’, by Celia Brackenridge, who lead the FA’s Child Protection in Football Research Project, suggested that the abuse suffered by children in modern day football is often psychological, as opposed to the despicable sexual abuse suffered by Woodward, Walters and so many others. However, she discusses sexual violations in sport among young people, and attributes it largely down to the utilitarian nature of sport. “The punitive and controlling nature of the utilitarian approach to sport acts as a mask for such violations, whose perpetrators thrive on secrecy and complicity with their victim athletes.”  

Brackenridge then goes onto to explain that the utilitarian approach to sport is what makes it hard for people to speak out: “It is perhaps because of the sexually contradictory and conservative status of sport that those operating under the utilitarian regime, whether coaches or athletes, find it difficult to blow the whistle on such violations.” 

Whatever your opinion on the structure or effectiveness of the Offside Trust, it’s hard to deny that they are clearly well intentioned. In their short existence, the Offside Trust has already claimed to have spoken to over 100 survivors of abuse, many of whom had previously not disclosed their abuse to anybody. As well as supporting victims, the Offside Trust has also worked on its other aim, which is reform. The Trust claims to have met with numerous governing bodies to “develop plans to eradicate abuse in sport.” It has also met with multiple Premier League and Championship clubs to discuss and share best safeguarding practice.

Therefore, in its six-month existence, the Offside Trust has at least shown itself to be passionate and pro-active about ending abuse in sport. However, support amongst many of the sport’s biggest names has been hard to come by. In an interview with the Guardian, director and founding member Steve Walter’s expressed his shock and disappointment at the lack of support from current professionals. “Initially we just presumed we would get the support of every single player and every single club within the country, even global.” He understands that current professionals may have been initially tentative, but still appeals for more players to get behind his campaign. “We still need more modern- day footballers to support us because there are about 10 to 15 and that’s about it. It does disappoint you a little bit.”

Please support @OffsideTrust on Twitter and support them anyway you can.