Exclusive: interview with former footballer Andy Woodward about his childhood abuse
Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes sits down with former footballer Andy Woodward as the sport continues to be beset by allegations of historical child abuse
Andy Woodward - Image credit: Alex Livesy/Holyrood
Last month the Scottish Parliament’s influential Health and Sport Committee claimed that children remain at risk from sex abuse because football chiefs are not doing enough to protect them.
In a hard-hitting report, the Health and Sport Committee accused the Scottish Football Association (SFA) of being “complacent” and “asleep on the job”, and demanded “urgent action” to stop paedophiles preying on vulnerable young players.
The committee launched the inquiry into child protection in sport after hundreds of allegations of historical child abuse began to emerge following the revelations late last year from former footballer, Andy Woodward, about the horrific abuse he suffered as a junior player in English youth teams.
In retrospect, why should anyone have been surprised? Football has, after all, all the right ingredients for a predatory paedophile: young boys desperate to succeed, parents willing to put their trust in an often Messianic-like figure who holds their sons’ careers in their hands and clubs that close in on themselves when compromised.
Andy Woodward is a big, ruggedly handsome bloke who as a footballer and then a policeman epitomises the classic stereotype of strong, locker-room masculinity which is, in perhaps some uncomfortable way, what made his highly-charged and emotional breakdown on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire television programme five months ago all the more shocking.
He looked completely bereft – broken – as he revealed in horrendous detail the sexual abuse that he had suffered over a six-year period as a child at the hands of a now convicted paedophile, Barry Bennell.
Woodward sobbed uncontrollably as he described how Bennell had abused, not just him, but potentially hundreds if not thousands of aspiring young footballers.
He said that he believed that Savile was nothing compared to Bennell and that there were others involved too.
Watching Woodward were many of his former team mates, three of whom joined him back on the couch on the same programme the following week to talk, for the first time, of the appalling abuse that had also happened to them.
It was the first time that they had shared the information with anyone, not least between themselves, and they spent two and a half hours in the Green Room after the show just talking through each other’s pain.
Woodward’s searing candour opened the floodgates and provided the catalyst for a process which has seen police, including Police Scotland, receive more than 1,000 referrals in a UK-wide investigation, covering 300 clubs, with more than 500 potential victims and nearly 200 suspects.
Almost every day fresh allegations are made and more unimaginable depravities revealed.
Sitting across the dining table from Woodward, in the idyllic Cheshire farmhouse which he shares with girlfriend Zelda and her four children, surrounded by the familiar clutter of family life – a supermarket shop spread out across the kitchen island, a puppy scratching to get out of the utility room and even four newly hatched chickens running about in a child’s bedroom upstairs – nothing quite prepares you for the horrors that pour from Woodward’s mouth.
His story is one of a quiet, gentle, but football-daft lad from a family of Manchester United fans who from the age of 11 until the age of 17 was repeatedly raped by his football coach, Barry Bennell.
Bennell had promised young Woodward that he could help fulfil his sporting dreams and instead, he stole his future and a part of his mind.
Bennell talent-spotted boys aged nine to 14 for local youth teams around England over three decades.
He identified the young Woodward as being talented enough to play for Crewe Alexandria’s youth team.
And for Woodward this was all he ever wanted. “I was just a kid who dreamed of being a footballer,” says Woodward.
“My mum and dad will say that I always had a football with me, was always kicking a ball around, and I saw Crewe as the start of that dream.”
Woodward’s parents had no reason to suspect Bennell of anything other than good things for their son.
He was a well-known coach, locally know as a ‘star maker’ and the clubs all knew him. What was there not to like?
They were just happy for their son and they fully embraced every opportunity Bennell offered Woodward to further his game.
Bennell would drive Woodward up and down the country to practice games and to watch matches.
He would have him stay over at his house at weekends, in the holidays and even sometimes during term because it was “easier” than taking the lad home.
And Bennell’s house was, for any kid, a treasure trove of fun. There were fruit machines, a pool table, a pet monkey and pets galore.
And it was often a house full of other boys all on a giant sleepover. There were few rules and for sports mad boys this was nirvana.
But when the abuse started, Bennell used threats and blackmail to make sure Woodward or any of his other victims complied and importantly, didn’t tell.
He would frighten them into sleeping in his room by telling lurid ghost stories or showing them graphic horror films and he’d then play hard-core porn videos or involve them in sex acts involving each other knowing that the lads would be silenced by guilt.
But his main trump card was to tell the boys that he could put an end to their dream of being a footballer at any time he liked unless they did what he craved.
Woodward says there was not a day went by when Bennell didn’t abuse him and as he tells his story, there’s something deeply disconcerting about the florid words he expresses and the lack of emotion in his eyes.
It’s often as if he is in another place, talking about someone else, doing other things.
He says that he understands now after many years of counselling that he has compartmentalised aspects of his life, buried them deep so he didn’t have to think about them.
And there is undeniably something ‘gone’ about him. Something dead.
But there were some things he couldn’t ignore and in a pattern that Bennell had practised before with other victims, when Woodward was 14, Bennell started having a relationship with his football protégé’s 16-year-old sister which, given the age difference, was initially kept from Woodward’s parents with the young boy made complicit in the ‘secret’.
Andy Woodward’s trap had just got a whole lot greater and he could see no escape from the abuse without now harming his whole family and hurting his sister.
“I was frightened to death because he had complete power over me by that stage. He would even try to abuse me sometimes with my sister in the same house.
“Later, when my mum and dad knew that he and my sister were together, he would come round for Sunday dinner, sitting with my family, laughing and joking.
“I was so frightened of him by then I just had to suffer in silence.
“How would they believe that the man sitting in their house, who was going out with their daughter, who was part of the family, was also a monster?”
Understanding the key to that silence is what all parents concerned about protecting their children from abuse want to unlock. What makes a child not tell?
“I always refer to it as the ‘dirty secret’”, says Woodward.
“I know that there’s others that had knowledge about what was happening, because we would see it happening to each other, but nobody said a word.
“No one spoke out, not even between ourselves, and I guess that’s hard to understand, but we all did it.
“For instance, there was one boy, and we’ve spoken about this since, and I knew he was suffering too because he was staying there every night, but we were on a train together once and I was probably 13 or 14 and he was 12 and our eyes met and we looked at each other and to this day, I know what he was thinking and he knew what I was thinking, but we did nothing, we said nothing.
“We’ve talked about it because he got in touch after I did the Victoria Derbyshire programme and he actually said, ‘Do you remember being on that train?’ We made eye contact to reach out to each other, but we couldn’t speak. Why?
“The guilt I have is for the younger ones that followed me, because I knew what he was going to do to them.
“I have suffered with a lot of guilt for many years knowing that potentially I could have stopped that, but then I know that somebody two or three years older than me lives with the same guilt.
“It’s that domino effect that everybody suffers with.
“I think back then it was an absolute rule that you couldn’t speak out and when you look at the age and the power and the control that they [people like Bennell] had over you, and you think of the desire you have as a child to reach a goal that they can help you with, and then you think about the guilt that you feel about it ever having happened in the first place…it’s difficult…some people have said they would have taken it to the grave and I know that some people will have done.
“I do remember my mum and dad asking me a few times if everything was OK and whether I was happy going to his house, but what was I meant to say? It felt like everything relied on me being silent.
“I think at the time when you’re that age, you’re so taken in by the control and the power that the individual has over you that you just sort of, I don’t know, how do I explain it, it’s like, it’s kind of normal?
“Paedophiles are also extremely clever. They do their homework and they check out the child and I’m very soft hearted, very sort of giving and I’ve always had a big heart – still do.
“Equally, my parents are soft people, they’re not very hard, so he identified that and with the ones that were very strong minded and very out-there ones, he wouldn’t have gone for them.
“So there was a certain element of the personality of the child as well as the personality of the parent which he identified and preyed on.”
All of that sounds very rational now, but it’s hard to imagine what Woodward was going through then or why his parents were oblivious to what was going on or even felt it was appropriate for their daughter to be seeing a man so much older than her, but he valiantly defends them, saying they had been groomed by Bennell every bit as much as he had.
Almost inexplicably, the abuse continued while Bennell was with Woodward’s sister and only stopped when Woodward himself, aged 17, realised he had a choice and simply stopped going to the coach’s house.
He also suspects Bennell had lost some interest in a boy that was now an older teen.
The dynamic is difficult to comprehend, but grooming is a complex business.
But what is even more chilling is that Bennell married Woodward’s sister and, although that partnership is now long over, Bennell becoming a part of the family acted as a constant reminder of the abuse that had wrecked Woodward’s life.
Despite everything, Woodward progressed through the football ranks and he signed for Bury in 1995.
His playing record will show that he suffered various injuries which kept him off the pitch, but he believes his issues were all mental not physical and the dark secret that had shaped his life was about to be blown apart.
Bennell was charged by police in 1994 with sexually abusing a 13-year-old British boy while on a tour to Florida, in the US.
According to a later court report in the Birmingham Mail, he was arrested after the boy returned home from the camp and told his parents. Bennell served three years in a US prison.
By this stage, one of Bennell’s other victims had reported him and various police forces had begun investigations that also involved allegations of him preying on boys in Spain, the US, youth teams across England as well as at the Butlin’s in Pwllheli.
Woodward was contacted as a previous youth player under Bennell and initially did not want to co-operate, but says that at one point “something just triggered in my mind and I had to speak out, I couldn’t let Bennell near other kids”.
Bennell was subsequently arrested by British police at Manchester Airport after he was released from prison in Florida and returned to the UK.
Under strict rules of anonymity, Woodward gave evidence at Bennell’s trial during which the judge told Bennell that he had exploited the power he had over the young boys to the point that “they were prepared to do almost anything you asked.”
Bennell was charged with 45 offences, including buggery and attempted buggery, but 22 of the charges were allowed to lie on file.
He was jailed for nine years and served half of that sentence.
In 2015, he was charged with further historic sex offences involving a 12-year-old boy in Macclesfield and jailed for two years, although he, again, served less.
When Woodward heard Bennell, now in his 60s, was out on licence, a combination of intensive counselling, his parents being ill, a man he suspected of also being a victim of Bennell’s killing himself and various issues in his personal and professional life – he had been dismissed from the police for starting a relationship with the sister of a suspect – culminated in him going public.
It has been his frank admissions that have undoubtedly enabled other victims to come forward with fresh allegations and Bennell is now in jail and facing a further trial for historic child abuse during the 1980s and 90s.
Woodward was 24 when Bennell was first jailed and initially he says he played some of the best football of his career with “the weight on my chest lifted”, but then he began to suffer crippling panic attacks.
His manager at Bury, Neil Warnock, told him he was going to Sheffield United and would be taking him with him.
Woodward suffered a major panic attack a few days later in the supermarket and thought he was going to die.
The following week, the same thing happened during a match.
“The match reports will say I pulled my hamstring, but that was just the excuse I used.
“We were midway through the first half. I went down to my knees and I just knew I had to get off the pitch.
“I went to the dressing room and started crying my eyes out, thinking my whole life was ending.”
Woodward did move to Sheffield, but had started receiving treatment for his panic attacks and this and his medication affected his weight and fitness.
He made only three league appearances for his new club before moving to Scunthorpe on loan.
He then had a short spell at Halifax and, finally, Northwich Victoria before giving up altogether and joining the police.
In total, a player that Neil Warnock rated as one of the best defenders he had ever managed made only 154 league starts in 10 years.
Bennell, the so-called ‘pied piper’ of football, promised to make Woodward a star but robbed him of his childhood and left a shell of a man who has undeniably struggled.
There is a long list of failed relationships, broken marriages and desperate and sometimes inappropriate encounters.
At times he has questioned his sexuality and then gone to extremes to prove his sexual prowess.
He has been married three times – the first at 19 because the girl was pregnant, the second to a controlling and abusive woman by whom he has four children and lastly, to a woman so much younger than himself that he says it was more like father and daughter, and he has been repeatedly unfaithful.
All of it raises further questions, but none of it takes rocket-science to work out.
In his worst moments, Woodward has considered suicide and says the only thing that has stopped him is the further devastation that he would then cause others.
It’s just five months since Woodward first spoke publicly about the abuse he endured and he admits that life remains a daily battle.
He says his relationship with Zelda is what now gives him strength, but there are times when he just disappears and she has to cope with her fears then.
But in a strange way, it is the telling of a story that he was forced to keep silent on for so long, that will be his saviour.
Having opened the floodgates, he is on a mission now to ensure that all victims of historic abuse are free to talk and crucially, he wants to shape a system of safeguards in sport that will prevent men like Bennell ever being allowed to abuse kids again.
“I’ve asked for an independent investigation into Crewe Alexandra, but I think all clubs should be investigated.
“There is culpability in terms of knowledge, certainly at Crewe, everybody knew the situation about kids staying overnight at his house and ethically and morally, no matter how you look at it, that is not right.
“I’ve also tried to think about the amount of years he was involved in football and not only youth football teams, but he also went into private schools and was involved in social care.
“So when you start to look back, and bear in mind that he was born in 1952, I think there’s over 1,000 kids like me, easily.”
Woodward also suspects Bennell colluded for a long time with at least one other paedophile who has never been detected and he hopes other victims will now feel emboldened enough to come forward.
“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 and I want to give others the hope that they can find that too.
“We were victims in a profession where we were all so desperate to succeed as footballers.
“Some of us were fortunate to experience success, others never did, but what we all shared was the same pain.
“Football is the biggest brand in the world, it’s played everywhere, in every part of the globe and that desire from a child to be a professional footballer is huge.
“Even now you see parents that are just so engrossed in their child becoming that professional footballer and the child is that focused on wanting that too and the need for that is so powerful that it gives the coach that power. Ultimate power. That’s what we need to break.”
Andy Woodward will be speaking at the Holyrood conference 'Safeguarding children from abuse: next steps for preventing abuse' on 20 June.
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