2016 hacks its way into the history books with a two-footed tackle on trust, decency and the game
The sexual abuse scandal in English football follows war and terror, Brexit, the death of a number of sporting greats and more in a horrible year
If 2016 was a player, it would have seen the red card months ago and ushered to an early bath by a baying mob.
Let alone the deaths of some of sports’ greatest – Johan Cruyff, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali – and music stars such as Prince and David Bowie, 2016 has slain values, principles, unity, tolerance, institutions, trust, progressive liberalism and dignity with its scything, career-ending tackles.
This annus horribilis on steroids has delivered us Brexit, a Donald Trump presidency, an emboldened pugnacious Putin, bookshops and publishers emptied by goon squads and yet more war and terror in Syria, Iraq and France (among others).
There has been the Zika virus, black lives slain by cops, doping, killer earthquakes from New Zealand to Italy, more North Korean nuke tests, more drowned refugees, a failed military coup, and more woe besides.
The 15th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted that life of mankind is violent, brutish and short; the universe is an unforgiving place and the earth merely reflects the perpetual maelstrom.
But even so, 2016 has been exceptional, a freak, a monster: think a John Terry-Vinnie Jones-Stuart Pearce-Neil Ruddock-Norman ‘bite yer legs’ Hunter-Marco ‘the Matrix’ Materazzi-Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris-Terry Butcher-Roy Keane-Frankenstein coming at you, studs up and teeth gritted.
That’s 2016 in a nutshell. Even near its own death’s door, it continues to shock and unnerve.
Bubbling up from 2016’s deep well of human depravity are revelations about widespread sexual abuse of young players in professional English football.
Several former pros – David White, Andy Woodward, Steve Walters and Paul Stewart – dropped their anonymity as sexual abuse victims to speak out about their ordeals after ex-Crewe player Woodward revealed how he had been assaulted by former Crewe coach and youth football scout Barry Bennell, who was later convicted of sex offences against children.
Former Manchester City and England player White, also says Bennell – who was jailed for nine years in 1998 – abused him between 1979 and 1980 while he was playing for Whitehill FC junior team in Manchester.
Stewart, a former England international who started his career at Blackpool and also played for Manchester City and Liverpool, said an unnamed coach abused him daily for four years up to the age of 15.
In response to this horror, a hotline was set up by the FA and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
It received more than 50 calls within its first two hours, and the Professional Players Association said callers are raising concerns about children now and in the past – and it expects “many more” to come forward.
Former England and Tottenham player Stewart, who was abused by a coach for four years as a child, said there could be “hundreds” of victims of sexual abuse within the game of football.
He warned the sport could face allegations on the scale of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Savile was a popular children’s BBC TV presenter and celebrity befriended by governments and organisations during the 1970s and 1980s. He used to run marathons for charity and helped disabled children.
It was one’s industrial deception. He used his personality and trust to abuse children for decades. Some suspected his perversion but such was his stardom, he was deemed untouchable. After his death in 2011, the ugly truth a came out as hundreds of victims, now adults, braved the past and detailed the awful experiences.
The subsequent probe revealed Savile was not alone. Many people in positions of privileged authority – mostly TV presenters, DJs, politicians and other members of the establishment – were convicted of abusing children.
In an emotional interview this week, Stewart said abused players remain traumatised as adults; many covered up their pain with drink, drug and gambling addictions, and many suffered failed marriages and relationships.
There’s no denying it, a Donald Trump-inspired ‘drain football’s corporate swamp’ chant has terrace appeal
Football has long suffered from greed and corruption, testing the loyalty of supporters to the limit.
It has survived the implosion of the banks, police, celebrities, media and politicians abusing their positions of trust and power.
This weekend, every parent with children being coached, be it on junior league pitches or at top-flight academies, have good reason to demand answers and reassurances their children are safe.
It is very much hoped fears of ongoing, widespread sexual abuse in English football are unfounded, though a thorough independent investigation is urgently required because the game has never faced a charge of this magnitude.