Former players in England allege sex abuse

Three former English professional football players have come forward alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the youth coaches when they were kids.

A file photo of Paul Stewart playing for Tottenham Hotspur.   -  Archives

Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Paul Stewart and two other ex-players have come forward to allege sexual abuse at the hands of youth coaches when they were children.

Stewart, capped three times by England, said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a man who threatened to kill his family if he told anyone. The 52-year-old, who also played for Liverpool and Manchester City, joins former Crewe Alexandra players Andy Woodward and Steve Walters in speaking out about abuse they suffered.

"The mental scars led me into other problems with drink and drugs," Stewart told Wednesday's Daily Mirror. "I know now it was a grooming process. The level of abuse got worse and worse. I wanted people to know how difficult it was to come forward. It stirred up a lot of my past which I thought I had buried."

Stewart, a married father of three, said other players were also abused by the man, who was not named. Stewart was encouraged to speak out after Woodward told The Guardian he had suffered years of abuse at the hands of convicted paedophile Barry Bennell, a former youth coach at Crewe.

Bennell was jailed for nine years in 1998 after pleading guilty to sexual offences against young boys. He was imprisoned for two years in May 2015 for a historic sexual offence against a boy and has also spent time in jail in the United States.

Cheshire Police, responsible for policing the Crewe area, said 11 people had come forward saying they wanted to speak to police in the light of Woodward's interview.

Woodward told The Guardian: "My life has been ruined until the age of 43, but how many others are there? I'm talking about hundreds of children who Barry Bennell cherry-picked for various football teams and who now, as adults, might still be living with that awful fear."

Walters, who became Crewe's youngest debutant in 1988, said he had also been abused by Bennell, whose crimes are being re-investigated by Cheshire Police.

Based in northwest England and currently in England's fourth tier, Crewe has a well-established reputation for developing young players. Crewe chairman John Bowler, who was in position at the time of Bennell's offences, told the BBC the club was "distressed" by the accusations and would review the situation.

He added he was "very sorry for the distress caused" to Woodward and Walters. Woodward has been praised for speaking out by Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

"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," said an NSPCC spokesman.

England's Football Association has set up a helpline for former players to report abuse. In a joint statement, the FA, the Premier League and the Football League described Woodward's story as "heartbreaking" and praised his "immense courage".

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of British players' union the Professional Footballers' Association, said his organisation had also been contacted by victims of child abuse.

"Because of Woodward's bravery, many other ex-players and apprentices are now contacting us -- it is double figures now," Taylor told Britain's Press Association. "And that is a timely warning for everybody in football about our duty of care to these youngsters. It is up to all of us now to grasp the nettle and we make sure we learn from this."

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