From Manchester United to Chelsea, how England's top clubs were dogged by child abuse

What is your favourite David Beckham goal? I ask about Beckham because most wouldn't know about Matthew Monaghan, a player from the Manchester United youth system who lasted only two months of professional football before leaving the sport for good.

Luck is something successful people, especially athletes, hate to be associated with, and for good reason. Shallow men are supposed to believe in luck, not the strong ones. It's hard work, not luck that helps them etch their success. But I will go out on a limb and say that Beckham, who went on to play for the most illustrious clubs and captained his national side, got very lucky. So did Paul Scholes, David Platt, Peter Houseman and every other player who made it big in football. Any of them could have been a victim of mental torture that could have stopped him from playing the game he is now synonymous with. It could have been any of them.

 From Manchester United to Chelsea, how Englands top clubs were dogged by child abuse

Even Premier League great Matt le Tissier (L) faced child abuse in England's football system. Reuters

In comparison with Monaghan, then, Andy Woodward should consider himself lucky he could play till 29. Granted he suffered from the odd panic attack here and there, but a talented defender at least got a taste of professional football.

"I was a kid; I trusted him, to begin with."

Hearing a 43-year-old former footballer reveal dark secrets to the public after all these years is depressing beyond belief. The storm that has followed Woodward's chilling tell-all with The Guardian has been extraordinary. For the unacquainted, Woodward revealed everything that he had kept hidden for so long – the abuse he suffered at the hands of a youth coach, Barry Bennell, while starting to play the game he loved so much at Crewe Alexandra, a club renowned in England for its excellent academy that acts as a finishing school for talented youngsters, who move on to bigger and better things.

It is hard to speak out in the football world. It took Woodward almost three decades to share this secrets, and he was doing it now because there could be "potentially hundreds" who were living with their own secrets. He lost his career as he stopped playing after the age of 29. Once, he says, he had to fake an injury because he suffered a panic attack on the pitch.

"I'm convinced there is an awful lot more to come out. I also know it will not be a total shock to some people within football that others were involved," Woodward said. He strongly suspects that there are other paedophiles in the world of football. Since his interview, the names of two men, Bob Higgins and Eddie Heath, have surfaced regularly. There are others too.

What is your favourite Matt Le Tissier goal? I ask about him, because not many would know about Steve Walters. The latter was an outrageously talented midfielder at Crewe Alexandra, who also became the youngest player to feature professionally for the club. After reading Woodward's interview, Walters too decided to come forward and narrate his tragic account of the abuse he suffered at the hands of serial paedophile Barry Bennell.

But this was a trick question for those who "feel" more when a famous personality or legend is involved. Le Tissier, the Premier League great and the man Xavi called his inspiration, also came forward and gave further weight to the matter. FA chairman Greg Clarke called this "the biggest crisis I can remember".

Le Tissier said he was given a "naked massage" by Higgins, a former youth officer at Southampton. He also said that the accusations that have surfaced recently in this matter "have not come as a big surprise". Le Tissier has been the most high-profile player to speak on the subject, and this would encourage more players who are still uncomfortable to shed their anonymity to come out in the open and speak about the trauma they had suffered. It obviously isn't easy for everyone to go public with their stories when they might not have even told the people closest to them about what had happened.

For everything Woodward has lost in his career, at least his revelations have resulted in more than 350 people coming forward to report child abuse in football.

The level of abuse and neglect that has taken place in English football, and one imagines in other countries as well, over a prolonged period of time is shocking. Transgressions have been reported from other sports too.

American football or rugby players are sadly nicknamed "wife beaters", but the epithet exists because of a reason - repeated occurrences of domestic violence and subsequent arrests among NFL players. In fact, a 2014 report shows that most of the NFL arrests - a shocking 55.4 percent - are for domestic violence. That is more than four times worse than the overall arrest rate in the league (13 percent). Moreover, relative to the income level (top one percent) and poverty rate (0 percent) of NFL players, the arrest rate for domestic violence is extraordinary, considering domestic abuse occurs more frequently in poorer households.

Chelsea's £50,000 payment to stop their former player Gary Johnson from going public about what he experienced with Heath, a scout at Stamford Bridge in the 1970s, illustrates what's wrong with the sport, and with these matters in general.

While this is despicable, sadly, it's not shocking. Why won't a club try anything to save their reputation? In the 1970s, Chelsea didn't even have a top club status. What is truly despicable is that had this happened today, more than four decades later, Chelsea and most other football clubs, nay big institutions of the world, would have still offered a player money to keep quiet rather than doing something that would ensure similar instances don't occur in the future.

Money talks and football clubs have plenty of it. But how will money erase the traumatic experience of a child? Heath is unaffected by what has happened in the last few weeks and cannot be prosecuted because he is dead. The club has since apologised, which is the least and perhaps the only thing they could do. At least they had the decency to do that. The same cannot be said about Crewe Alexandra, a club which immediately went on the defensive after Woodward spoke out.

The FA is conducting an internal investigation; the police has also been informed. This is procedural. What is required though is that football needs to put its house in order.

There is still an awful lot to come out and matters are being dealt at a professional and judicial level by those in question. While the chances of the guilty parties getting punished for their deplorable actions should be high, considering the sheer number in question, precedence makes it a scary affair and dampens our belief. The football community's silence when it truly mattered is deafening years later.

Updated Date: Dec 14, 2016 11:40:33 IST