Barry Bennell: the predatory Pied Piper who made stars and shattered lives
Soccer Barry Bennell: the predatory Pied Piper who made stars and shattered lives
The former Manchester City and Crewe coach exploited his status to abuse potentially hundreds of boys, employing gifts, a sheepâs head and haunted houses to subject his victims to unspeakable horrors
Andy Woodward, one of the boys lost and brutalised during Barry Bennellâs decades of preying on young footballers, can remember one story that probably helps to explain why the detectives investigating the man described as a âchild molester on an industr ial scaleâ believe the true number of victims will be incalculable.
Bennell had taken a group of Crewe Alexandra players to Florida in the summer of 1990 to help with a series of junior coaching courses. He had hired jet-skis and was out in the sea at Pensacola beach, with an 11-year-old on the back, when he fell into the water. He was climbing back on board when Craig Hignett, the first-team striker, came past on his own jet-ski and turned to spray him. Except Hignett also lost control of his machine.Manchester City âignored warningsâ and kept Barry Bennell in youth set-up Read more
Woodward, raped several hundred times during Bennellâs years as Creweâs youth-team coach, was on the beach. âI heard the crack 100 metres away. Craig had hit him full-on and suddenly it was pandemonium. I just sat there, praying Bennell would go under. Everyone was on their feet shouting: âOh my Godâ and panicking. But I didnât move a muscle. âPlease,â I thought, âlet him sink.â I knew what that man was like, I knew what he was capable of. âPlease, just let him die â" just die, please, please.ââ
Bennell had suffered a compound fracture of his femur, leaving his thigh bone protruding through the skin. He returned to England with his leg in a protective cage but even when he was convalescing it did not stop him bringing countless boys to his house, with their dreams of becoming professional footballers, and subjecting them to unspeakable horrors.
According to the latest available figures, 294 suspects had been identified since Woodwardâs interview in the Guardian in November 2016 instigated what the Football Associationâs chairman, Greg Clarke, has described as the worst scandal he can remember in the sport. A total of 839 alleged victims had come forward by late-December 2017, with 2,094 incidents reported and 334 different clubs named.
Nobody, though, was as prolific as the man who has just bee n convicted of 50 charges relating to 12 of his former players, with the youngest of his victims being eight years old. Bennell started coaching at the age of 16 and the first evidence of his offending goes back to 1972, two years later, when he was involved with Senrab FC, a junior team that had links with Chelsea, the club where he was once a young prospect and first encountered Dario Gradi, the man who later employed him at Crewe.
Now 64, Bennell coached numerous teams in Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire and had almost a quarter of a century in the industry, including seven-year associations with Manchester City and Crewe, before he was finally arrested in the US in 1994 and sent to prison for the first time. He has coached in boarding schools, Butlinâs holiday camps, Stoke Cityâs centre of excellence and lived for two years in Atlanta where he ran teams and organised tournaments. The American authorities have described him as having âa lmost an insatiable appetiteâ for young boys. Bennell has called himself a âmonsterâ and, numbers-wise, it is difficult even to contemplate the sheer scale of his offending other than to say Gary Cliffe, the first player to press charges in the case at Liverpool crown court and now a detective for Staffordshire police, is not alone when he says it will be in the hundreds.
Bennell is facing a raft of new allegations from 86 former players and there will inevitably be fears that Bennell was operating in a paedophile ring given his previous links with the late Frank Roper, another established coach who preyed on young boys. Roper, like Bennell, eluded the authorities for many years. His victims included the schoolboy Paul Stewart, a future England international, and it was part of Bennellâs grooming process to give his boys free kit from the sports shop Roper ran in Blackpool.
Yet Bennell was also the get-away driver one Sunday afternoon when two of his mates robbed Roperâs warehouse in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. The fourth person in Bennellâs green Volvo 740 turbo, with its engine running in one of the side streets near Strangeways prison, was one of the boys, aged 13, he had picked out from Manchester Cityâs junior set-up. That boy, now in his mid-40s, has given this newspaper a full account of what happened and his shock when he realised what was going on. âAll I can think is that Frank Roper had crossed him and this was Barryâs way of getting him back,â he said. Another football coach from that time can also recall a âbitter fall-outâ between the two men who previously directed boys to each otherâs teams.
What can be said for certain is that it is troubling, to say the least, that Bennell got away with it for so long and that the two clubs at the centre of this scandal are facing serious questions about what they knew, what they did about it and what they make of the victimsâ complaints that the people in charge seriously let down the boys in their system.
There were virtually always boy staying overnight, in a house that has been described as a 'childrenâs paradise'
Steve Fleetâs evidence in the Guardian shows that Bennellâs notoriety for being âdodgyâ went as far back as the late-1970s and that Cityâs youth-team coach tried to warn the club of f him. Len Davies, formerly Cityâs youth-team scout, has said âsuspicions about him were aired on many occasionâ and, in Creweâs case, there has never been an explanation why Bennell was allowed to continue taking children home when their former managing director, Hamilton Smith, has stated the club received a specific complaint about their coach being a paedophile. Several victims have renewed their calls today for the people at the top of the club to resign. The investigating detectives have been scathing about the regime at Crewe. One said: âI donât know what colour the door is but it might as well be Tardis blue because you walk through that door and youâre in another world.â
Bennell, described by Norman Rowlinson, Creweâs late chairman, as a Pied Piper figure with âa magnetic attraction with boysâ, had a spare key for Gradiâs house and would take boys there when he knew it was empty. At his own place there were virtually always boys, mostly aged 11 to 14, staying overnight, often three in a bed, in a house that has been described as a âchildrenâs paradiseâ, featuring arcade machines, a pool table, a juke box and his own mini petting zoo, including a monkey, two Pyrenean dogs, an Alsatian named after the Brazilian footballer Zico and, most bizarre of all, a puma that he walked on a lead until it clawed someone in a local Woolworths.'There will be hundreds more,' says player Bennell abused on Maine Road pitch Read more
Many of his victims suffer from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and flashbacks and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have spiralled into alcohol or drug addictions and the Guardian has learned that one, having waited 40 years before finding the strength to tell the police, died waiting to hear if charges would be pressed. Others have told this newspaper they are too emotionally damaged to come forward or feel compelled to suffer in silence no w they have children of their own and elderly parents. Every single person affected seems to have another list of former team-mates who are likely, or definite, victims. It is difficult to keep track of all the names, spanning three decades, let alone comprehend the suffering that has been caused, or the kind of guilt and regret their parents have had to endure.
Some of those parents, Fleet suspects, were swayed by Bennellâs reputation as a star-maker. âBarry Bennell was very good at finding boys, playing them in his team and offering them things to get his own way with them. He was in cahoots with Frank Roper and the kit he [Bennell] was giving to his kids was better than the kit I was giving to youth-team players at City. He bought them gifts. He paid for them to go on overnight trips.
âI could see it wasnât healthy. In fact, Iâd think: âHow can other people not see what he is?â But a lot of people are blinded by fame and fortune. The kids, of course, were young and naive. The parents were all so desperate for success and the boys were starry-eyed because of his background at Chelsea. He was a circus act, juggling with the ball, and he fascinated young people. But he fascinated their parents, too.â
Bennell was cynical, controlling and predatory but he was nothing like the stereotype of the dirty old man. O ne mother recalls her first impression being that he was âgorgeous â" bronzed, handsome, with bouncing curly hairâ. Bennell wore designer labels, drove expensive cars â" he once bought a Porsche in cash - and liked to be known as BenÃ©, insisting it was spelt with the accent because that was how PelÃ© had it.
The parents of some boys went on holiday with him and one group of mums even used to clean his house â" âto surprise him,â one recalls â" on the frequent occasions he arranged trips to Spain, the United States and countless other football tours where his real motive was to be alone with the boys.
Others parents talked about joining him in Atlanta when he moved there in the early-1990s. There was even a âFriends of Barry Bennellâ fund to raise money for his legal costs when he was first arrested in Florida in 1994, enabling him to pay a $100,000 bond. Bennell wrote to parents asking them to remortgage their houses. One boyâs grandparents gave up Â£6,000 of life savings then lost the lot when Bennell broke the conditions and was put in prison. Bennell, under orders to keep away from children, had been caught coaching, and filming, a team of under-11s in Jacksonville.
Bennell had such a hold over his victims and their parents he persuaded many of them to give him character references before the 1994 court case and, after finally admitting the offences and receiving a four-year sentence, prisoner 94-24843-9 continued to send letters asking boys he had raped and molested if they would be good enough to remember their old coach and send whatever money they could spare.
He was imprisoned for a further nine years after being extradited to England to face 45 charges in 1998 â" Bennell admitted 25 offences committed against six boys, as young as nine, and the remainder stayed on file â" and when he was released in 2004 he moved to Milton Keynes and took a new identity as Richard Jones.
Bennell bought a Pyrenean dog, Sonny, and a golden labrador, Sky, sent Facebook friend requests to several victims from an account in the name of âRichard Barryâ and signed off YouTube videos of holidays with his new girlfriend with âHappy Daysâ. He became known locally as a laptop repairs doctor and earned money on the side by burning off DVDs to sell at car-boot sales until another case from the 1980s, this time involving a 12-year-old, led to a further two-year sentence in May 2015. He served half of it before returning to Milton Keynes with a story that he had spent the previous year recovering from cancer in Cornwall. Neighbours recall one of his addresses being a âhive of childrenâ and being taken aback that a man of his age had so many different games consoles lined up in his front room. Nothing, however, was known about his past until Gary Speedâs death in 2011 brought journalists asking questions to his estate.
Bennell denied abusing the schoolboy Speed, another of the boys who used to stay at his house, but said that even if he had he would not admit it. Speedâs family have always said they do not believe he was abused. At least two other players â" Alan Davies, formerly of Manchester United, being one â" were coached by Bennell and killed themselves.
Mark Williams, another of Bennellâs boys, was the captain at Milton Keynes Dons when his old coach was released midway through his nine-year sentence. Williams, a former Northern Ireland international, had no idea Bennell was living in the town until one day, walking to his car outside the training ground, he saw a familiar figure. âI just froze. I couldnât believe he was in front of me. Heâd had an operation on his throat so he had a croaky voice and it was hard understanding everything he was saying. But I remember him saying he didnât see any of the lads any more. He told me heâd been following my career, heâd seen me âon the boxâ and that Iâd done really well for myself.
âI didnât know what to say. I was a big centre-half and I battled a lot of people in my career but in that moment all that horrendous childhood fear came back. I was 33 but it was like being 11 again. âThank you for not saying anything,â he said. I was absolutely petrified. I just wanted him gone.â
That weekend, Milton Keynes Dons were preparing for their first home game of the season. âI came in from the warm-up at 2.45pm, put on my pads and t he playersâ lounge steward knocked on the door. âThereâs a guy outside asking for a ticket,â he said. âHe says his nameâs Barry Bennell.â I couldnât believe he had actually turned up again. I went out to play and tried to block it out of my mind but I knew that if he came back one more time I would have to tell the club.â
Williams recalls Bennell being regarded as a âgodâ not just by the youngsters by also their families. âAll the mums fancied him, all the sisters fancied him, all the dads wanted to be around him. He was the star-maker, a Pied Piper figure. He had a hold over everybody.â
Not everyone was taken in, though. Fleet recalls it being âgeneral knowledgeâ in coaching circles that Bennell was not to be trusted and a number of parents have confirmed they removed boys, or would not let them join his teams, because of their own suspicions.
Ray Hinett, a former scout and coach for City, is among those who believe the club should have done more. âParents heard rumblings and went to Bennell to ask him face-to-face why people were saying it about him. âOh theyâre just jealous,â heâd say. âTheyâll put anything out about me.â He was a clever man. And if you look at it from [the chief scout] Ken Barnesâs point of view, Bennell was doing Kenâs job for him. He was finding City really good players.â
In the late-1980s Bennellâs reputation was so bad one junior lea gue in Manchester had banned him from watching games and instructed the relevant clubs to ring the police if he refused to leave. One game at Cheadle Town had to be held up while the manager, helped by one of the dads, frogmarched Bennell to his car. Bennell would often take Creweâs boys on scouting missions and arguments, even violence, became commonplace when people saw him. On one occasion he knocked out someone with an elbow to the face. Another time, he ended up exchanging punches with someone behind one of the goals. One row flared up after Bennell saw Roper and started shouting abuse. One father, siding with Roper, turned on Bennell and left him in a bloodied heap.
Bennell had been offered a job as Port Valeâs youth-team coach before his first arrest and previously worked as a care worker, with his own accommodation, at the Taxal Edge childrenâs home in Derbyshireâs peak district, giving him access to yet more children and another place to satisfy his fantasies . Taxal Edge, run by the Boys And Girlsâ Welfare Society, closed down in 2004 and has a chequered past of its own.
He was so close to joining Manchester United at one point he tried to persuade some of Cityâs more talented youngsters to switch clubs, just as he did when he moved from Crewe to Stoke, ending a letter to one of the better prospects with the words âI love youâ. Yet his visits to Unitedâs training ground, where he claimed to be close friends with âButchâ Ray Wilkins from their days at Chelsea, stopped after Alex Ferguson took over. âBarry turned up to watch a United game,â one parent with close United links recalls. âMr Ferguson noticed him: âSecurity, get that man off this property.â And credit to him.â
He got us out of the minibus and drove off. Then we had to walk down this country lane which was absolutely pitch black
In a 1989 programme column for Crewe, âThe Finding of a Playerâ, Bennel l listed some of the players he had brought through. âI believe you need to know the boy a lot more than âthe number six with the curly hairâ. Iâve been coaching for 19 years and I think Iâve gained enough experience, including seven years at Manchester City where I surfaced players such as Nicky Reid (Blackburn), Darron McDonough (Luton), John Sheridan (Leeds), Steve Kinsey (ex-Man City), Jon Hallworth and Mike Milligan (Oldham) and many more, plus of course the youngsters who are there now.â
The CV he wrote for potential employers, seen by this newspaper, also included Rob Jones (Liverpool), Roger Palmer (Oldham), Ian Butterworth (Norwich), Gary Blissett (Wimbledon), Paul Warhurst (Blackburn) and Paul Gerrard (Oldham) and boasted how he started âthe now-famous coaching School of Excellenceâ that gave Crewe a reputation for having one of the more envied youth systems in the country. âNo one would believe you,â he once told a boy he had molested. âI have had loads of players who are now professionals, who would believe you?â
David White, a future England international, was among the boys Bennell coached at City, along with Paul Lake, Andy Hinchcliffe, Steve Redmond and the Brightwell brothers. White was one of Bennellâs victims and has described him as âan adult who was prepared to play mind games with a kid â¦ a sly, scheming master of disguise whoâd become an expert in hiding his true nature behind a cloak of respectability and responsibility. People like my dad were so blinded by the lure of professional football, and so in awe of âThe Kingâ and his promises, Bennell could dupe and deceive them with ease.â
Yet Hallworth, contrary to what Bennell says, was actually taken out of Cityâs set-up because the youngsterâs father, Geoff, was so suspicious. Bennell visited their house in an attempt to talk them around but he was told to clear off. âI thought that would be the last time I ever saw him,â Geoff says. âBut we went into Stockport one afternoon and there was a gang of boys, all about 10 years old, outside one of the stores on Princes Street. Who was in the middle of them? Barry Bennell. I said to these boys: âGet away from this fellow, clear off for your own good and donât have anything more to do with him.â He looked at me but he didnât say anything.â
One of Bennellâs favourite tricks, especially on trips away, was to take the boys into woods late at night a nd deliberately frighten them. He loved to scare them and would play tapes of ghoulish noises when they were trying to sleep. On at least two occasions a team of 11-year-olds woke to find a severed sheepâs head at the end of their bunk beds.
Hallworth, eternally grateful that he was not among Bennellâs victims, remembers a 1976 trip to Barry Island. âHe took us on a minibus into the sticks in south Wales, got us out and the minibus drove off. Then he told us we had to walk down this country lane which was absolutely pitch black. âIâll see you the other side,â he said. We couldnât see anything apart from a house by the side of the road. All the windows had been knocked out and there was a fire in the front room. The house was filled with people in hoods, chanting and dancing around, like a druid ceremony. They were all dressed like the grim reaper. We were kids, scared out of our wits, and we just ran as fast as we could.â
Jason Dunford, another boy from Cityâs junior system, remembers a similar trip to Dunham Massey in Cheshire. âWe were walking down this dark country lane and Barry was telling us to link arms and stay close because âIâve got to show you this, boys, thereâs a house down here where many years ago an old man died and every now and then, if weâre in touch with the spirits, they come outâ. I donât know who he had in there but when we got to the house the light flickered on and this silhouette appeared. We were terrified.â
Bennellâs thinking was that if the boys were scared there was more chance of them agreeing to share his bed and cuddle up rather than being alone. Another trick was for him to turn the lights off and put on the horror and snuff films he kept under the floorboards of his video shop. âEverything was calculated,â Dunford says. ââIt scared me as well,â heâd say. Then heâd pick out the lads he wanted. âI tell you what guys, come upstairs and you can sleep with me if you like.ââ
Bennell had a sinister hand game with the children called âfollow meâ and would sometimes put a pillow over their faces when he was raping them. He made boys style their hair to his liking and even when they were asleep they were not safe. Bennell often sneaked in to abuse them in the dead of night.
On one trip to Orlando he smuggled a .357 Magnum revolver back to England in the suitcase of a 13-year-old from Crewe
âThe child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ... did it with cherry pie and lollipops,â prosecutors at his trial said, adding that Bennell was âa child molester on an industrial scaleâ. One victim described himself as âjust a bus that came along, he wasnât pickyâ. Quizzed about his crimes as part of the biggest operation of its kind ever undertaken by Cheshire police, Bennell said: âI wish I could have sex for two to three hours ... I last two or three minutes.â
He co uld also be sadistic and reckless in other ways. On one trip to Orlando he smuggled a .357 Magnum revolver back to England in the suitcase of one of the 13-year-olds from Crewe he has just been convicted of molesting. Bennell told his players he had been stabbed when he was younger, showing them a scar on his back. He was a martial arts expert and regularly let them know he was capable of inflicting hurt. Boys would be ordered to line up while he threw ninja stars against the wall by their heads. At other times they would be made to hold out a piece of paper while he split it into two with nunchucks.
Creweâs youngsters had an annual trip to Blackpool and on one occasion he tried to persuade one of the boys to share his bed. The boy refused and, as punishment, Bennell woke the entire team at 6am and made them run through sand dunes for two hours, with no water or breakfast, until many of them were physically sick. Bennell told them his minibus would be waiting outside Blackp ool tower, at the other end of the seafront, but if they did not run there in a certain time it would drive away. When they arrived, exhausted and bewildered, he had gone and they had to walk, or hitch-hike, the five miles back to their hotel, still wearing their kit.
Other players remember the trips to Butlinâs in Pwllheli when he would take them on to rocks, either in groups or alone, and let huge waves crash over them until they were âcrying in fearâ, terrified they were going to be washed away.
Then there is the story Steve Walters, the youngest player in Creweâs history, tells of the time the clubâs youth team lost at Manchester United and on the way home Bennell dumped everyone at Beeston Castle, 15 miles away. âHe told us to run round the castle three or four times and then he pointed us one way and said: âHomeâs that way, you can make your own way back.â Except heâd pointed us towards Chester. It took us eight or nine hours to get back to Cr ewe. We were kids and we didnât have phones or anything in those days to show us the route. In the end, we had to hitch-hike.â
That incident became the subject of conversation between a number of concerned first-team players but there is no evidence of Crewe doing anything to discipline their coach. One mother has since said she wrote, anonymously, to Gradi to complain that on one trip the boys were told there not enough beds and someone would have to share with a member of staff.
Hamilton Smithâs account is damaging in the extreme given he was previously the clubâs managing director â" âIâm incredibly angry the club continue to refute that they knew anything about suspicions of Bennellâs activities,â he told the Guardian in November â" and there is a specific allegation from a number of victims that the club should have recognised Bennell was a serious risk anyway. All of them remember the club being filled with rumour and innuendo. Bennellâs reputation was such opposition players and fans â" sometimes even the managers in the case of Harry McNally, for example, at Chester City â" were often known to shout abuse.
Rowlinson was concerned enough to contact Manchester City and ask what they knew but C rewe, the Guardian have learned, actually paid Bennell extra for arranging the stopovers. A copy of Bennellâs expenses, seen by this newspaper, claims Â£5 a night per boy as well other payments for trips to London, Norwich, Plymouth, Wales and Scotland. âIt is a rough guess but I accommodate 3/4 boys every weekend,â Bennell writes. Often, it was more. Bennell says he had bunk beds and sleeping space, including a caravan in the garden, to accommodate 11 children.
All of which probably explains why on that summer day in 1990 one of the boys who had endured years of his own abuse sat alone on Pensacola beach and silently prayed that the helicopter that had come to pull Bennell out of the sea did not get there on time. Bennell had continued abusing the teenage Woodward even after he started dating his sister, Lynda, and married her the following year.
âI had to visit him in hospital that night,â Woodward says of that sea rescue. âI didnât feel any emotion â" just sadness, I suppose, that heâd been wearing a lifejacket that stopped him from drowning. I was 17 and he had moved on to younger boys, like a conveyor belt. I knew what would happen when he was back. I knew there were so many other kids who would have to suffer like I did.â
Two of Bennellâs victims were later diagnosed with a blood condition that can be brought about by sexual contact. Bennell claimed at one point he had studied child psychology. Boys who turned him down were dropped from the team â" ostracised, bullied and told they were in danger of losing their dream and letting down their families. None of his victims came forward for years out of shame, fear and embarrassment and, in many cases, because they thought it would ruin their chances of becoming footballers. Then a 13-year-old boy, terrified he might have Aids, told his parents what had happened to him on a trip to Florida and, finally, Bennellâs luck ran out.
He was the Â£18,000-a-year hea d coach of Stone Dominoes, a Staffordshire youth team, at the time â" in tandem with his work with Stokeâs under-13s â" and the clubâs former chairman Bob Bowers has described Bennellâs time in football as âthe con-job of all con-jobsâ. Bennell, the Guardian has learned, has subsequently said he had to leave Crewe because a complaint had been made against him. Yet Bowers remembers Crewe supplied a reference for their former employee and this, perhaps, sums up a story that shames the entire sport. That reference, he says, came back âsqueaky cleanâ.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
The NSPCCâs football abuse helpline can be called 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.
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