The Football Association and its clubs should have faced sanctions over the use of feeder teams where paedophiles operated, according to abuse survivor Ian Ackley.
The Sheldon report, published exactly six months ago, looked at historical sexual abuse within professional and grassroots English football between 1970 and 2005.
It noted that child abusers like Barry Bennell and Ted Langford were working for feeder teams that had links to professional clubs like Manchester City, Aston Villa and Leicester.
Sheldon said that gave the abusers “the cloak of respectability and credibility…to gain access to boys and lull the boys and their parents into a sense of security”.
These feeder clubs appeared to be in breach of FA rules at the time, which prohibited professional clubs from having any association with boys under the age of 14.
Ackley, who was raped hundreds of times by Bennell, now runs a survivor support advocate service overseen by the Professional Footballers’ Association and funded jointly by the PFA and the FA.
He says the lack of consequences for the clubs or for the FA at any stage highlights the need for an independent, Government-funded body to police safeguarding within sports governing bodies.
“(Feeder clubs) happened all the way through the ’70s and the ’80s, which allowed myself and hundreds, if not thousands, of other young boys to be exposed to potential abuse,” he told the PA news agency.
“As far as I’m aware, UEFA never sanctioned the FA for that, and to take it a step further FIFA has never sanctioned UEFA for never sanctioning the FA.
“The FA has never sanctioned any of its clubs for any of the abuse that happened to any of us.”
Sheldon Report: The key points
- Four-year review published into child sexual abuse in football between 1970 and 2005
- Evidence from 62 survivors and 157 further individuals
- Clive Sheldon QC: “Survivors deserve to be listened to, and their suffering deserves to be properly recognised”
- Sheldon: “It is important that this terrible history is not repeated”
- FA “did not act appropriately” following Barry Bennell’s release from prison in 2003
- Historical failures identified involving Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra, Stoke, Peterborough, and Southampton
- By August 2020, Operation Hydrant had identified 240 suspects and 692 survivors
- Sheldon: “I do not want to give the impression that abuse in football was commonplace. It was not”
- Report makes 13 recommendations, including publishing safeguarding report every year
It is understood the FA’s approach is not to take disciplinary action against how matters were handled by clubs at the time, where this does not currently mean there is a risk of harm to children in football.
Ackley recalled he had been banned for six months by the FA at the age of 16 for using foul and abusive language, just as he was about to sign an apprenticeship with Manchester United.
“In my opinion I was given a disproportionate ban that arguably affected my football professional football career beyond what we could possibly even quote, yet the FA aren’t held accountable for a predatory paedophile abusing me for three and a half years. There’s nothing for them,” he said.
In March, Ackley criticised the failure of the Sheldon report to call for an independent watchdog and said its recommendations were “as dilute as Vimto”.
Six months on, he said: “I would argue there’s even more reason for governments to start imposing quite strict governance rules around these large (sporting) institutions, particularly when they’ve already been found guilty, through their own inquiries, of failing massively institutionally over a long period of time.”
Sheldon’s report found the FA guilty of inexcusable institutional failing after it did not introduce improved safeguarding measures in the period between autumn 1995 and spring 2000.
One of the report’s 13 recommendations was the appointment of full-time safeguarding officers in the top two divisions and part-time safeguarding officers in the two divisions below that, but Ackley believes young footballers lower down the pyramid have been left vulnerable.
“That recommendation is quite shocking,” he said.
“How anybody from a social care background can say the less there is structure, organisation and funding, the less safety you need to put into it. Surely it’s the opposite?
“That’s where the inquiry really failed, and let down football. Elite football is one per cent, or four per cent, of what we play in the country. If that inquiry is only designed to protect elite football and elite footballers then we’re failing 99 or 96 per cent of our football population. That to me is quite frightening.”
Ackley believes the money generated by the professional game should underpin better safeguarding at grassroots level, and a better civil redress system for survivors of abuse.
“I just think it’s about time we woke up to the fact that there is another side to elite football,” he said.
“I’m not saying it is the devil incarnate. I’m not saying it’s a terrible thing. But I think there should be an acknowledgment of what it has gained. And there should be a proportionate alignment of investment into the stuff where things have not gone so well.
“What we need to do next is financially underpin redress services, where there’s a need, and put more money into education and awareness and prevention at the lower tiers of football, so we can try and push those predatory people out of the beautiful game.”
An FA spokesperson said: “Our safeguarding work continuously evolves, and we’re fully committed to ensuring the culture of the modern game has safeguarding at its heart.
“Our policies, standards, training, checks and procedures for managing referrals and concerns, alongside the independent assessments of all Premier League clubs, EFL clubs and County FAs, have consistently received a high level of confidence from the NSPCC Child Protection in Sport Unit.
“The standards and assessments of Premier League, EFL, County FA safeguarding practice sits alongside the safeguarding requirements of, and guidance provided to all affiliated clubs and organisations.
“As part of the Safeguarding 365 Standard, the County FAs monitor grassroots clubs against the safeguarding requirements, provide support and guidance to club welfare officers, including in the management of low level concerns. We are committed to continuing to work with football stakeholders, our survivor group and external safeguarding expertise to ensure we always meet the highest standards.”
For further information about child abuse, sexual abuse, or exploitation, for either you or someone close to you, please see the list of organisations listed in the child abuse section on Sky’s Viewer Support page.