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By Tony Attwood
The story of young players being abused is one that you might think was a thing of the past. Culprits were found, action taken. But for the past year Untold has been looking into the way football clubs recruit and then deal with youngsters from the age of six upward, and it is not a good story.
Meanwhile the Mirror – not known for this sort of investigative reporting – has also been on the case, and recently led an article with the line, “Some of football’s most notorious abusers were allowed to continue working in the game after receiving convictions – with many victims failing to receive compensation.”
Now at the heart of their reporting is the conclusion that, “Some players targeted by the worst offenders – including Blackpool scout Frank Roper and former Crewe Alexandra coach Barry Bennell – were unable to prove that clubs were liable. Victims of Blackpool FC scout Roper, now dead, lost a legal ‘test case’.”
We wondered how on earth this could be, but a recent case relating to the early injury a young player suffered from gave some insight. In that case a young player was seriously injured early on, and it appears that the club did not give him the treatment it should (possibly because clubs are awash with young talent and so simply move on to the next youngster in the line).
However when such cases are pursued by the player or a parent, club fight back, for they do not want any suggestion that they are liable for the well being of a child while the child is at the club. And in this regard they are helped by the lack of one regulation: the need to keep duplicate records of what happened to that child, and enormous fines and other punishments if those records go “missing”.
So let’s think of a regular child who gets injured in training but is still played by a youth team manager, thus making the injury far worse. The child does not get the proper treatment, and eventually has to stop playing, living the rest of his life in pain.
In such a case one might imagine that the club is obviously liable – it has neglected its duty of care to the child so the child’s parents seek compensation for that life-long injury, and maybe for loss of earnings given the child’s potential.
At this point the child’s medical records become a vital piece of evidence, and this is where it all gets a bit spooky, because it turns out there is no regulation saying (for example) that a copy of the medical report must be filed with the FA, with mega fines for not so doing.
Imagine a youngster who is injured, dismissed by the club, and then living in pain. The player later takes action against the club and… the medical records are missing.
That’s the end for it turns out the clubs are not even guilty of the crime of failing to keep proper records. The youngster, left with a life of pain gets nothing.
And yet all that is needed is for there to be a regulation that duplicate records must be filed with a third party, and a copy given to the parents, and that failing to do so is a very serious offence. But no, that regulation is not there.
So just a compensation has been hard to come by in the child sex abuse cases, so it is in cases of injuries to young players which are not properly treated. If an abused person or the parent of an injured child goes to court they are up against the whole of the football system, and clubs will bring in the very top lawyers to see off any chance of them winning.
And there we have the problem: there should be an independent regulator standing up for the rights of the abused, and those injured through not being treated properly. But there is not. Parents and individuals who attempt to bring cases on their own can be left with bills running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Of course not all clubs deny all responsibility for the action of their employees either in terms of sexual abuse, or the mistreatment of injuries, and we must acknowledged that Chelsea paid compensation to the victims of their scout Eddie Heath. But that is rare; the norm seems to be to fight the case and admit nothing.
Now whether it is child sex abuse, or simply failing to give the child proper medical attention subsequent to an on-pitch injury, if a claim is to be made the question is, “who is responsible?” Many will claim, and it seems reasonable to me, that the FA and the clubs are responsible for safeguarding children and professional players, that they should be held liable, and that there should be systems of record-keeping maintained which do not allow clubs simply to claim that they have “lost the records”.
But simple though that sounds, the fact is that there are holes in the system at every level. There is no central registry of the injuries young players get, how they are treated and to ensure they are not trained and played when they should be rested. Likewise, it appears that there is ‘no formal mechanism’ (as the Mirror put it) for clubs to obtain details of the criminal record of any of their employees.
There is no central body that oversees what happens to children at football clubs, whether in terms of sexual abuse, or the failure of a club to treat a child’s injuries properly. Court cases against clubs can fail, simply because the clubs have the money to run rings round parents who can’t afford the risk of losing.
By and large, the media treats child sex abuse cases as part of the past, and has never once taken up a case of “loss of records” and the failure of clubs to protect children from injuries. Some clubs behave properly, many don’t, and the FA which ought to be proactive in all of these matters seems to do nothing.
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