“People have said to me they would have taken this to their grave and not spoken out. You release that massive weight and that box locked inside your head.”
The former Halifax Town and Sheffield United footballer Andy Woodward is speaking three months after his own heartbreaking revelations sparked a major police investigation into historic abuse at amateur and professional levels within the game.
The decision to speak out about the abuse he suffered as a youth player was not an easy one, but as he’s watched as hundreds more victims have come forward and as a national scandal has been uncovered he knows it was the right one.
The National Police Chiefs Council revealed last month it has now received more than 1,000 referrals from police forces across the country and a dedicated NSPCC hotline set up following Woodward’s revelations in November. They currently have 184 suspects and 526 potential victims, some of whom were aged as young as four when they were targeted for abuse. Police forces across Yorkshire have confirmed they are investigating allegations in their areas, but have refused to reveal how many clubs, potential suspects or victims are involved.
“I think nationally it is a lot bigger than the Jimmy Savile situation,” Woodward says. The 43-year-old, who now lives in Cheshire, was abused as a trainee at Crewe. He went on to play for Bury, Sheffield United, Scunthorpe and Halifax but ended his career prematurely at the age of 29 after struggling to come to terms with what had happened to him as a child.
Woodward became a police officer after his football career had ended but says he struggled with a job which often involved dealing with abuse cases similar to what he had experienced. He was dismissed in November after a disciplinary tribunal for having a relationship with the adult sister of a crime victim but says this was not linked with his decision to waive his anonymity and speak out about his abuse in an interview with The Guardian in the same month.
Instead he puts his decision to talk about his past down to the result of the ongoing therapy he has received.
“It was just because I had been thinking about it for so long. Obviously I had been discussing with my counsellor, who said to write something down. By chance I ended up meeting with [Guardian journalist] Daniel Taylor. He suggested I could do something about it and write something.”
While he now regrets having joined the police, the last few months have given him a sense of clarity about the past.
“It was a very bad decision of mine and it haunts me. I was dealing with a lot of cases including that type of offence. It made me very ill. I’m glad I am not there anymore.
“I always had it in my mind there were others out there. I thought waiving my anonymity was the only way I could reach out to those people. Such abuse is still happing now. I thought I will put my life on the line and do this.”
The days leading up to publication were inevitably ‘really difficult’ but he was helped by support from former managers including ex-Sheffield United and Leeds boss Neil Warnock and one-time Hull and Huddersfield manager Stan Ternent.
“I went through stages of ‘can I do it, can’t I do it’. I spoke to Neil and Stan. The night before, I remember being in tears. Them saying ‘Come on Woody, you can do this’ really helped.”
Woodward’s story touched a nerve and it gained even greater momentum after he appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC Two following the publication of the Guardian article.
“It kick-started everybody off. That is what some of my ex-colleagues saw and I have honestly been stunned by the response. I hoped I could save the odd one or two victims. I knew there were hundreds, but I thought if I could just save a few people that would be wonderful. What has happened is just absolutely phenomenal.”
An investigation into the accounts given by hundreds of potential victims who have come forward in the wake of Woodward’s testimony is now being co-ordinated nationally by Operation Hydrant, which was originally established in August 2014 as it became clear that police forces across the country were experiencing a surge in reports of non-recent child sexual abuse from adults in the wake of revelations around Jimmy Savile.
Its work in co-ordinating investigations so different police forces were sharing intelligence and not duplicating investigative efforts was seen as the ideal structure to co-ordinate the national response to the surge in allegations which followed Woodward’s account becoming public.
More than 1,000 referrals have been made to Operation Hydrant from both police forces and an NSPCC hotline, with the allegations relating to 248 professional and amateur clubs.
This week the Metropolitan Police confirmed that in London alone, officers are investigating 255 allegations of historical sexual abuse involving 77 football clubs.
All the capital’s Premier League teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United – are understood to be involved.
In December, South Yorkshire Police revealed it has received three reports of historic child abuse in football, with the allegations relating to the 1960s and 1980s.
A spokesman for North Yorkshire Police said it was also involved in investigations. A spokesman said: “North Yorkshire Police can confirm that it is one of the forces that has been contacted by the national Operation Hydrant in relation to non-recent football-related sexual abuse allegations in the North Yorkshire area. We have also been contacted by members of the public directly.
“It takes a lot of courage for victims to come forward and we would like to reassure anyone who wants to report allegations that we have specially trained officers to take you through the process and can also signpost you to additional help and support. We urge anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse and anyone else with information, to please contact their local police on 101, regardless of how long ago it happened.”
In December, West Yorkshire crime commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson confirmed there were ongoing investigations, although there did not ‘currently appear to be any evidence of the systemic abuse in West Yorkshire that has been reported in other parts of the country’.
Woodward says he hopes others will now have the courage to come forward and he is reassured that for many justice will finally be done.
“The main message is have that strength and belief that you will be heard. Because of what has happened, you can’t not be listened to. It has grown so big, you will be heard.”