“There is a life after abuse, and survivors can thrive”
Every child has dreams they want to achieve and for thousands of youngsters in this country that dream is to be a professional footballer.
There are a group of players who are good enough, but as a young player you never once think you may have to go through dark times of child abuse to get to where you want to go.
No one should have to go through that horrific ordeal to make it in the beautiful game, but some have done and in 2016 the footballing world found out just how many had to suffer to make it.
In 2016, former professional footballer Andy Woodward revealed to the world how he had suffered at the hands of former coach and convicted child abuser Barry Bennell.
Bennell was to dominate headlines over the coming years as stories of mass abuse emerged.
To date he has been convicted on four separate occasions and last week admitted another string of charges.
One of his victims, who is now putting all his energy into making sure others don’t have to suffer the same ordeal, is former Crewe midfielder Steve Walters.
Born in Plymouth, Walters, who now lives near Wrexham, signed for Crewe, who were synonymous with producing some of the country’s best young footballers.
In his teens, Walters was regarded as one of England’s best young prospects who had been backed to go on to play for his country.
He went on to play almost 150 games for Crewe before dropping down the leagues and eventually ending up in the Welsh system.
Walters had been out of the spotlight for the vast majority of his career, but on a winter day in November back in 2016 he, alongside other fellow ex professionals were propelled back into it.
He appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire programme a week after Woodward, and revealed all about his abuse at the hands of the twisted Bennell.
The programme, linked below, makes for harrowing listening. The magnitude of the cases that were about to unfold were laid bare with one ex professional describing Bennell as ‘making Jimmy Saville look like a choir boy’.
It’s almost four years on from that brave appearance and Walters looks back on it as the toughest period of his life, but is determined to have a life after abuse.
“The last three years have been the toughest of my life,” admitted Walters.
“From doing it all live on national TV and people knowing all about it to going through the high profile court cases in front of the eyes of the world really.
“However that was quite easy in contrast to the civil case that has followed, that has been an absolute nightmare.
“That has finally been sorted and I can get on with my life now. I’m determined to move onto chapter two and three. The Offside Trust is determined that there is a life after abuse and that survivors can thrive.”
That civil case was launched last year. After Walters had been through the ordeal of the public trial, which led to Bennell being jailed for 30 years, he had to face another obstacle.
Crewe told Walters he had waited too long to report the abuse, and in a statement last year he said had hoped to reach a settlement with the club.
However he saw it as Crewe trying to deny any liability for the abuse he suffered and he had no option but to sue.
That is over now and Walters, although wanting to forget about what he had to suffer in his younger years, looks back with a sense of pride about what he and his follow professionals did on the BBC programme four years ago.
The revelations not only brought more of Bennell’s crimes to the attention of the authorities, but also saw other former footballers come forward to reveal their abuse at the hands of other coaches.
“The toughest part going on there is knowing it could have gone either way, but we were lucky and people supported us.
“People still shake my hand and say it is unebelievable what we did. As time progresses you understand that magnitude of what we did on that Victoria Derbyshire programme.
“It shocked the sporting world.
“But something positive has come from it. It was a monkey off my back at the time and for a lot of people it explained a lot of things.”
For Walters and others the journey is not over.
After they came forward and went public in 2016 they set up The Offside Trust, to help other survivors and to make sure no one suffered the harrowing abuse they did.
But as Walters explains, it has been hugely difficult, having received no financial backing from the footballing authorities.
“It is still quite difficult because we are a voluntary organization and we are yet to receive any funding off the footballing authorities.
“We have some fantastic volunteers who support us but it is frustrating because we have not had any direct financial help.”
Despite this the trust has been able to help others, and has spoken to 100 survivors from all levels of the game and signposted them in the right direction.
They have also given mental health talks at football clubs, hosted survivor days and attended conferences in recent years.
The main aim is to make sure this never happens again. At a professional level, it is highly unlikely in modern times, with such rigorous systems now in place.
But as Walters explains, the grassroots level is a different story all together and with social media, predators are still finding ways.
“These predators find different ways and means.
“About 18 months ago there was a coach somewhere who was advertising coaching on Facebook and he was a convicted abuser.
“It is still too easy for coaches and there needs to be more awareness.
“There are checks but it isn’t a bullet proof system and until someone is found guilty in a court of law it is still possible.
“I think people still get very lackadaisical about it. I’ve seen where I live kids dropped off with coaches for one to one sessions and these coaches aren’t qualified.
“Children are still getting a lift with coaches when it isn’t supposed to happen. Things do need to change.”
For now the ordeal of the past four years and those previous in which Walters and others have had to carry around heavy secrets are a thing of the past.
But the legacy they have and are still putting in place will remain.
“Virtually every football coach has been charged and found guilty in a court of law since being caught in recent years.
“These predators are getting hefty prison sentences. Bennell got 31 years and that makes it all worthwhile.”