It was May, 1988, when a prodigiously talented teenager by the name of Steve Walters became the youngest player in the history of Crewe Alexandra, at the age of 16 years and 119 days, and it is a record that stands to this day at a club renowned for its production line of footballers.
Walters was a skilful, combative midfielder with a Plymouth accent, an eye for a pass and an almost obsessive desire to get to the top of the sport. He was at Lilleshall, the Football Association’s school of excellence, in the same crop as Andy Cole and Ian Walker, two future England internationals, and chose Crewe because of their reputation for giving teenage prospects a quick route to the first team. Tottenham Hotspur were among the clubs that wanted him but Crewe had their own attractions, with a heavy emphasis on youth development, and the young, impressionable Walters liked what he heard from the man who invited him to Gresty Road.
That man was Barry Bennell, the serial paedophile who has featured prominently in these pages over the last week and, until now, Walters has never felt able to talk publicly about what happened to him at Crewe, the shattering effects it had on his childhood and how, at 44, he has spent more than 30 years with everything bottled up, living with the secret that has distorted his life.
Then, last Wednesday, he read Andy Woodward’s interview about the years of sexual abuse and mental torture he suffered from Bennell, from the age of 11 onwards, and how his old friend feared that many others – hundreds, potentially – had been targeted by a man described by the American authorities as having “almost an insatiable appetite” for young boys.
For Walters, a year older than Woodward in the Crewe system, it was a gruelling, difficult read but, in another sense, exactly what he needed to start his own process of rebuilding. He, too, was abused by a man who has described himself in legal proceedings as a “monster”. The difference is Walters was never part of the case against his former coach. Woodward’s interview left him with a feeling of empowerment he had never experienced before and the sense, finally, that he had the chance to free himself of his own turmoil. He picked up the phone and made the call that will change the rest of his life.
Others have come forward since Woodward, one of the footballers who helped to secure Bennell’s longest prison sentence, waived his right to anonymity but Walters is the first to speak publicly. “All these years, I’ve had this secret inside me,” he says. “But I have to let it all out now. It’s the only way. I want closure and I know, for a fact, this is going to help me move on. It’s been unbearable but, just from reading the article from Andy, it already feels like a massive burden off my shoulders. I have to do this, and I just hope it will help bring more people forward, too.”
Those are precisely the reasons why Woodward felt compelled to tell the story that has inspired Walters to realise the first stage of recovery is to confront the secret that has dominated three-quarters of his life. Both are aware of other victims who have suffered in silence. But there will be more, Walters fears, given that Bennell worked in junior and professional football across three decades. Many more? “Definitely.”
For Walters, it all began in 1984 at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Minehead when he won the first stage of a schoolboys’ football competition where the prize, ultimately, was to train with Manchester United. Walters went all the way through the different stages of the competition and, at the age of 12, travelled to the Cliff, United’s old training ground, to show what he could do in the company of Bryan Robson and the rest of Ron Atkinson’s players.
Bennell, who had a close association in the past with Manchester City and also had links with Stoke City, as well being involved with junior teams in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Greater Manchester, was on the touchline and liked what he saw.
“He’d just finished with Man City and started with Crewe,” Walters says. “To start with, I would stay in Crewe during my school holidays, as well as the odd weekend, and sometimes I’d stay at his house. To me, he was the top coach there was. He could do tricks with the ball I’d never seen before. Everything was so impressive about him and he had this ability to make you feel special. He used to promise me he would make me a better player. He would tell me I was the best young midfield player he had ever seen, and that he would help me play for England, and I believed him.”
Bennell, he says, had “loads of boys” staying with him and, initially, that helped his own settling-in process. Later, his father, Chris, moved up from Plymouth and, a talented coach himself, started working for Crewe, eventually becoming the club’s community officer and such a revered figure in the town more than 1,000 people attended his funeral and there is now a memorial for him at a sports centre close to the ground.
Before then, however, Bennell had easy access. “The first time he tried anything I can remember getting a bit aggressive with him,” Walters says. “It was a dark room and I was on the top bunk when he came in. I told him to get out and, after that, nothing happened for quite a while but that was him testing the water. I think it was a case of: ‘There’s nothing happening here, but give it a bit of time.’ Then, two or three months later, it started again. I just wish I could turn the clocks back but I was at such a young age I felt almost paralysed.”
Some of Bennell’s other victims dropped out of the game, too emotionally scarred to continue. Walters never gave up on his dream. His debut came in a 1-0 defeat for Dario Gradi’s team against Peterborough United on the final day of the 1987-88 season, and very quickly the 16-year-old was being talked about as a star in the making. Crewe played Red Star Belgrade, the 1991 European Cup winners, in one pre-season fixture and Gradi said Walters was the only member of his team talented enough to play for the opposition.
“When I was 16 I was flying,” Walters says. “At 17, they thought I was going to sign for Liverpool. People were talking about me being the first £1m teenager. I scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge. I was such a high-profile player for a kid, especially having gone to Lilleshall, but all the time I had this secret.
“I just had to pretend it never happened and block it out. I knew it could never come out and I was absolutely petrified because I thought that if it did ever come out that would be it for my career – finished. In my mind, I wouldn’t even be able to go out, never mind play football. And football was my dream. It was my life. Even at Lilleshall, I was the one boy who used to train extra all the time. They used to say I was crazy, but I was so determined to succeed.”
On the surface, Walters was a boy with the keys to the football universe. Yet, inside, he was suffering more than anyone knew. “I was confused. Why me? I retracted in myself. Dario used to say to me: ‘You’re a strange boy’ and I used to think: ‘Well, one of your coaches has done this to me.’ It was sheer confusion. I used to think: ‘Am I gay?’ and the culture back then was that there were no such thing as gays in football. Obviously it’s completely different now but if it had come out then I would have been hammered.
“The first team at Crewe used to crucify me anyway, saying I was the ‘son of Dario’, and it felt like my career would have been finished. That’s why, when the investigation started and the police started coming to see me, I never said anything. The CID came round a few times, but I kept denying it. In my mind, if I’d said what happened to me I didn’t think I could carry on playing football.”
The abuse lasted for a year before Bennell, in keeping with the pattern of his offending, moved on when Walters was 14. Then, at 17, Walters was diagnosed with a blood disorder. “I was ill for about five months. I lost a lot of weight and then I started getting temporary arthritis in certain joints. It’s called incomplete Reiter’s syndrome. I went to see all these different specialists and, after a few years, I was told I would never play football again. They told me the infection can be dormant in your body for years. But you can also get it because of something passed on through sexual contact. So I’ve got to think now: has that come from him? That, for me, is one of the hardest things. I’ve always got that doubt in my head: has that man caused me to have this blood disorder? It might not have been him, but the doubt’s always there.”
He did continue to play at a lower level, moving to Northwich Victoria before having spells at Morecambe, Stevenage Borough, Kidsgrove Athletic and Rhyl, as well as playing for England’s semi-professional team, but there was always the risk his body would fail him. “It could flare up at any time. We played at Hayes when I was with Northwich and I had to be stretchered off in the warmup. My knee had come up but once they gave me some anti-inflammatories I was able to play. Everyone was having a laugh about it on the touchline, saying our physio must be Jesus because of the way he had cured me. I just never knew where I was with my body. It was embarrassing.”
He has had periods where he has “been really low, a bit of an introvert. I thought I was having a heart attack one day. In those days, nobody knew what a panic attack was. My dad found me at the house in Crewe, lying on the floor, shaking. I ended up in hospital for a few days.
“Before I went to Crewe, I was full of life, full of energy. But it knocked the stuffing out of me. I was a confident, outgoing person but sometimes now I can just go into a shell. I have nightmares sometimes and sleeping problems. My wife tells me how I’ve woken up and, straight away, sat bolt upright. I don’t even know I’m doing it. I can have little periods where I am fine but then something might trigger it off.”
Bennell, he recalls, had various ways to exert his control. “There was one game against Manchester United’s A team when we under-performed. His punishment was to drop us off at Beeston Castle [15 miles from Crewe]. He told us to run round the castle three or four times and then he pointed us one way and said: ‘Home’s that way, you can make your own way back.’ Except he’d pointed us towards Chester. It took us eight or nine hours to get back to Crewe. We were kids and we didn’t have phones or anything in those days to show us the route. In the end, we had to hitch-hike. Just imagine that happening these days.
“I also remember one Christmas Eve when he took us into the centre of Manchester. It was dark, late at night, and he was showing off about all the rough people he knew – ‘I know him, that bouncer there’ that kind of stuff – and basically leaving us scared. He used all these mind games. Another time, he told us we were going to a haunted house. It was pitch black, in this old, haunted house, and we were shit scared. Then he started telling us all these scary stories to leave us even more petrified. It was all so we would cuddle up close to him.”
Even in prison, Bennell used to try to exploit his position with the footballers who had once been under his control. Walters was among the ones who received a letter Bennell had written from his cell. “It was just a brief letter asking if there was any chance we could help him out and send some money. I ripped mine into a million pieces. ‘How the hell can you be asking me?’ I thought. But, my God, the arrogance of the man. He always had that arrogance.”
Bennell’s house was set up like a “kids’ grotto” with its caged monkey, pool table and other attractions. “There were jukeboxes, games machines, all sorts,” Walters says. “I always remember this little monkey, wearing a yellow shirt, sitting on my shoulder and shitting everywhere. Barry just used that as an excuse for me to take my top off.
“He had all the makes, the T-shirts, the football shirts – Lacoste, all that sort of stuff. One room at his house was full of shirts and boots and he would tell you to help yourself, whatever you wanted. At other times he took us around warehouses looking at clothes and, again, it was ‘choose what you want’.”
It is a release for him to be able to talk openly about what happened – something he has kept from everyone bar close family and friends – but it clearly pains him that there has been so little response from the club he represented for England at youth-team levels.
“I feel massively let down by Crewe,” Walters says. “There were always rumours going round about Crewe. The club need to get their heads out of the sand, make an apology and say something properly. It was Crewe Alexandra where it happened. It wasn’t a feeder club to Crewe. It was the worst-kept secret in football that Barry had boys staying at his house but nobody at Crewe, as far as I can tell, used to think anything of it. It [their reaction] is scandalous really. But they’ve always been the same.”
Over the last week he and Woodward have been in regular contact, reunited for the first time in more than 20 years. The conversations have been emotional, difficult and uplifting, all at once. A number of other victims have also been in touch, going all the way back to when Bennell was involved with junior teams in Manchester in the 1970s, and the Football Association is setting up a hotline for other victims. Walters, speaking with great dignity and courage, can expect overwhelming support judging by the response to Woodward’s interview.
Bennell, meanwhile, is out on licence, using the name Richard Jones, after being sentenced to two years in prison in May 2015 for a historical case involving a 12-year-boy on a football course in Macclesfield. Now 62, he previously served nine years for 23 specimen charges of sexual offences, including buggery, against six boys aged nine to 15, one of them being Woodward, with 22 other offences allowed to lie on file. Bennell’s crimes were first detected in 1994 when was he given a four-year sentence in Florida after admitting to the buggery and indecent assault of a boy on a football tour.
Walters, waiving his right to anonymity in order to speak, believes “a man like that should never be let out” and has been in contact with the police – along with at least five others – and the Professional Footballers’ Association. “It’s been a really tough week because of the way it’s brought everything back but, at the same time, I’m so glad Andy has started this. It’s going to help me to move on with my own life. I’ve been so upset but this is the first step to recovery.”
• The NSPCC’s helpline is 0808 800 5000 or Child Line for children and young people can be contacted on 0800 1111.
• In the UK, The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.