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Football’s Darkest Secret review – spare and unrelenting

I once – walking through London, not very late at night – came across a man holding fast to a woman’s wrist and setting a dog on her. A crowd was already there, the police already on their way and, as I halted and stared in horror, a fire engine that happened to be passing stopped, and its crew got out and started to intervene. Among the many thoughts I had in the 90 seconds or so that I listened to her screams and watched her flail, silhouetted against the streetlights and lights of the cars streaming past us all, was how much of a lie it gave to what drama presents us as truth. The timbre of her voice, the abandonment terror gave her movements were unmistakably real and irreproducible – the best attempts from actors, you suddenly saw, were the very faintest, palest facsimiles of the real, awful thing.

The same thought passed through my mind as the camera trained itself on the men testifying to their horrifying truths in the three-part documentary series Football’s Darkest Secret (BBC One), about the sexual abuse of young boys by paedophile coaches. The episode titles give you the trajectory – The End of Silence, Missed Opportunities and The Reckoning. The interviewees give you the detail, beginning – as the eventual, ever-widening investigation itself did – with the former footballer Andy Woodward. In November 2016, he went to the police to report being raped and abused for years as a trainee at Crewe Alexandra in the 1980s by the then coach Barry Bennell.

At the same time, Woodward waived anonymity in an interview with the Guardian to encourage other people to come forward. “There’ll be hundreds of others,” he said. “And more. Thousands.” As soon as the story broke, he started getting phone calls and emails. “I knew then,” he says on screen as tears gather, “they were going to come.” Some of the first who did were Steve Walters, a fellow survivor at Crewe, David White – preyed on by Bennell in the 1970s when the coach was at the junior club Whitehill – and Paul Stewart, a survivor of another prolific paedophile Frank Roper, who coached the junior side Nova. To list the names of the survivors and predators that the investigation accumulated would fill the rest of this review and more.

It is a hard, spare and unrelenting three hours that marshals an appalling abundance of material with a compassionate but firm hand. The men’s current and remembered pain is visible in their every expression, their every movement. It’s there in every frame, a constant, pulsing presence, and the makers, wisely, do nothing to ameliorate or obscure it for the viewer. Their stories – so similar, so awful, so devastating for the boys they were and the men they become – are illustrated with footage of them on the field in their glory days. Almost all speak of being unable to give their all to their careers because of what had been done to them. Bennell – very much a star in his own field; an outstanding coach well known for bringing on true talent – is seen giving broadcasters the benefit of his footballing wisdom.

All of it, we know now, thanks to Woodward’s and others’ courage, was against a background of ceaseless grooming, normalising of aberrant behaviour, abuse, escalation and rape. Bennell, Roper and others used their status, the families’ trust in them and the lads’ devoted love of football against the boys, and did damage to thousands of lives that are only now – only partly and only tentatively – beginning to recognise and tend to it.

There are two interrelated questions to be asked whenever a documentary like this is made. Is it exploitative and is it in the public interest that we hear about it? To the first: no. Football’s Darkest Secret is an unsensational, measured look at an investigation. The participants seem to have operated of their own volition – and in Woodward’s case knowingly initiated the whole thing – and without coercion at any stage. Though the chance to talk about terrible experiences and put down the burden of secrecy is liberation of the most heartbreaking kind, the definition still stands.

Is it in the public interest that we hear their stories? The second episode, Missed Opportunities, shows what happens when we don’t. After the Jimmy Savile scandal, society became a little less likely to let abusive celebrities shelter under their fame. With this, perhaps we will become a little less willing to believe adults’ accounts over children’s, a little more able to spot enablers as well as abusers, and not always assume that if anything was wrong – truly wrong – we’d know, wouldn’t we? We’d hear? And so, maybe, in years to come, there will be fewer flailing souls, screaming in pain in the dark.

www.theguardian.com

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