Sex abuse left ex-SAFC star unable to enjoy England caps

Playing for your country is a talented footballer’s most dearly-held dream.

But horrifying childhood sexual abuse tarnished the glory of donning an England shirt for footballer Paul Stewart.

Paul, 56, is one of the players who has spoke out about the abuse he faced at the hands of a coach he should have been able to trust, The Mirror reports.

In 2016, when allegations of sexual abuse at the heart of football began to emerge, Paul revealed he had been groomed and abused by youth coach Frank Roper in Manchester. The emotional scars left by the abuse cast a shadow over much of Paul’s life.

Paul, 56, told the Mirror: “Even at the very top, playing in a Cup final, for England – I did not enjoy it.

“I was troubled all the way through my career. I tell young players I have a 1991 FA Cup winner’s medal in the house. But I don’t put it on show.

“It represents the pain and heartache I endured – I don’t even display the England caps. I had some highs in my career. I never enjoyed them because I had this empty soul.”

Paul Stewart as a child with his mum Joyce
(Image: Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)

Roper, who died in 2005, groomed the ex-Man City, Spurs, Liverpool and Sunderland star before he joined his Nova junior side in Manchester at the age of 11.

But Paul still felt forced to keep the abuse he’d suffered a secret, even from his family, speaking out in 2016 as more footballers began to share their stories.

“I tell young players now to talk to someone if they have a problem,” he said.

“I was always angry, disturbed. I was the master of playing a role, looking like I was happy but I was a nightmare.

“You get to 24, and you are next to Lineker, Rush, and Barnes. It is an embarrassing thing to say by then. You keep the secret, but all the while there is the devastating impact on family.”

Roper terrified Paul with threats that, at such a young age, he believed, making him believe Roper would kill his brothers and parents if he spoke out.

By the time he signed for Liverpool in 1992 he was taking cocaine every day. “I was in self-destruct mode,” he added. “Playing for my country was all I ever wanted. Yet I was drunk for that first England team meeting.”

He broke down as he recalled telling mum Joyce and dad Bert about Roper. “I was 52 ,” he said. “It was tearing me apart.”

Joyce, 81, who brought up Paul and his two brothers in Manchester, added: “Roper took us all in.”

Now determined to protect other youngsters, Paul works with the Football League to give safeguarding advice to young players, coaches and families.

In 2016, courageous Former Crewe player Andy Woodward began an outpouring of allegations of sexual assault when he revealed his abuse at the hands of soccer paedophile, Barry Bennell.

Hundreds of other abused players then contacted the NSPCC, who set up a dedicated football abuse helpline. Among those who contacted the line were victims of paedophile football coach George Ormond, who helped out at Newcastle United and who was jailed for 20 years in 2018 after he was convicted of carrying out a campaign of sexual abuse spanning 1973 to 1998.

In the documentary set to air on March 22, Andy Woodward tells the BBC: “It is a dirty secret. A lot of people take it to the grave.”

Five years later, the long-awaited report into the football abuse scandal is about to be published. Hundreds of victims came forward to give evidence of abuse – some dating back almost 50 years, and Clive Sheldon QC was asked by the Football Association to look at the issue in the sport in 2016. Mr Sheldon has also been in “close and constant co-operation” with Operation Hydrant – the police operation looking into the issue.

The independent review was delayed by further allegations in the Barry Bennell case. He has now been jailed for 34 years.

At least 839 alleged victims had come forward while 294 alleged suspects had been identified by the end of 2017. The review examines what the FA and clubs knew and did about allegations of child sexual abuse from 1970 to 2005. All survivors have been invited to receive a copy of the report, if they want it, ahead of publication.

Football’s Darkest Secret begins on March 22 at 9pm on BBC One. The series will then be available on iPlayer.

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