Story of eight key figures at centre of football's sex abuse report

The story of eight key figures at the centre of football’s sex abuse report… Including Geoff Hurst’s ‘unsatisfactory’ refusal to be interviewed and former Southampton manager Dave Merrington tackling serial abuser Bob Higgins

  • A report into child sex abuse within English football was released on Wednesday 
  • The FA were found to put children at risk by failing to ban two serial predatory paedophiles  
  • Dario Gradi, Geoff Hurst and Graham Taylor were all mentioned in the report  
  • Here, Sportsmail tells the stories of eight key figures at the centre of the report


The FA refused on Wednesday night to say exactly why the former Crewe Alexandra manager is banned from football and deemed a ‘risk of harm to children’. But the extraordinary detail on Gradi in Clive Sheldon QC’s report leaves little to the imagination.

He was reserve-team coach at Chelsea in late 1975 when he arrived at the home of a player who had been abused by the club’s youth-team coach, Eddie Heath. 

The assault was serious but Gradi told Sheldon he ‘did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be an assault’. Sheldon told Gradi it was. Gradi deemed it ‘petty touching’.

The FA refused to say why former Crewe boss Dario Gradi (centre) was banned from football

Gradi claims he reported the assault to acting manager Ron Suart, rather than youth-team staff. Sheldon put it to him this might be a ‘fabricated’ story, told in the knowledge Suart was dead. The episode ‘didn’t seem to matter too much’, Gradi told Sheldon.

In 1987, Gradi was at Crewe and hired the most prolific of all the abusers, Barry Bennell, for whom he arranged a £14,000 annual youth development budget.

Sheldon relates the extraordinary testimony of Hamilton Smith, Crewe’s managing director, who set up a meeting to warn Gradi about Bennell after multiple sources — including the office secretary and a worried father — voiced suspicions. Gradi lost his temper in the meeting and started ‘throwing paper’ around.

He considered Bennell so important that he asked Smith to split the 10 per cent of money Gradi was taking from youth-team player sales with Bennell, who would take three per cent. ‘There was a relationship of some sort between the two,’ Hamilton told Sheldon.

Clive Sheldon’s QC (pic) damning report has been released four years on from its commission

Sheldon asked Gradi about the evidence of a survivor who described being forced to share a bedroom with Bennell at Gradi’s own home, while Gradi was in the house. ‘No, I don’t — well I can’t believe I would allow that to happen,’ Gradi said.

Gradi claimed he had no idea Bennell was abusing boys and that the paedophile eventually left Crewe because of a petty tiff between the pair. Bennell wanted to parade his youth team on the pitch before an FA Cup tie at Anfield. Gradi refused.

But Sheldon reveals testimony from a civil case hearing in 2003, when Bennell insisted Gradi knew all about his sexual abuse.

‘The suggestion … that no-one knew or suspected that sexual abuse was being perpetrated is ridiculous,’ said Bennell. ‘Dario Gradi and others within the club specifically knew I had boys staying at my house. 

‘In fact, Gradi at that time also made many boys stay at his house and no questions were asked at that time.’ 

Bennell refused to meet Sheldon.

Gradi (left, at Crewe alongside Barry Bennell) claimed he had no idea Bennell was abusing boys and that the paedophile eventually left Crewe because of a petty tiff between them


Manchester City’s failure to fully investigate Barry Bennell or involve police was a ‘wholly inadequate response’, the Sheldon report found.

Bennell was never on staff at Maine Road but was linked with the club, taking expenses and using facilities.

City said: ‘We wish to apologise for the unimaginable suffering experienced by those who were abused as a result of the club’s association with these men.’

By Mike Keegan  


No FA official emerges more damaged than Hughes, the FA’s former director of coaching. 

Sepp Blatter wrote to him from FIFA in July 1995 attaching a press clipping about Bennell’s first child abuse conviction in Florida — jailed for raping a British boy on a football tour in America — and asking if he could supply more information.

Hughes replied three days later: ‘We really have no further information in relation to this matter.’

The report reveals how Hughes continually shut down discussion.

Florida’s state prosecutor wrote to say Bennell was about to be released from prison and expressed hope that her letter ‘will serve you and protect other children’ from abuse at Bennell’s hands.

Hughes’s PA acknowledged receipt and said she would alert him to the letter. 

Sheldon found no reply in the FA archives.

A letter from a concerned parent also elicited no apparent response. Hughes did forward the Florida letter to Cheshire Police. 

When it was indicated that they were investigating Bennell, Hughes felt any further FA action was ‘inappropriate’.

No FA official emerges from the report more damaged than Charles Hughes (pictured), the FA’s former director of coaching


The journalist’s Channel Four Dispatches programme in 1997, Soccer’s Foul Play, blew the lid off the scandal. But she received an abrasive response from Hughes and veiled threats of legal action from the FA. 

Hughes told FA director of public affairs David Davies: ‘There are so many areas where we would have to be rather evasive.’ David Davies agreed.

Hughes cited the ongoing Dunblane inquiry as a reason not to cooperate, when Channel Four producer Ed Braman kept pushing. 

Eventually, Hughes ignored him. Undeterred, Deborah Davies door-stepped Hughes at the FA’s Lancaster Gate offices with a camera crew. He turned his back on her and marched off.

Journalist Deborah Davies’ (pictured) programme, Soccer’s Foul Play in 1997, blew the lid off the scandal

‘The impression given to viewers was that the FA was not really interested in child protection,’ Sheldon concludes.

The programme elicited a strong response in Sportsmail’s pages, where our journalist Max Davidson reflected: ‘That football has a problem with paedophilia is self-evident. Those fresh-faced boys desperate to impress. The coaches eyeing the talent. The changing rooms. The communal shower. The scope for abuse is obvious.’

After the programme aired, an FA statement said it ‘utterly refutes false allegations made by C4’s Dispatches programme. 

Consequently, the FA is considering its legal position’. It never intended to sue, Sheldon says.


The former Arsenal player was jailed for 12 months in 1999 for unlawful sex with a 15-year-old girl. Yet the FA did not discipline him because his work as a coach was not with girls, Sheldon says.

The report unearths correspondence showing the FA desperately trying to decide how to deal with Rix’s crime. 

Graham Rix (pic in 2006) was jailed for a year in 1999 for unlawful sex with a 15-year-old girl

One letter from David Davies states: ‘The FA would not propose to issue formal disciplinary proceedings. Mr Rix has publicly apologised… and been punished in the severest way by a prison sentence.’

The FA even sought legal opinion from a QC and concluded that banning Rix was unnecessary ‘because his work does not expose any young females to risk’.

The decision not to discipline Rix was fundamentally wrong and ‘represents a failing’, Sheldon concludes.


A national legend he might be but Hurst’s refusal to cooperate with the Chelsea QC-led inquiry into Eddie Heath is poor. 

Hurst was the Chelsea ‘chief coach’ who dismissed Heath, claiming he was lazy and incompetent. 

But Hurst did not want to be interviewed by Chelsea’s inquiry team and the club’s report noted that ‘there remains an unsatisfactory gap in the evidence’. 

Sheldon says: ‘I agree with that statement.’

Geoff Hurst’s refusal to cooperate with the Chelsea QC-led inquiry into Eddie Heath is poor

Heath (centre), was employed by Chelsea from 1968 until he was sacked 11 years on, in 1979


Celia Brackenridge (pic in 2004) found children within the game still didn’t know who to turn to if they had to raise concerns

One of the heroes of Sheldon’s report. An eminent, trailblazing child protection expert, who died in 2018, Brackenridge had been working for sports governing bodies from the mid-1990s. 

But only in 2000 did the FA ask her to assess the effectiveness of a child protection programme it had set up.

Her interim report two years later showed that despite some good FA progress, her researchers had met obstacles at clubs and the FA, where some clearly considered her an inconvenience. 

‘They have had to face unfortunate instances or rudeness by people, including some in paid positions within the FA,’ Brackenridge recorded in a report which Sheldon draws on.

Brackenridge found children within the game still didn’t know who to turn to if they had to raise concerns and ‘apparent leniency extended to members of the game convicted of abuse against children’. Her research project did not extend beyond its second year. 

The FA were short of money, with the new Wembley and St George’s Park to build. A letter of termination, giving six months’ notice, was sent to Brackenridge in March 2003.


There is not enough evidence to show the former England manager, who died in 2017, failed to blow the whistle on paedophile coach Ted Langford while Aston Villa boss, Sheldon says.

Survivor Tony Brien describes a phone call from his home to Taylor and Villa coach Dave Richardson in the 1987-88 season, Taylor telling him: ‘Look, we’ve looked into it and we can do something if you want. But are you ready for all the abuse you’ll get from the terraces?’

Sheldon states: ‘There is conflicting evidence [that I cannot resolve].’

There is not enough evidence to show that ex-England manager Graham Taylor (pic) failed to blow the whistle on paedophile coach Ted Langford while Aston Villa boss

Dave Merrington (pic) was one of the few within football who tackled sexual abuse, ensuring serial abuser Bob Higgins was drummed out of the Dell and stood trial


The former Burnley player and Southampton coach is one of the few within football who tackled sexual abuse.

He ensured serial abuser Bob Higgins was drummed out of the Dell and stood trial.

The report relates how, on the way back from a youth-team game at Wimbledon, Merrington heard young player Dean Radford being ridiculed about abuse at the hands of Higgins. 

He waited for the chance to speak to Radford about it, then confronted Higgins — and did not flinch when the abuser became threatening and aggressive. 

But because of flaws in the legal case, Higgins was acquitted of abusing Radford. 

Higgins went on to abuse more boys at Peterborough United.

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