Woodward was 11 when, he says, Barry Bennell began abusing him in the 1980s
After a 30-year silence, he says he's speaking now in the hope of helping other victims
Andy Woodward’s dream was to become a professional footballer, an aspiration wrecked by a “monster” and “master of control” who sexually abused him.
Speaking to CNN on Monday, Woodward described former football coach Barry Bennell, a convicted pedophile at the heart of allegations surrounding widespread child sex abuse in English football during the 1980s and 1990s, as a man who wielded such power that he would use blackmail to ensure a web of secrecy and deceit.
After a 30-year silence, Woodward, a former football player, told The Guardian newspaper his story of abuse last week, which prompted a number of other men to share their own stories of suffering at Bennell’s hands.
‘He had the power to do what he wanted’
“He was the master of control,” 43-year-old Woodward told CNN.
“His coaching ability was the best in the country so he had that tool, but then alongside that he also had the power in football and as person to manipulate as many people as he wanted because it’s your inspiring dream to be a footballer.
“Every kid is feeling that. The feeling of that drive and then having someone in control of you, they go hand in hand. He had the power to do what he wanted, when he wanted, where he wanted.”
In 1998, Bennell was jailed for nine years after pleading guilty to 23 charges of sexually abusing six children. Woodward was among his victims at Crewe football club.
He has been jailed three times for child abuse, including once in the United States where he was reportedly described by Florida police as having “almost an insatiable appetite” for young boys.
Bennell was convicted and sentenced to prison most recently in 2015 for two years for a past sexual offense against a 12-year-old boy.
Woodward was 11 when the abuse began in the mid-1980s. He first met Bennell after being invited to train with one of his teams in Manchester before being sent to Crewe, a club well known for developing young players.
For Woodward, being accepted at Crewe was a step closer to achieving the dream of becoming a professional footballer. But behind that goal lurked Bennell, a man who was accused of targeting the “weaker boys” to fulfill his fantasies.
Bennell’s ability to manipulate his victims, either physically or by threatening to drop them from the team and harm their progress, instilled fear in the young players. Woodward said he became introverted; the happy-go-lucky young boy gave way to a far quieter, more withdrawn persona.
Woodward said Bennell threatened him, telling him that if he breathed a word to anyone of the abuse it would be the end of his career.
Frightened and intimidated, Woodward told nobody. “We didn’t talk about it,” he said about his fellow footballers.
“There was always taunting at Crewe by older players, but those of us within the same kind of age never talked about it. The older pros used to heckle me in the dressing room and stuff like that.”
The abuse and the secrets consumed him. He began to enjoy some success after joining Bury, a club in the north of Manchester, in 1995. But even then, it was a struggle.
His life became punctuated by depression, suicidal thoughts and helplessness.
“It was a relief to get out of Crewe but I still felt locked in,” he said.
“I just wanted to play football and I had to put up with the surroundings and people and get on with it.
“All I wanted to do was get on the pitch and fight the demons which were inside.
“But did I fulfill my potential? Absolutely not, nowhere near.”
Woodward recalled how during his career there were times where he just wouldn’t play at all. In 10 years he started just 154 league matches before retiring in 2002.
Even after confiding in two of his coaches at Bury, where he moved in 1995, and after Bennell was jailed in 1998, Woodward continued to be haunted by demons.
While Woodward began to showcase some of the form to which his potential had pointed, he was rarely free.
“If you look at my career, I had dips where I disappeared for a while,” he said.
“They weren’t injuries; they were mental illnesses. I suffered massively. I didn’t come forward around the mental side of it, it was all about keeping it secret.
“I didn’t want anyone to see any vulnerability in me. In that day and age, mental health wasn’t thought about, it was a very big taboo.”
That taboo was not one that only Woodward was afraid to break.
In the past week, former England and Manchester City player David White, and Steve Walters, formerly of Crewe, have also revealed they were among Bennell’s victims, though it is unclear whether Bennell was convicted of abusing them.
Paul Stewart, who played for Tottenham and Liverpool, said another unnamed coach had repeatedly sexually assaulted him and threatened to kill his family if he spoke out.
Last Friday, two more victims came forward to tell their own stories of abuse.
Chris Unsworth, now 44, was a youth team player at Manchester City before moving to Crewe with Bennell.
Jason Dunford has also spoken out, alleging that Bennell attempted to touch him while he was in bed at a holiday camp.
Woodward said he has received hundreds of messages from former players, some of whom were abused, and some who have said they feel guilty that they failed to help their friends at the time.
And yet, there were moments when he considered stopping cooperating with The Guardian for its story altogether.
He thought of his children, the potential damage it could do to them and of his own life and how speaking out would make him vulnerable.
Woodward spoke with his kids before the story went live on The Guardian. “They just said, ‘go for it Dad’,” he said of one of the most difficult conversations of his life.
He said he plans to sit down with them all once more in the near future to “catch up and show them all the wonderful reaction” he’s received.
On Monday morning, he received a message from the United States from a man who had seen the interview Woodward gave on television.
“A guy sent me a direct message on Twitter and told me that he had seen my interview and that it brought out all the feelings that he had gone through after being abused,” he said.
“He said that he was watching with his wife, who he had been with for over 30 years, and decided that he had to tell her. I was humbled and touched.”
Woodward told CNN he never expected his tale to become worldwide news, but now that it has, he is determined to ensure nobody has to endure what he has been through over the past 30 years.
“I want to reach out further afield beyond football and sport. It can give people that inner strength,” he said
“The story has a positive spin on it now and I can feel it. It was really emotional and I can’t tell you what emotions I’ve had over the past week.
“I am starting to feel that it is making a difference. I want to push forward and reach out.
“I am a regular guy. I was a footballer but I’m not now. This is about people and people’s lives. I want to help.”