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Feature: Keeping football safe

The EFL is committed to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, young people and adults at risk, and expects all staff and volunteers to share this commitment.

31 December 2021

Earlier this year, the FA published the Sheldon Report, which investigated historical sexual abuse allegations in football. Former England international Paul Stewart is one of the survivors, and now works with the EFL to support the industry in learning from what happened.

Stewart, who made over 500 career appearances for the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, publicly revealed the trauma he faced as a child in November 2016 and featured alongside many other victims in a three-part BBC documentary called Football’s Darkest Secret.

Determined to make a difference, the 57-year-old has since delivered a talk to EFL Board members and spoke about his lived experience of abuse during Senior Club Safeguarding Manager training, alongside the NSPCC, which has been completed by all 72 League Clubs.

“It’s great for me to be back in the game,” he says. “Despite what happened to me, football was my life and it’s good for my mental health because I feel like I’m giving something back.

“It does take its toll sometimes, because I’m talking about my personal experiences, but the comments from the Clubs and the players show that what I’m doing is making a difference and that makes me feel okay, so it helps me as much as it helps them, in a healing way.

“I genuinely believe that the EFL are at the head of promoting the importance of safeguarding. To bring someone like me with my lived experience on board, and then also taking the time to help develop my deliveries, I think that shows an intent.

“They’ve made safeguarding a priority, getting the CEO and Directors to listen about the topic and delivering training to every Club. With the courses they put on and the engagement they’ve had across the board, other organisations need to take note and follow the EFL’s lead.”

The 1991 FA Cup winner is also providing safeguarding awareness to Academy footballers via the EFL’s education partner, League Football Education (LFE).

Stewart has supported players at several Clubs across the country since joining LFE’s collection of speakers on the Life Skills programme last season, which covers a wide range of identified subjects.

“After I came forward, I was invited to tell my story at various places and there’d be nothing afterwards,” he continues. “People would feel sorry for me and pity me and that’s not really why I came forward.

“My talk has evolved from just delivering about my own story since getting involved with LFE. What I faced back in the 1980s is completely different to what the youngsters are facing now, so I try to make sure that what I’m saying is relevant to the present day.

“Whether it’s social media awareness, dressing room banter or consent, there are so many things I talk through and show the lads where it’s gone wrong for certain individuals. I feel like what I’m doing now is far more educational and informative.”

Paul Stewart at Bolton Wanderers 4.jpeg

A particularly key message that Stewart drives home is the need to be open about any issues, advising the young players to take advantage of the extensive support network that is available to them.

“I try to express to the lads that it’s important for them to make sure they enjoy the experience that they’re embarking on,” he reveals. “I show them my career stats, which look like I’ve had a really good career, but I didn’t enjoy it because there wasn’t the support network around that they have nowadays.

“I might have looked like I was enjoying it because I was one of the jokers in the pack, but when I was alone, I was dying. I just had nowhere to turn to.

“For the young lads now, no matter how big or small the problem is, they can go and speak to somebody and it’s so important that they do. The game has come on leaps and bounds and there is so much support around.

“My key objective is for lads to start thinking, ‘I’m not feeling great about that, I’m going to talk to someone about it’. The EFL and its Clubs have created a safe environment, where staff are all versed in safeguarding and lads can approach them and share their problems in confidence.

“It’s also about being aware of others and taking care of your colleagues. You can’t always tell if someone is struggling, but it doesn’t take much to check in every so often and ask how people are doing.”

Bolton Wanderers are one of many Clubs to receive Stewart’s delivery in recent months. First-year scholar Abdul Kamara comments: “I wasn’t expecting the details of his story, especially hearing what he went through and then still managing to play top level football for so long.

“Paul is able to use his experience to educate and give people the knowledge that they can go through hardship and get past it, with the support that’s now in place for us. It’s important to hear because it makes us aware that there are people who we can talk to at any time, no matter what we might be going through.”

Meanwhile, Sunderland Academy youngster Marshall Burke says: “It was an eye opener to what people might be going through outside of football and how some people use football as an escape from all their problems.

“I feel the message we learned was that no matter how big or small the problem, always speak to someone, and also be aware of any slight changes in the morale or behaviour of your team-mates.”

It’s not just players who Stewart is impacting, with his workshops extending to parents, carers and Club staff.

Paul Stewart with Derby County U18s.jpeg

“Paul’s talk was both deeply sad and a real-life reminder of the predators that unfortunately exist in our world,” observes Richard Walker, Stoke City Lead Professional Development Phase Coach. “Paul displayed extreme bravery and selflessness in relaying his story in order to help us as staff be aware of potential tell-tale signs, if we ever were to encounter any signs of abuse with any children within our care.

“The lengths and manipulative measures used by Paul’s abuser highlight how vigilant adults who have responsibility for young people must be, including an awareness of the smallest signs and dealing with them sensitively.”

Carlisle United Head of Education, Scott Taylor, says: “Myself, the CEO Nigel Clibbens and the Board realise that safeguarding has got to be a priority at the Club. Providing excellent educational sessions such as this presentation by Paul Stewart is so impactful and helps spread the message.”

Academy Sport Psychologist at Portsmouth, David Price, adds: “Paul’s powerful and compelling story gives players and the wider coaching team a snapshot into some of the potential devastating consequences of poor safeguarding practice that can have a severe impact upon mental health.

“Through his vulnerability, Paul provided an informative and engaging workshop on best practice recommendations for safeguarding, as well as the power of speaking up and seeking support when faced with challenging situations.”

While there is more work still to be done, Stewart’s influence in establishing a safer and more knowledgeable football community cannot be understated.

“It is our duty to ensure that safeguarding is the bedrock upon which everything happens,” explains Simon Williams, LFE Life Skills Manager. “LFE’s Life Skills programme and the wider player care support within Academies is heavily focused around this to both protect and enable people to flourish.

“It can sometimes be difficult to make connections between safeguarding and the life of an Academy player, and this is where Paul provides a valuable education. The feedback from players, staff, parents and carers has been reassurance that he is having the desired impact and there are more and more Clubs requesting from our programme.

“Paul is an asset beyond LFE’s Life Skills programme, too. He recently provided CPD to our staff and he is always striving to make sure that we are at the forefront of what is happening in the world of safeguarding.”

EFL Safeguarding Manager Alex Richards echoes these thoughts: “Paul’s positive impact to the work of the EFL Safeguarding Team is immeasurable. In order to create a culture of safeguarding throughout the League and our Member Clubs, people need to hear lived experience of child sexual abuse.

“I am so grateful to Paul for his contribution. It has been a professional and personal privilege to deliver training alongside him.”

The latest development in the approach to safeguarding came in November, when the FA’s new Play Safe campaign was launched during National Safeguarding Weekend.

Consisting of a series of short films emphasising key messaging and advice, the initiative is another step towards ensuring everyone has a consistently positive experience in football.

As a collective, the FA Survivor Support and Safeguarding Advisory Group states: “Learning from the past is crucial, so that we can prevent the horrific experiences that happened to us and so many others in football from happening again.

“As a group of survivors, we fully support the ethos and important messages that Play Safe conveys – whether to Club officials, parents/carers or vitally, children and young people themselves.

“Equally important is that Play Safe is not a one-off campaign. It will be used at key points in the football calendar to remind everyone in football that children’s welfare and keeping them safe should be at the heart of all that we do.”

Paul Stewart Tottenham.jpg

This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.

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