LONDON (AP) — In an instant, Paul Lake’s mind goes back more than three decades to a soccer field in Manchester and Barry Bennell’s tricks with the ball.
The youth team coach flicked the ball between his feet, knees, shoulder, and head, impressing the youngsters hoping to break into the game, and their parents.
“He was a person you would completely trust,” recalls the 48-year-old Lake, who says he was 11 or 12 at the time. “He would do keepy-up, ball skill sessions in front of all the parents and they would be clapping and cheering him.
“It was like, ‘Wow. This guy is a fantastic footballer.’ And he was great with the kids. He said the right things; he was encouraging; he looked the part; he was fit; he was powerful. All of our parents would see how good he was and see how he was with each individual boy.”
That was the public face of Bennell, the man entrusted by parents with turning their children into professionals. In private, Bennell was sexually abusing some aspiring players linked to Manchester City and later Crewe Alexandra in the 1970s and 80s.
“He was the pied piper, he knew how to manipulate the environment to suit his needs and his desires and his horrible behavior,” Lake told The Associated Press. “He could gain trust from parents unwittingly under the guise of being this caring coach who could get your son to be a professional footballer.”
Only now, after receiving three separate jail terms in the United States and England from 1995 to 2015, are the full horrors emerging of what Bennell subjected the children in his care to.
Lake can now recall only one training session with Bennell because he was in a separate coaching group around Manchester City feeder teams. But David White and Paul Stewart, future teammates in the City first team, suffered in private for years before this week waiving their anonymity to tell their stories of abuse at the hands of Bennell and an unnamed coach.
“There were muted conversations around and suspicions around Barry Bennell even around that time,” Lake said. “It was dismissed because there is no way that person — because he’s a football man and kids love him — would be an abuser of young men because he’s wearing club badges. So he’s got to be legitimate.
“I’m not knocking City or Crewe because no one knew, or came forward. No one pointed the finger. Football wasn’t ready with how to deal with it. So many young lives were traumatized, carrying burden.”
Bennell was first convicted in Florida in 1995 after being charged with raping a boy and repeatedly sexually assaulting a player from a youth team he had escorted to the United States. Back in England, Bennell’s crimes were the subject of a television documentary in 1997, and a year later he was convicted again, receiving a six-year sentence for 23 offences.
Then the story stopped, with no deeper scrutiny until now of the role of Bennell’s employers, and no demands for public inquiries to discover how entrenched pedophile coaches were in soccer.
“Looking back at that particular time, there was an overriding trust in individuals,” Lake said. “The likes of Barry Bennell sourced the most vulnerable and they understood how much it meant to that boy to be a professional footballer, to make it at the top.
“They sussed out the families. They showered the families with gifts, saying the right things.”
With it, Bennell gained their trust and the ability to convince parents to allow their children to stay in his home.
“Not for one instance was there a thought there was an ulterior motive, there was this underhand and vile individual that was preying on your child,” said Lake, whose wife Jo is assisting David White on his autobiography featuring details of abuse by Bennell.
“In society you knew these people were around, but they were almost stereotyped as being as a person with greasy hair and wore a rain coat and were a real loner. That’s never the case. Barry Bennell proved he was the complete antithesis of that.”
Lake, whose City career was curtailed by injury, went on to be an ambassador for the team. Now working for the Premier League as club support manager, Lake wants officials to be proactive in the welfare of players.
“Chairman and CEOs need to be more responsible,” said Lake, who attended a player care seminar on Friday organized by the Premier Sports Network. “It’s too easy to be dismissive and say ‘That’s somebody else’s responsibility.’ The chairman at Crewe is now talking about how upset and how frustrated he is around Barry Bennell.
“They should have made more efforts to find out because that information was out there. Instead, there are lives that have been broken, disrupted, and shaken in a negative way.”
Crewe announced on Saturday that external lawyers will investigate how the club responded to child abuse allegations in the past. It came after Hamilton Smith, a Crewe director from 1986 to early 1990, said the club retained Bennell despite being aware of claims against the coach, only opting to prevent boys being alone with him.