Offside Trust: Helping sexual abuse survivors to survive

In 2016, former professional golfer and funeral director Chris Unsworth helped to make history when he, Steve Walters and Micky Fallon shared their stories of the abuse they suffered at the hands of football coach and youth scout, Barry Bennell, during their childhood. Unsworth bravely disclosed what he had gone through after he saw former English footballer Andy Woodward on BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show waive his anonymity and come forward to share his account. The allegations made by the professional sportsmen were some of the first accounts detailing the prevalent but often concealed problem of sexual abuse in the football industry and encouraged some 350 victims to come forward anonymously or otherwise. It then led to a surge of arrests and convictions of 12 other football coaches, scouts and managers and charges brought against five others. This was then followed by an inquiry by the Football Association into the suspected “institutional cover-up” of paedophilia in the sport.

Bennell was sentenced to 31 years imprisonment and shortly after Unsworth waived his own anonymity and revealed the pain he had been holding onto for almost four decades, he decided to turn his negative experience around and set up the Offside Trust with Walters in January 2017 to help other victims, starting with those in the sporting industry. “We’re the directors and then there’s a handful – eight or nine – ambassadors who have all been abused who have different stories,” Unsworth says. “It’s all on a voluntary basis, we’ve all got full time jobs.”

In relation to the issue of sexual abuse in football and other sports, Unsworth adds: “It’s a big issue, a big taboo subject. Even now even with the figures we’re talking about we feel we’re still not being recognised we’re still being ignored.” The allegations of abuse which took place in the 70s, 80s and 90s came to a head in 2016 and by July 2018, some 300 suspects were identified by 849 alleged victims. “We knew what sort of numbers we were talking about,” he says. “There was nothing really out there that helped us so that’s why we had to come forward. With our abuser there was going to be 100s if not 1,000s of lads out there, so we needed to create somewhere for them to come because there’s not many places that they can turn to – certainly not two years ago anyway.”

Through the Offside Trust, victims of sexual abuse can gain access to therapy, counselling, guidance or simply speak to someone who fully understands how they may be feeling as all the volunteers are survivors themselves. “We just signpost and then we get the help wherever they need it. Some people want to pursue the criminal trial so we help get the police involved; so it’s whatever the survivor wants we will help them with,” Unsworth says. “The aim at the moment is to help other survivors in the healing journey.”

While the issue helped to shine a light on the problem in the football industry, Unsworth points out that the survivors that do approach the Trust for help come from all walks of life, as the former footballers’ decisions to come forward publicly helped others to work up the courage to share their own accounts. “They’ve heard a lot about [our stories] because we’ve been in the press, on the news, the radio – so a lot of the time we could be the first people they disclose to,” he says. “We’ve been contacted by survivors all around the world – it’s quite humbling.”

Describing Offside Trust as “powerful” and “unique”, the “organisation for survivors by survivors” has also helped Unsworth to continue to heal with his own experience as he continues to talk about what he went through. Entering the football profession as a child, Unsworth played for Manchester City juniors from the age of eight then moved to Crewe Alexandra FC from the ages of 12 to 15. It was during this time that Unsworth suffered abuse at the hands of Bennell. “No member of my family knew anything about this so it came as a shock to them, but getting that off my chest and off my shoulders… even now, the more I talk about it, the better I feel.”

In an attempt to move on from the abuse and Bennell, Unsworth decided to switch speciality and was a professional golfer from the ages of 16 to 20. Saying: “I fell out of that. I just couldn’t concentrate with what had happened,” he eventually quit and proceeded to join the funeral trade. He has now been a funeral director for 25 years, working with his brother, sister and nephew at Jeremy Unsworth Funeral Service in High Peak, Peak District. Comparing his two vocations, he says: “A bit like the funeral work, it’s very harbouring but also very rewarding.”

He hopes that continuing to share his story and work through the organisation can reach a wider breadth of people and help him to be a listening ear to those suffering in silence. Part of that includes Walters working with the production and writing team of TV soap Hollyoaks on a storyline which closely mirrors what happened to him, Unsworth, Fallon and many other young, aspiring footballers. Further to this, the cast of Hollyoaks have requested to hold a Hollyoaks versus Offside Trust football match to help raise money for the organisation. This is expected to take place in spring 2019. Other events that have been held to raise money and awareness for the cause include a zip wire challenge in north Wales where over £800 was raised and a organisation golf day with BBC journalist Dan Walker. A football event at Chester Football Club is also in the pipeline for next year.

The Offside Trust is working closely with grassroots football clubs and national organisations, including taking part in meetings and discussions with Premier League and Championship clubs. Unsworth says: “The two projects that we have got are ongoing that we’re working on with the Football Association (FA) and Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), we have to break down walls and open different doors to get there.” He continues: “We know this problem is ongoing and it’s not just in this country either – it is worldwide. So we’ll see where we go with this and time will tell; every gate up is a challenge.” While he acknowledges the importance of making changes at the top level, Unsworth points out that it’s usually the smaller community clubs where abuse tends to happen and is more likely to go unreported. “It’s normally run by volunteers and mums and dads so if there is a paedophile out there in the area, that’s where they start because they know how things work and these monsters are very clued up,” He says. “They know if they go to a Premier League or Championship club where’s there’s a lot of people about, they’ll get a lot of questions. But if they work at a lower ranking or grassroots club, that’s where help is needed so that’s what we’re targeting.”

While the Offside Trust is still in its relatively early days, Unsworth and Walters have the ambitious ideal of seeing sexual abuse completely eradicated from the sporting industry, saying: “We know that’s a tough challenge.” However, what he knows the organisation is definitely able to do is have its volunteers continue to raise awareness and share their stories and hopefully help others through those means. “I just wanted to tell my story to the funeral trade,” he says. “I wanted to reach out because you don’t know who’s listening or reading these articles. If I could reach out to one person who may have suffered any form of child abuse I would gladly help them. If it’s just the one person that’ll do for me.”

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of Funeral Service Times

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