In a sumptuous room inside a luxurious hotel in the centre of Manchester, the country’s media anxiously await the arrival of a man whose story has rocked English football to its very foundations.
Since Andy Woodward went public with allegations that he experienced sexual abuse as a young footballer in the 1980s, the nation’s favourite sport has been left in crisis and, in the process, forced to do some soul-searching.
Following Woodward’s story, a number of his peers have also come forward with tales of unimaginable suffering.
This week, some of those men have joined together to launch the Offside Trust, an independently-run body aiming to provide support to players and the families of those who have suffered sexual abuse in football and other sports.
According to Woodward and his colleagues, the Trust won’t just be a way to help those who have been abused while playing the sport they love, but also represents a direct response to institutions that, in their view, have failed to protect them.
“A number of people who have come forward have indicated that they don’t have trust in the establishment,” says Edward Smethurst from Prosperity Law LLP, a Manchester law firm in charge of administering the trust.
“We are not here to criticise any of the establishment bodies, but we do have to respect the sensibilities and the opinions of the victims.”
Wearing a crisp blue suit, hair combed neatly into place, Woodward’s composed demeanour masks the tremendous emotional stress he has revealed to the world he had to endure for decades, in silence until now.
Hearing him retell his story time and again, it is evident that, although exhausting, this process of letting the world know the horrors he says he experienced as a boy is both cathartic and a way to help others.
“I’m totally overwhelmed, the emotions are just unreal,” he says. “I can’t believe how many [people] have come forward, but I just encourage more and more [people] to have that strength and have that belief to do it.”
Sitting beside Woodward is Steve Walters – a former football prodigy whose career was cut short due to a blood disorder – who says he fell prey to the same serial child molester as Woodard. The person in question can no longer be named for legal reasons.
Walters tells me how his story has affected every aspect of his life. “It has ruined marriages, the relationship with my children, flashbacks, lack of sleep, panic attacks,” he tells me.
Walters speaks of “injustices” done to him for the past 20 years by those in charge of the sport he once loved. But he also knows how he would like to start turning the page and move on with his life.
“An apology [from Crewe Football Club] would be a start,” he says. “For them to not even put out one small apology, it does hurt.”
Since Woodward’s allegations were first made public on 16 November, 18 police forces across the country are now investigating claims of historic sexual abuse in football.
Every player I speak to at the Offside Trust launch in Manchester describes this as an epidemic, and that, in modern Britain, some children are still at the mercy of paedophiles operating within the sport.
“I do believe it’s happening,” says Jason Dunford, who also claims to have been abused at Crewe Alexandra. “I believe it’s happening on a lower scale than when we were children, but as a father of a young boy who is around the football industry at the moment, I still have worries.”
Woodward coming forward has had worldwide implications. Walters and Dunford tell me they have been contacted by players as far-flung as South America and Australia who say they have been through the same ordeal as young footballers. The men are adamant this is not a UK problem, but a football one – wherever the game is played.
Woodward is mentally drained. Prior to the interview, he repeatedly tells me how the whirlwind of the last few weeks has affected his health. But he knows that this is his chance, perhaps the only one he’ll get, to help those like him.
“The closure will be when I feel like I’m satisfied that I have done everything I can to help as many people out there as possible,” he says. “People with children in football need protecting.”