Chelsea abuse victim furious Gradi isn't facing more questions

‘It is staggering that Dario Gradi has been let off the hook by this report. Why can’t they see his evidence is NONSENSE?’: Chelsea abuse victim is furious that former Crewe boss isn’t facing more questions over his role in football’s abuse scandal

  • Abuse victim Eamonn Manners is not satisfied with review’s findings into abuse
  • The ex-Chelsea youth star claims Dario Gradi should be facing more questions   
  • Manners was assaulted by Eddie Heath in 1975, with Gradi then Blues assistant

Scarcely able to digest what he was reading, Eamonn Manners sank back in his chair and shook his head in resigned disbelief. Perhaps more keenly than most, Manners had been waiting with anticipation for the independent review into football’s child abuse scandal, particularly Dario Gradi’s input.

It was to Gradi, an assistant coach at Chelsea, that his father complained in late 1975 when Manners was assaulted by 6ft 5in club scout Eddie Heath, now exposed as a ‘dangerous and prolific child abuser’.

Manners was a 15-year-old Chelsea youth player and by all accounts an outstanding prospect. Nothing was done about his complaint at the time, however, leaving Heath free to continue molesting boys and Manners’ dream of turning professional shattered.

Eamonn Manners is no satisfied with the review into football’s child abuse scandal and believes former Crew boss Dario Gradi should be facing more questions

What, more than 40 years later, would Gradi tell the review’s author, Clive Sheldon QC, and what would the lawyer conclude? As he combed the report’s 710 pages, Manners was shocked to read that Gradi was being effectively ‘let off the hook’.

One passage stood out. Far from burying Manners’ story, the report says former Crewe Alexandra boss Gradi, now 79, recalled that he tried to raise it with Chelsea’s acting manager, only to be rebuffed with an ‘ugh’ noise which Gradi ‘understood… to mean something to the effect of, ‘Oh, that’s all I need’.’

A startling response, for sure, but this wasn’t what angered Manners. It was that Gradi dated the exchange October 1974. ‘This meant that what Gradi was claiming was impossible for a simple reason,’ says Manners. ‘The assault took place a year later, in late 1975. It is clear to me that he didn’t report the matter to the acting manager in this way.’

His father complained to Gradi, then an assistant coach at Chelsea, about abuse claims in 1975

But couldn’t Gradi have simply got the year wrong? After all it was a long time ago. Manners says that Gradi effectively ties his account to one date in particular — which is why he says it cannot be true.

While driving home from the meeting with Manners and his father, Gradi told police he heard on the radio that Chelsea’s manager had just been sacked.

He said he told the ‘acting manager’ about the complaint the following day. This can only be a reference to the dismissal of long-serving manager Dave Sexton on October 3, 1974, and the appointment of Ron Suart as acting manager, the man Gradi claims he told about Heath’s assault on Manners.

‘It would be a simple matter for Ron to clear up, but he died in 2015, which is rather convenient for Gradi. It’s despicable that he has pinned this on Ron Suart.

‘I want his family to know he never let himself or them down. He never did receive that complaint. It is an impossibility.’

Presumably it also crossed Sheldon’s mind because he says in his report: ‘I asked Dario Gradi whether he had made up his account of reporting the disclosure to the acting manager as he would have been aware that the acting manager was deceased when he first gave his account. Dario Gradi denied that his account was in any way fabricated.’

Manners was assaulted by club scout Eddie Heath, now exposed as a ‘dangerous and prolific child abuser’

Manners finds it staggering that the crucial discrepancy wasn’t explored by the Sheldon team. ‘Surely he [Gradi] should have been challenged about it. And if it was overlooked then that’s worrying too. I have been consistent all along about when the assault took place.

‘It is not possible for me to be mistaken. I remember that I stayed at the club for a few more months after the meeting with Gradi before leaving in the spring of 1976.’

In a previous interview with this newspaper in 2016, Manners, waiving his anonymity, revealed that Heath assaulted him at Chelsea’s training ground, thrusting his hand down his shorts, touching him inappropriately several times and trying to pass his actions off as a joke.

When Sheldon questioned Gradi about Heath’s actions he received a worrying response. Sheldon says in his report that Gradi ‘explained that he did not consider a person putting their hands down another’s trousers to be an assault.

‘I informed him that it was and he then accepted that. Dario Gradi considered that the essential element of the accusations against Heath was ‘petty touching’.’

When Clive Sheldon questioned Gradi about Heath’s actions he received a worrying response

During the 1975 meeting with his parents, Gradi — in an apparent attempt to ‘smooth over’ the complaint — had offered an extraordinary explanation. ‘Dario said that Eddie loved the boys and the club, which was his life, and had simply got carried away and gone too far,’ said Manners. ‘He said he would have a word with him. I remember being surprised by this reaction. I thought what happened to me would be pretty heavy news.’

In his evidence to the review team, Gradi said that Manners’ father insisted during their meeting that he didn’t want Manners’ disclosure acted upon or to get Heath into trouble. This, says Manners, is ‘complete nonsense’. And to this day, his father is insistent that if what Gradi says were true ‘there would have been no point complaining’ or having a meeting.

Manners’ father told Charles Geekie QC, who conducted a separate investigation into sexual abuse at Chelsea, that ‘he gave me the assurance at the meeting … that he would ensure that the person responsible would be spoken to and that there would be no repeat of the actions which I complained about.’

Manners’ father — described by Mr Geekie as a man of ‘extraordinary dignity’ — wanted his son to leave the club, but Manners was adamant that he should return. At the very least, he reasoned, Heath’s advances would surely stop. Also, in six months, the club would be selecting their apprentices and Manners had been given every indication by club officials that he had a bright future.

Other youth players recalled that Manners was a ‘stand-out’ player of ‘exceptional quality’ who was expected to turn professional. They refute claims made recently by Gradi that Manners ‘is blaming the sexual stuff going against him becoming a footballer’. Mr Geekie also rejects this view.

The next time Manners went to training after the summit with Gradi, Heath burst out of his office and ‘looked down on me and said in deadpan voice, ‘Do you still love me?’.’ After this, Manners was made to feel alienated and isolated. He said: ‘Soon after this Heath approached me after a game and publicly tore into me, criticising my football. This was shocking as he never spoke to anyone like this. Others who saw it could not believe it. I felt humiliated and stopped enjoying football.’

What was clear to Manners, then as now, was that the club had taken no action against Heath. Mr Geekie said: ‘And by telling Mr Heath alone, Mr Gradi exposed Manners to bullying and intimidating behaviour by Mr Heath’. Mr Geekie found aspects of Gradi’s account ‘somewhat unlikely and unconvincing’. He does not believe that Gradi told anyone other than Heath about the assault.

During the 1975 meeting with his parents, Gradi had offered an extraordinary explanation

As a consequence ‘an opportunity to prevent Mr Heath from going on to abuse others was lost’.

Last week’s report was notably less critical of Gradi, with Mr Sheldon concluding that it ‘seems to me possible’ that Gradi did mention the disclosure to the acting manager. ‘I am staggered as this lets Gradi off the hook,’ said Manners.

Manners left Chelsea, his spirit broken, of his own volition at the age of 16. He got a job at British Airways where he remained for many years before starting a business importing ceramics from Mexico. He is now a self-employed sales consultant. For a while he played football semi-professionally and coaches an amateur side.

Gradi has always denied any wrongdoing. It emerged last week that he is banned by the Football Association from working with under-18s because of a safeguarding issue.

In a statement on Friday night, he said it was ‘of note’ that Sheldon’s review did not find he failed to report allegations against Heath in 1975 but he apologised for ‘not recognising signs of abuse’ carried out at Crewe by paedophile Barry Bennell.

Bennell — who worked at Crewe in the Eighties and Nineties — is serving a 34-year sentence after being convicted of child sexual abuse five times.

The review found Gradi, Crewe’s manager from 1983 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2011, ‘should have done more’ to investigate concerns about Bennell, but said he was not involved in a cover-up.

It emerged last week that he is banned by the Football Association from working with U-18s

It is the first time Gradi has issued an apology on the matter and came a day after a victims’ group called for him to be stripped of his MBE.

‘I wish to express my deepest sympathy for the survivors and their families,’ said Gradi.

‘I sincerely and personally regret that the harm being caused to these young people was not discovered at the time. I apologise for not recognising any signs of abuse at the time.’

The review, commissioned by the Football Association in 2016, focused on the abuse of children within football between 1970 and 2005.

Gradi’s statement added: ‘I am of course satisfied with the findings of the review in which it is acknowledged by Clive Sheldon QC that I did not act improperly towards children at any time and that I was unaware of the unlawful activities of Barry Bennell.’

He apologised for ‘not recognising signs of abuse’ carried out at Crewe by paedophile Barry Bennel

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said last Wednesday that Gradi was ‘effectively banned for life’ from football, but could not go into the reasons.

The FA’s director of legal and governance, Polly Handford, said it was ‘for safeguarding reasons’ but that was ‘as far as we can go’.

However, Gradi has denied he is banned from all football-related activity.

‘I would like to make it clear that this is not the case,’ he said. ‘I am suspended indefinitely from certain specified activities with players under the age of 18 years and whilst I do not agree with it, I understand how the decision was arrived at.’

Bennell — who worked at Crewe in the Eighties and Nineties — is serving a 34-year sentence

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