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Dave Merrington: The football system let victims of child sexual abuse down, says former Southampton manager

Ex-Southampton manager reported allegations made by players against Bob Higgins and police were informed but justice was not served until decades later; Dave Merrington feels the football system let his victims down

The Football Association has set ambitious targets for the next few years

A former Southampton manager, who reported sexual abuse at the club in the 1980s, says he feels the system let victims down.

It was not until 2019 that Higgins was jailed for 24 years for abusing trainees at Southampton and Peterborough United, and on Wednesday an independent review found that "significant institutional failings" by the Football Association had meant children were not kept safe.

Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports News, Merrington says he feels "personally that the system let us down" even though he reported the allegations and the police were informed.

"I went to court on behalf of the club," he said. "There was an opportunity then. Had something been done then, other boys wouldn't have been damaged and that is the sad part.

Sheldon Report: The key points

  • Four-year review published into child sexual abuse in football between 1970 and 2005
  • Evidence from 62 survivors and 157 further individuals
  • Clive Sheldon QC: "Survivors deserve to be listened to, and their suffering deserves to be properly recognised"
  • Sheldon: "It is important that this terrible history is not repeated"
  • FA "did not act appropriately" following Barry Bennell's release from prison in 2003
  • Historical failures identified involving Chelsea, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Manchester City, Crewe Alexandra, Stoke, Peterborough, and Southampton
  • By August 2020, Operation Hydrant had identified 240 suspects and 692 survivors
  • Sheldon: "I do not want to give the impression that abuse in football was commonplace. It was not"
  • Report makes 13 recommendations, including publishing safeguarding report every year

"We got all the boys together in the dressing room and said 'is there anything you would like to tell us? We know there was a lot of banter going on, but some of the comments you were making were a bit nasty and very disturbing'.

"I looked at the boys. They couldn't look at me. They looked around the room, up and down and I could feel the fear in the room. Nobody said anything. We couldn't get anything out of them. They closed up, I think out of embarrassment.

"You have to bear in mind, these young fellas, all they wanted to be was players. They just wanted to get through and make the grade and make the first team. To say anything about that was extremely difficult for them."

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Gareth Southgate says 'we must never be complacent' about safeguarding measures within football, after an independent review into child abuse between 1970 and 2005 found there were institutional failings at the top of the English game

Despite having very little concrete evidence at the time, Merrington was told to raise the matter with Bob Higgins, so he organised a meeting, which soon turned sour.

"I explained the comments to him and within a short period of time he got extremely angry, very aggressive", Merirngton recalls.

"He came towards me. I backed off. He pointed his finger at me and started shouting, very aggressively: 'If anything is said about me, I will sue them'.

"He stormed out of the players' lounge and within a week or two weeks, the manager came back to me and said he had resigned."

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Julian Knight MP says the Sheldon report, outlining child sexual abuse in football, is the most serious safeguarding issue in the history of the sport

Higgins was found guilty of sexually touching and groping 24 victims at a retrial years later. The Sheldon Report found the FA did not take issues of child protection seriously until the mid-1990s.

Before that, when much of the abuse of young boys was alleged to have taken place, the FA had not provided any guidance to clubs on how to deal with issues of child protection.

Merrington believes the detailed report means the FA now has an opportunity to lead the football world in child protection, but only if the organisation carries out the recommendations that have been made.

Southampton released a statement earlier this week in which they apologised "to all of the victims and survivors of the child abuse carried out by Bob Higgins at Southampton Football Club in the 1970s and 1980s".

For further information about child abuse, sexual abuse, or exploitation, for either you or someone close to you, please see the list of organisations listed in the child abuse section on Sky's Viewer Support page.

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