Dark secrets and bright new hopes: Blackpool hero Paul Stewart talks to The Gazette

Paul Stewart with his book Damaged
Paul Stewart with his book Damaged
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On the face of it, Blackpool hero Paul Stewart had it all...

He enjoyed a long career in top-flight football, clocking up 600 matches at all levels. He scored a goal in an FA Cup Final at Wembley, played for England and once he hung up his boots began a successful worldwide business employing up to 200 people.

But for 41 years he harboured a dark secret.

He suffered abuse at the hands of youth football coach and scout Frank Roper, who is now dead, from the age of 11 to 15 but maintained silence for more than four decades.

The young Paul was frightened to tell anyone of his ordeal, not even his parents, especially when Roper told him: “If you say anything to anyone, I will kill your mam and dad and your brothers.”

Maybe trying to bury such a dreadful secret, Stewart much later appeared to take refuge in drink, cocaine and ecstasy and there were times when he harboured suicidal thoughts and checked into an addiction clinic in Blackpool.

It was only when another footballer, Andy Woodward, went public with his own sad story of abuse at the hands of another coach that Stewart decided to reveal his troubled past, his principal reason being the over-riding desire that no other youngster should have to endure what he had to.

He recalls: “I saw Andy Woodward’s piece in one of the national newspapers. Without blowing my own trumpet, I looked at it and thought, ‘If I don’t say something, this may get lost and not get reported as it should’.

“I just felt after what I had been through over the years it was the right time for me to say something as well.

“I was going to email the newspaper that carried the story, but then a sudden wave came over me that I hadn’t even told my immediate family of my problems.

“I gave myself the weekend to speak to my wife and family to make sure they were comfortable with me telling my story and telling them for the first time . They were very supportive when I did tell them.”

Of his treatment at the hands of Roper, Stewart recalls: “I didn’t say anything to my parents and there was this threat that my parents and my brothers would be killed.

“There was also the fear that my dream of playing football (with Blackpool) would be taken away from me.

“All I wanted to do was to be playing football.

“I felt at the time I was left with nowhere to turn. It did change me – I went from being a happy-go lucky lad to a time when I wouldn’t speak a word.

“Now looking back as a 53-year-old adult, I would say that was a cry for help.”

Stewart said that if his father had found out what Roper had done, his dad would have killed the abuser.

“I knew that my father would have killed him but that was another reason why I didn’t say anything.

“I didn’t want my father to go to prison. I have no doubt in my mind that my dad would have done something if he had known what had gone on.”

Stewart says that abusers like Roper groom the parents as well as the youngster. He said: “That is a way that they all seem to operate. I was no different.

“He (Roper) gave my parents gifts. He was always round the house and looked like your long lost uncle.

“I regret that I didn’t take the chance as a young footballer to report him and maybe he would have stopped abusing many others. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.

“It is something that is on my conscience, but as a youngster all I ever wanted to do was to make it in the game. I chose to lock it away just so I could play the game I loved.”

In his new book – Damaged (Trinity Sport Media) – Stewart reveals further trauma regarding drink and drug abuse in his prime as a top-flight footballer.

He says: “I went down the wrong path and I have regrets, but I can’t change what I have done in the past only what I do in the future.”

Asked if going off the rails in such a spectacular, self-destructive way was down to the abuse as a boy, Stewart said: “I don’t think it is excusable what I did.

“There is an argument that says all the problems I had relate back to that, but I don’t want to be one of those who people feel sorry for.

“Again my family helped me to find strength.”

Stewart believes he is now in a good place but he takes nothing for granted as he looks to the future.

“I can still have a drink but I don’t socialise as much as I used to for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t want to go through those problems again.

“I never say never these days. The day you think you have beaten everything is the day you catch yourself out and go down the wrong path again.

“I am in a good place but I have to be mindful that I stay there and do not let the dark side take over again.”

When questioned whether Stewart thinks he is at peace with himself now, he replied: “People have asked me that question a lot.

“Has it helped writing the book? Yes, I think so, but in that process I have been down some dark places. Luckily I have a strong family network and they help me whenever I am struggling.

“But you are only one step away from being in a dark place and that is what I have to be mindful of.”

So do people approach him differently since he made his abuse revelations last winter?

“Very much so,” he replied. “It is more difficult for them to approach me because of the subject matter, but I haven’t changed since November. I am still the same Paul Stewart.

“I would say I am fine with what happened. I am dealing with it. I am not any different. I am still the same lad.

“It’s just now it is in the open and I have people contacting me, some of them on the brink, since I came forward to tell my story.”

Stewart and other players abused are working closely with the football authorities to try to prevent future abuse as much as is possible.

He said: “Their safeguarding procedures are a lot better than they were, certainly back in the day when I played.

“But we have to keep working to make sure that this never happens again.

“It won’t totally eradicate these people because they will move on to another area where they can access youngsters.

“When a child goes to a football club – not just to a professional club but a Sunday club – then the parents should be asking about the safeguarding of their children.

“The parents are going to leave their children there for up to a day sometimes, so they need to know they are safe.

“The first things I would ask as a parent are: who is the welfare officer and the safeguarding officer, and are all the procedures in place.

“That is the only way we can educate people to let them know how important it is.

“This is the biggest scandal I can remember that has happened in football, the game that I love.”

Paul Stewart Damaged (RRP £18.99) is on sale now, published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media.