Crewe agree first settlement with Barry Bennell victim after U-turn

Crewe Alexandra have dramatically changed their position in the face of widespread legal action from Barry Bennell’s victims and agreed the first out-of-court settlement for damages since the club’s former youth-team coach was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

The deal was signed off on Tuesday and represents a significant climbdown on Crewe’s part bearing in mind the aggressive tactics they have been using to fight the claims in the high court. The club’s lawyers were calling for the cases to be thrown out but the Guardian’s information is that they will now offer similar settlements to more of their former players.

That process would mean Crewe following Manchester City, the other club most seriously implicated in the Bennell scandal, by deciding it would be better to take this approach rather than the prospect of meeting their former players in court and potentially having to pay out significantly larger sums.

Yet Crewe, the Guardian can also reveal, have declined to offer any form of apology as part of the first arrangement of its kind, which involves a player who was sexually abused, aged 11 to 14, during his years in the club’s youth system. The player in question, now in his 40s, had also asked Crewe to apologise to his parents but that, again, was turned down.

Speaking anonymously to this newspaper, he said: “It was never about the money because no amount of money is ever going to give me my childhood back or stop me from thinking every single day about what happened to me as a boy in Crewe’s care.

“When I came forward two and a half years ago, having seen [another former Crewe player] Andy Woodward waive his anonymity, my only aim was to get Barry Bennell sent down to make sure he was off the streets and couldn’t do this to anyone else.

“However, the fact Crewe never contacted me, or any of the players, and never showed any human side, knowing what they did, angered and upset me, caused me even more anxiety and stress and has now brought us to this point. Crewe like to be thought of as a so-called ‘family club’ but that club made me fight all this way. Even now we have had to try to force out an apology from them and they still won’t offer one.

“I would have liked an apology for my parents because of the guilt they feel. They shouldn’t feel that guilt, it’s the people at Crewe who should feel guilty. Maybe, if the club had apologised two and a half years ago, it might have looked genuine. I know now that it would mean nothing anyway because it would be a forced apology, rather than a genuine one.”

His solicitor, Dino Nocivelli of Bolt Burdon Kemp, said he hoped there would now be “a domino effect that will bring justice and closure to so many survivors who have been hoping for decades for the same”.

He added: “We had to force Crewe Alexandra into a corner before they finally acknowledged they had little option but to engage with us and look to settle this case. The club used every tool at their disposal to fight this case. This resulted in me having to issue court proceedings at the high court to apply pressure on them to do the right thing, finally.

“This settlement is very important to my client as not only has Bennell paid for his acts of abuse but now Crewe have been forced to pay for their failings. It is disappointing that the club still refuse to apologise but, considering how hard we have had to fight for our client, it is clear to us that any apology from the club would not be genuine. Sadly, and often in abuse cases, sorry is the hardest word.”

Asked about the settlement and lack of apology, Crewe issued a statement saying: “The club does not consider it appropriate to comment on individual cases that are being dealt with by its insurers, except to reiterate that it sincerely regrets the abuse committed by Barry Bennell and expresses its deepest sympathies to the victims and survivors.”

Crewe are still facing a number of other claims in the high court and have brought in a law firm, Keoghs, which is regarded as a specialist in defending organisations from claims relating to child-abuse cases. The club’s defence, stated in legal papers, was that it would not be possible to have a fair trial relating to events from the 1980s and 1990s.

Many of Bennell’s victims now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other related issues and say they were unable to report Bennell as children because they felt shamed into silence and fearful of the consequences. Crewe’s legal argument was that there was “no adequate reason” for the delay.

Crewe’s lawyers had also argued that Bennell’s crimes were “not committed in the course of his duties” and that there was no record of the club ever paying him to have boys stay overnight – even though this newspaper has a copy of his expenses account, claiming £5 a boy per night.

For the former player who has received the first settlement, Crewe’s tactics have made the recovery process even more difficult. “To find out Crewe were basically saying ‘prove it’ felt like being back in court again, being cross-examined by Barry Bennell’s barrister,” he said. “I expected to have to fight Bennell, I never expected I would have to fight Crewe. I wasn’t expecting this ‘family club’ trying everything possible to try to get out of it.”

Referring to the chairman, John Bowler, and the director of football, Dario Gradi, he added: “Not only do I believe they should be out of that club, I firmly believe they should be out of football, full stop.” Gradi, who brought Bennell to Crewe, is suspended by the Football Association but has denied any wrongdoing.

Bennell, 65, was convicted last year of 50 specimen charges relating to 12 of the boys, aged eight to 14, he coached in the junior systems of Crewe and Manchester City, from 1979 to 1991. At least 97 others have reported him on the back of Woodward’s interview in the Guardian in November 2016 and Bennell is facing the possibility of another criminal trial involving at least nine complainants.