In my role as a lawyer I have represented many people who have suffered greatly in their lives, and in that time I have learned that it is never easy for people to open up and talk about distressing and difficult times.
It is something I know many of my clients find hard to do when they are talking just to me alone, even though I am someone they know is there to support them and not to judge them, but listen and try to understand how what has happened to them has impacted on their lives.
With that in mind, it has been striking and powerful to see how six former Chelsea youth footballers have coped with delving back more than 30 years in their lives to relive what they have described as ‘horrible’ and ‘horrendous’ times at the club as children and apprentices.
They have opened the door on an issue which for more than three decades has not been discussed, but is now subject to a major independent investigation, and increasingly under the scrutiny of the national media.
Key to this was the first former Chelsea youth player who contacted me earlier this year and decided to speak out about the racism he was a victim of.
He felt he had been driven out of the sport he loved by continued racist abuse from his coach at the time, and spoke about how it had impacted on his life, his career and his confidence.
Having supported many people who have suffered in similar circumstances, the impact he said it had on his life was not something which shocked me. However, it was the reaction to this man’s account, and the impact it had on others, which did surprise me.
More players came forward and contacted our firm and each said that player’s account had made them reflect on their past. They had found it difficult to read, difficult to recall their own experiences of racism, or difficult to think they witnessed it and never challenged it.
Two white players, Gary Baker and Grant Lunn, who had not been victims of any form of abuse themselves but who wanted to support their former colleagues, came forward as they said they had seen players being racially abused first-hand, so often it was ‘the norm’.
Four of these men had played in the same Chelsea youth team in the early 80s, but had not seen each other or all been together for more than 30 years.
Another two players, who played in the youth teams later on in the late 80s and early 90s, had not met anyone else involved before.
Witnesses came forward as they felt it was right thing to do
It was clear Grant Lunn and Gary Baker were not people seeking the media spotlight, in fact they were somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of becoming involved initially. It was the sense of feeling, and a need to do the right thing, that made them become involved.
They all individually decided the time had come to speak out and each headed to London to conduct interviews with the BBC, ITV and Sky News. Understandably they were each nervous about what lay ahead that day, as would anybody not used to speaking in front of television crews and into cameras.
However, as each former player gave their account of what happened, I was struck by their determination, and their emotions.
They had each spoken to me in the days before about their concerns with regards to speaking out, but when stood side by side people who had not seen each other for decades, some who had never met and others who had never spoken of this matter to one another since parting ways, came together.
They each spoke of perhaps feeling too weak, or of being in fear as children to speak out when at Chelsea years ago.
Highly emotional, they found the strength to firstly openly admit what happened has affected their lives, but also to collectively send a powerful message that racism against children – no matter in what era – was unacceptable and wrong.
Chelsea, who have said they are taking the matter ‘extremely seriously’ and are ‘absolutely determined to do the right thing’ have now instructed children’s charity Barnado’s as a result, to carry out ‘an independent review into allegations of non-recent racial abuse at the club’.
I believe that, and the courage of those who have spoken out so far, will lead to more people now feeling able to come forward, and being given the support they deserve.