Maintaining support for Crewe Alexandra during the last 18 months has been a trying experience. Under manager David Artell (a low-cost internal promotion after Steve Davies was sacked in January 2017), the performances on the pitch have been depressing enough (Crewe have lost more games from winning positions than any other Football League team). But if you listen to pub conversations about the club at the moment they are as likely to be about off-the-pitch matters as about action on the pitch.
There are ongoing legal wrangles about financial matters, with a former Crewe director, Norman Hassall, appearing to have taken money out of the club at a time when it could have done with an injection of funds to bolster the first team and to continue the support for Crewe’s Academy.
However, the more difficult and public issue has been Crewe’s involvement in the United Kingdom football sexual abuse scandal. It was a former Crewe player, Andy Woodward, who first went public with allegations against one-time Crewe coach Barry Bennell in November 2016. At the time I was dismayed at Crewe’s handling of the crisis, suggesting a ‘no comment’ policy did more harm than good. I welcomed the club’s promise to conduct an independent investigation by external legal counsel into its handling of the sexual abuse allegations, though – in the Blunder of Crewe – it then relapsed into ‘no comment’ mode: a strategy that inflamed media criticisms rather than countering them, and which has prompted an ‘us and them’ anti-media siege mentality among some Alex supporters.
Some 15 months later and Barry Bennell has been tried, convicted and jailed after being found guilty of 50 offences of sexual assaults against young players. The trial at Liverpool Crown Court thrust Crewe into the limelight once again for historical off-the-pitch matters. Once the trial ended, the club was initially quick to express its sympathies to Bennell’s victims, but it still did not apologise to them (something that continues to frustrate Andy Woodward and other abused players). And we have seen further accusations from a prominent former prosecutor that Crewe engaged in a cover-up of its failings.
This might have been refuted, but – most disappointing of all – Crewe issued a statement shelving its independent enquiry. My one ray of hope was extinguished in a second! The club claimed that as the police had conducted an exhaustive investigation, Crewe’s own enquiry would only have replicated it. It also sought to undermine allegations made by a former Crewe director, Hamilton Smith (by some accounts, his accusations led to former Crewe chairman Norman Rowlinson being advised by the police to ‘move Bennell on’), and it expressed ‘sincere regret’ and ‘deepest sympathies’. But while other clubs (Manchester City, Chelsea) have welcomed external scrutiny in addition to police investigations, Crewe has decided that the appointment of external legal counsel is no longer ‘the correct way forward’.
On 27 February, Adam Breeze, a friend and fellow Crewe fanatic (he and I were regular contributors to the Alex fanzine, Super Dario Land, in the 1990s), publicly divorced the club in the pages of The Guardian. Deeply disenchanted at the club’s management, I am sorely tempted to follow suit. The club I have followed since the 1970s has never had deep pockets, but dropping the independent enquiry looks like the conveniently cheap way out rather than the best way out.
(An edited version of this article entitled ‘No Comment, No Apology’ was first published in issue 21 of “The Blue & White“, Chester F.C.’s fanzine, at the invitation of editor Neil Bellis.)