Content warning: this article discusses childhood sexual abuse, rape, and the lack of legal support for survivors.
On 7th January 2019, the first day of the trial for his sexual abuse allegations, Michael ‘Kit’ Carson died in a car accident. It has been almost a year since Carson was charged with eleven counts of indecent assault and one count of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, and two years since the large scale investigation into endemic sexual abuse in youth football began. His offences are said to have occurred between 1978 and 2009 and all involved boys under the age of 16. Carson had previously denied the charges and according to his barrister had prepared a ‘robust defence’ for the trial, which had been expected to last eight weeks with eleven men testifying against him. The Police reported his death to be an unsuspicious collision which involved no other vehicles, so the trial was subsequently cancelled and the case against Carson was closed.
Carson worked in youth football in various capacities over many years, as a youth developer at Norwich, Peterborough, Cambridge United and Histon FC, and as a talent scout for Chelsea. He also ran his own football development centre, and was responsible for overseeing promising young athletes and guiding them into the world of professional football. He abused his position for over thirty years and died before he could face legal ramifications. However, it is important to recognise that Carson’s abuse is not an isolated case. The allegations about him came to light as part of the larger police investigation into child sexual exploitation in youth football in which, by November 2017, 784 victims had come forward with accounts of their own experience of sexual abuse, implicating 331 different football clubs. The perpetrators used their position of power to trick children, promising them footballing success in exchange for obedience and silence. They exploited the trust their victims’ parents placed in them when allowing them to take their children on training camps and overseas tournaments. This abuse was disguised as team bonding, building mental strength and medical examinations, leaving their young victims uncertain as to what was inappropriate and exploitative behaviour. It is therefore unsurprising how many of the survivors’ testimonies explain how it took until they were well into adulthood before they could understand the extent of their trauma.
Football culture can be dangerous. As a sport, football is idolised more than any other, and complaints and criticisms about the footballing world are often dismissed. Social investment in the sport and the culture of toxic masculinity combine to make it an especially difficult environment for the voices of sexual abuse survivors to be heard and taken seriously. The extent of the abuse came into the public eye after former professional player Andy Woodward came forward in 2016 and spoke about the years of sexual abuse he suffered from Barry Bennell. Bennell was a popular and respected coach, and so adored that, after he was arrested in 1994 for raping a 13-year-old boy, a ‘Friends of Barry Bennell’ fund was created to cover his legal costs, and his victim was accused of lying out of jealousy. Some clubs were found to have been aware of the predatory behaviour of their employees. At best it was dealt with internally and the perpetrator was quietly removed from his post, though not reported to the police; at worst, clubs were found to have ignored complaints completely, knowingly endangering the children for whom they had a duty of care. Aston Villa allowed Ted Langford to remain working for them as a scout for eighteen months after first being warned about him, and did not report him to the police. Langford was later convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for the sexual abuse of four young players.
The investigation is still ongoing and many arrests have been made, yet several of the accused died before their abuse became known. John Broome and Frank Roper both abused young hopefuls for many years but never had to face legal ramifications for their crimes. Michael Carson now joins them. The bravery of the men who came forward to testify against him cannot be understated. Ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, the eleven men who went to court seeking justice will never get to see him punished for what he inflicted. Some might see Carson’s death as ‘closing the book’, but we need to remain diligent and actively challenge the environment that enabled so many predators to get away with endemic abuse, and we need to use the increased awareness to campaign for justice. We must also continue prosecuting historic sexual abuse in youth football and support the survivors who come forward. We must fight to keep children safe in the future.