‘The wounds never go away’ - football child sexual abuse survivor speaks out
- Credit: Archant
The voices of survivors of child sexual abuse in football are growing stronger. Lauren Cope spoke to Alan Arber, a familiar face in local football and a survivor, to talk about his work supporting those coming forward.
For Mr Arber, the repercussions of child abuse in football have rippled through adult life, affecting him at almost every turn.
His experience began when he was just a boy, facing years of abuse by his football coaches and threats not to tell his family.
Its impact has been severe - a previous marriage broke down, he lost his home, his mental health was deeply affected and he contemplated ending his life, resulting in care from Hellesdon Hospital and two years of gruelling counselling.
Trust and self-esteem remain difficult, and he has seen first-hand the lack of compassion from former employers. It is clear the pain is close to the surface.
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But his positivity and resilience shine through, along with his determination to, he says, "take light from the darkness".
Today, he is the East Anglian ambassador for the Offside Trust, a body led by ex-footballer Steve Walters and former professional golfer Chris Unsworth which supports survivors and works to make sport safe for children.
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He said his involvement, and the inevitable push to talk more widely about his experience, was difficult.
"It was a bitter pill because it reopens wounds that I thought had gone away," he said. "When you speak to the lads at the trust that's how we feel - the wounds are there every day of the week.
"That's what we deal with. It never goes away. But we are trying to take the positive out of it, trying to take light from the darkness.
"It was something I had wanted to do, because it had been my support mechanism and I wanted to put something back. I wanted people to realise there was another space, another place for support."
But when asked to be an ambassador, he said it took a few days for the request to sink in.
"One of the problems we have is that our self-esteem struggles badly," he said. "If anyone says I'm doing a great job the first reply is 'no I'm not'. I spend a lot of the day saying sorry, too. We all do."
His involvement is varied but falls into three main strands - supporting survivors, raising funds and promoting the work of the trust.
Since 2016, when the scandal of child sexual abuse in football began to emerge, Mr Arber, who lives in Norwich, said gaining support had, at times, been slow going.
Now though, with many now "realising we are not going to go away", he said they were making progress, and that several local clubs - including Mulbarton Wanderers, Hingham Athletic, and Thetford Rovers - now proudly wore the trust logo on their shirts.
And they have plenty of plans in the pipeline, including a day in Great Yarmouth where people will be invited to attend a match and see what the trust does, connections with a major youth league and even a survivors' day at Norwich City.
But with an independent report into the scandal now delayed indefinitely, and pressure from survivors to see it published, he said securing support at larger clubs remained a stumbling block.
"We know there are people who are struggling and can't come forward," he said.
"I do it so no-one has to suffer like I did. All the lads, their families, anyone. Because families suffer, it's not just us - it happens to the whole family.
"It affects wives and girlfriends; it affects the way we look at people. I don't trust many people, and I think the trust element is probably mixed up somewhere with the self-esteem.
"Our aim is to basically let people know if something happens then there is somewhere they can go."
He said, on a personal level, he also hopes to educate parents on some of the risks.
"Children's coaching sessions aren't glorified childcare," he said. "Maybe I feel more passionately about it than others, but you have children for a reason and you have to protect them as far as you can."
Today, Mr Arber, who holds three England non-league caps, said he is in a better place. He said the effect of abuse is never far away, but that he is now in a new relationship, and works for a supportive employer.
"Going to play football is what children love to do," he said. "But [the abuse] builds nightmares.
"My partner says there are still days and nights where I'm screaming the house down. But I have support now, the medication is good and I am in a better place.
"That's what we want to give to others."
Mr Arber has been involved with many clubs around Norfolk and Suffolk and played for Norwich City as a non-contract professional, playing in the reserves.