A harrowing story of innocence lost through vile abuse
Spectators tend to watch sport in black and white terms. A skilful deed in an important game may lead to instant hero status being conferred, whereas failure at any level often results in a stream of foul-mouthed abuse.
When was the last time you watched a sportsperson in action and stopped for a second to ponder if everything was alright in their personal life?
It's never been a top priority for me, but I hope I will change and try to be more charitable from now on after reading 'Damaged - My Story' by former England soccer international Paul Stewart.
It would be foolish, of course, to imply or to think that every poor onfield performance can be linked to a troublesome issue far removed from the playing fields. Sometimes players leading an idyllic life produce a nightmare display due to basic human nature.
However, Stewart's tale serves as a timely reminder that others have demons in the closet that make their achievements all the more remarkable.
The Manchester native was just eleven years old when his junior football coach abused him for the first time, and this harrowing tale of physical and sexual torture continued practically every day for four years.
It was only late in 2016, after another former player revealed a similar tale, that Stewart found the strength to reveal his own nightmare.
And while it's unlikely that he will ever fully recover from the horrors of his childhood, this book is part of a slow but steady healing process enabling him to fully appreciate the people he loves the most.
My main memory of Stewart as a footballer was the goal he scored in the 1991 FA Cup final to steer my own favourite club, Spurs, to glory at the expense of Nottingham Forest.
Little did I realise then that he was about to embark on a downward spiral of drink and drugs that undoubtedly played a big role in his subsequent flop in a Liverpool jersey after moving to Merseyside.
He won three international caps in the early nineties and, given what he had endured, it's to the immense credit of the man that he managed to forge any sort of career, let alone one which led to 559 senior career appearances and 139 goals.
He also played with Blackpool, Manchester City, Sunderland, Stoke City and Workington, as well as going on loan to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Burnley during his time at Anfield.
However, this isn't a story of his football career, it's a window into the dark days of the 1970s when this type of abuse was rife.
Stewart suffered in silence because his abuser, a vile individual named Frank Roper, told him from day one that he would kill his parents and two brothers if he told anyone of his ordeal.
Put yourself in the shoes of an eleven-year-old and try to imagine the terror that such a threat would invoke.
The sheer brass neck of his abuser will make the reader's blood boil. He inveigled himself into the Stewart family circle, buying the best of sports gear for Paul and calling regularly to the house with takeaway food treats.
The details of the pain inflicted on this innocent child chill to the bone, but somehow he survived and went on to forge a glittering professional career.
The abuse left him a broken man though but, thanks to a loving and supportive family, he managed to survive an ordeal that led others to suicide. This raw, uncompromising book serves as a timely reminder of the dangers lurking in our midst that are so often ignored.
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