File photo of a Chelsea FC flag. Photograph:( Reuters )
Victims recalled that Heath used "sexual innuendo" in the changing room, but made sure "that his most serious sexual assaults took place in private," it added
Young hopefuls at Premier League giants Chelsea were abused for years by a "prolific and manipulative" coach as staff at the club "turned a blind eye", an independent report said Tuesday.
The report, led by lawyer Charles Geekie, found that the club's former chief scout Eddie Heath, who died in 1983, was able to operate "unchallenged", abusing boys aged between 10 and 17 in the 1970s.
Victims recalled that Heath used "sexual innuendo" in the changing room, but made sure "that his most serious sexual assaults took place in private," it added.
Heath's behaviour was an open secret among players and staff.
"The boys all knew it was safety in numbers, you didn't want to be the last in the van, you risked being groped by him or having your bum slapped. He was regarded as 'Nightmare Eddie'," one witness said.
Chelsea said in a statement that "Heath was a dangerous and prolific child abuser" whose conduct was "beyond reprehensible".
"Although the club today is a very different place from the club then... we will not shy away from responsibility for what happened in the past," it added.
Claims for compensation are being assessed by insurers for the former European champions.
Heath was sacked when England World Cup-winning hero Geoff Hurst took over the club in 1979. But the former striker, now aged 77, denied knowing about Heath's behaviour and turned down requests to be interviewed for the report.
Geekie talked to 23 witnesses who claim that they were targeted by Heath, saying they painted a picture of an "audacious, manipulative risk-taker".
One witness said staff and players "must have known or been suspicious of what he was doing... but turned a blind eye to it."
One former player described how Heath would come into the urinals and watch, while another said he peered over the shower cubicle while he was inside.
Heath would lavish praise on his "favourites", inviting them around to his house to watch football matches, offering out money and sweets and befriending their parents.
Many said they were fearful of telling the authorities and getting Heath into trouble, while others "wanted to impress him" to ensure they kept being picked.
One former player said the abuse had had a "massive impact on me and my family".
Veteran manager Dario Gradi, who worked at Chelsea at the time, also came in for criticism, with the report finding he failed to report Heath despite receiving a complaint that he had indecently assaulted a boy in the showers.
Ex-Chelsea football star Alan Hudson said it was "common knowledge" that Heath was a paedophile.
"It was common knowledge that Eddie Heath was a 'nonce' (slang for paedophile)," Hudson wrote on Facebook when the allegations first surfaced.
Players from other London clubs he worked for, Leyton Orient and Charlton, also came forward about his predatory behaviour.