From the moment I first stepped into the same Sunderland dressing room as Paul Stewart, I was in awe of him.
I’m even more in awe of him now.
First of all, let me say that as shocking as these child sex abuse revelations are, they aren’t a total surprise. The potential extent of them are, but from the moment I set foot in the full-time game, there was always a shadow hanging over football for me.
At the time, it was only rumour and hearsay, but when conversations turned to Crewe Alexandra, the dark insinuations were never far away.
I just saw it as people making twisted jokes and unfounded accusations on the basis of the club’s emphasis on youth
Then I spoke to a someone who had not begun his career at Crewe but had been transferred there in his early 20s and the anger with which he spoke of these ‘rumours’ said to me there must be some truth in them.
But surely if they were true, something would have been done about it by now? That’s what I thought. Naively.
That it has taken this long shows the just how heavy the burden has been carried by victims.
Not that Crewe are the only club. Players around the country – like Stewy – are now coming forward.
It was difficult to watch someone who I have always identified as a strong individual look so vulnerable. Watching Stewy repeatedly bare his soul in front of the television cameras drew a myriad of emotions from me. Sadness. Anger. Sympathy.
Above all, what I felt was an overwhelming admiration for the man. A man I’d known in our time together at Sunderland as a genuinely funny guy who lit up the dressing room.
As a 20-year-old I was in awe of Stewy. He had achieved things I was still dreaming of, and despite the slight star-struck anxiety I had when I was with him, I was drawn to him.
Not that we got off on the best footing. In one of our first training sessions, I came sliding out at his feet to block his run. It was one of the perverse situations you miss as a keeper when you no longer play.
The type of 50/50 challenge where your upper body collides with the ball and the forward’s legs in perfect synchronicity.
The timing is like the perfect golf shot; minimal contact, maximum impact, leaving just enough pain for it to somehow feel satisfying. Both of us ending up entangled on the floor. The ball free somewhere, expelled by the force of the challenge.
As I struggled back to my feet, I could feel resistance. I was being pulled back. Instinctively, and somewhat stupidly, I kicked out, catching Stewy somewhere around the throat.
Have you ever had your life flash before your eyes? That moment in a movie when the camera does an extreme close-up, right into the eyes the victim of misfortune, just in time to catch the pupils dilating as the adrenaline shoots through their veins. That was me. Pure panic.
As Stewy grabbed me, I waited for my punishment. Bobby Saxton attempted to defuse the mismatch from the sidelines – “Stewy! Leave it. It was an accident”.
We all knew it hadn’t been but he seemed to value my life enough to step in.
My mouth, still disconnected from my brain, offered some resistance. A final act of bravado. And it was an act.
The rest of training and the journey back to Roker Park was a blur. Reality was setting in. I was heading back to the dressing room and I was going to have to face Stewy.
At 20, apologising and admitting you were wrong in front the whole dressing room doesn’t enter the equation. Do that, and no matter what the real perception is, your ego takes over.
Rather than saying “Look, I was wrong. I’m sorry,” and holding out your hand, you prepare for confrontation. Show weakness and you’re as good as dead anyway. Or that’s what you think.
I walk in and scan the dressing room. Stewy’s sat with his head down, taking his socks off. Richard Ord sees me come. He looks over at Stewy. This is it.
“Stewy, what about Preecy starting on you?” he says. Stewy hasn’t seen me yet.
“Yeah, I know. Fair play to him.” Then he looks up and sees I’m in the room. At this point I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen. He gets up and makes a beeline for me.
My breathing gets more shallow. Regret engulfs me. Stern-faced, he asks “What do you think you were doing?”
I shrug my shoulders, the disconnect between my mouth and brain more notable now. His nose is six inches from mine and just as my whole body tenses, a smile breaks out over his face, confusing me.
“Don’t do that again, Preecy. I thought you were going to kill me. I was really scared.”
He was the one holding out his hand. He was the one forgiving me for my act of immature stupidity. He could have embarrassed me in front of everyone and after my behaviour, I’d have deserved it.
But he didn’t. What he did was teach me a valuable lesson that I took forward from that day.
I’ve fallen out with almost every player I’ve played with in my career but with rare exception, the first thing I’ve done as soon as I step off the training pitch was to apologise, whether I was at fault or not.
Whatever ignorant crap the likes of Eric Bristow might spout, men like Paul Stewart aren’t wimps.
He stepped away from the stereotype of what was expected of a “man” and showed me how to rise about ego, bravado and faux machismo. And what he is doing now is a far greater than any kind of physical retribution he could hand out.
Paul Stewart’s bravery is in helping others come forward and deal with the demons they’ve held inside for so long. And that makes him more of a man than anyone I know.