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First football sex abuse investigator finally 'vindicated'

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The woman who first shed light on child sex abuse in football has won a lifetime achievement award.

Professor Celia Brackenridge uncovered widespread problems in the game 15 years before the scandal erupted last month.

Now the Brunel academic, whose 2002 investigation was dropped when the FA pulled funding, has won the Sunday Times Sportswomen of The Year Award for lifetime achievement.

Professor Brackenridge, 66, is having treatment for leukaemia and too unwell to lead the current investigation. But speaking from her Hertfordshire home, she said she finally feels ‘vindicated’ the issue is in the open.

Frustrated at being too ill to get involved in putting the record straight, she described the award as ‘bitter-sweet’. “Many researchers never see their work have an impact on society. But I am fortunate enough to have seen mine produce a seachange in sport," she added.

“I kept going through the tough times when I was being rebuffed and ridiculed. I hope this leads to a permanent positive change in the welfare of athletes and the overall culture of sport.”

Professor Brackenridge, OBE, was England Lacrosse captain before turning to teaching and academia. Interested in sport sociology, she became Professor of Sports Sciences at Brunel, started the Women’s Sports Foundation and later, Brunel International Research Network for Athlete Welfare BIRNAW.

Speaking at the Sunday Times Sportswomen of The Year Awards, Dr Anita White, former chair of the women’s sports foundation said: “Celia led the way where others feared to go. She was a visionary. She has made a huge impact on the way sport has to do with young people, both boys and girls.”

In 2001, Prof Brackenridge began, with FA backing, a groundbreaking five-year project to look at child protection. Her team spoke to 189 children plus officials and coaches. But people in the game were reluctant to talk. The enquiry was scaled back and funding pulled.

Prof Brackenridge never dropped the issue and has released countless reports since, looking at athlete welfare, child protection and equality in sport, with two key books, Spoilsports  and Child Welfare in Football.

Brunel Special Collections houses a record of the academic’s life-time research, which she said means “researchers following me can see how a social justice issue can be investigated and think about the importance of record-keeping in social research”.