Eight years ago, an 11-year-old girl called Darcy Wells trundled off a playing field at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground and looked up to see one of her heroes standing by the touchline.
‘John Terry,’ she smiles. ‘He sometimes came over to watch training. He pulled me to the side and said he could see me playing for Chelsea one day. He said I played really well and that he liked my football boots, which had my name engraved. Jose Mourinho watched me train once as well.’
After spending her earliest years in football at Arsenal, Darcy moved to Chelsea’s centre of excellence, where she harboured aspirations to a career in women’s football.
After spending her earliest years in football at Arsenal, Darcy Wells moved to Chelsea
‘I genuinely believe I had the potential to be an England and Chelsea first-teamer,’ she says
‘I genuinely believe I had the potential to be an England and Chelsea first-teamer,’ Darcy says. ‘I was a centre forward. I used to watch videos constantly, of all the top strikers. I still love Lionel Messi, he’s from another planet. In the periods I could be fully focused on football, I was as good as anybody. But then everything changed.’
Shivering and cowering in the alleyway of her family home, Darcy is now 18 years old and her life is an altogether different experience. It is April 2017, and it is the second time we have arranged to meet. On the first occasion, she spent the previous evening with friends and did not return home for the meeting in the morning.
The second meet is also unsuccessful. Stripped of her self-confidence and composure, Darcy cannot bear to look or converse. It is a haunting and unsettling picture, as she paces the street and peers down into her mobile phone with her hood down.
Along with her parents, Andy and Donna, we agree to cancel the interview. In February this year, we are invited back to their home: Darcy is ready to talk.
The 19-year old Wells now has a baby girl of her own, River, and she speaks with eloquence
Walking into the Wells household, the confident and composed young woman sitting before me is scarcely comparable to the shell of a person encountered a year earlier.
Darcy now has a baby girl of her own, River, and she speaks with eloquence.
Darcy explains: ‘I’ve read and seen the brave men who came forward to talk about their experiences under the paedophile Barry Bennell. And I admired the courage and persistence of the Chelsea striker Eniola Aluko in challenging the Football Association.
‘I hope we are now at a stage where young women can be heard and respected. Unless we talk about it, things don’t change. The more people that speak out, it helps kids in the long run.’
Her parents, who own a flooring company, are supportive of her decision to speak out.
Darcy’s mother Donna says: ‘It’s about other people not having to feel scared, to know it is OK to come forward. I would hate any parents to go through what we have.’
Darcy’s story begins on the playing fields at Cobham, where her Chelsea Foundation coach Shane Hughes first became her mentor and then her tormentor.
Darcy explains: ‘He was very friendly. Everyone liked him. If you didn’t know what he had done, you would say he is a nice guy.’
So, what did he do? ‘He started off by touching me in training inappropriately. That’s how it began. He would move people into their positions and it felt as though he would leave his hands on me for too long.’
Darcy’s story begins on the playing fields at Cobham, Chelsea’s training base in Surrey
Soon after, he took Darcy’s mobile phone number. The exchanges became flirtatious and Hughes then sent naked images.
‘I was shocked when I first received the pictures. I was 12, I didn’t really expect it, they were explicit,’ she says.
He sent explicit photos of himself to me… and then he made threats
The images were found on Darcy’s phone by a schoolteacher. ‘I was showing my teacher my new pair of football boots. It was a Blackberry and I scrolled along. It felt instinctive, as though I wanted somebody to help.’
The school immediately informed the police. Within 24 hours, Hughes had resigned from Chelsea. Yet the consequences for Darcy endured.
Before the images were found, the pair had exchanged messages for ‘several months’, Darcy says.
‘He made threats to me. He threatened me at training. He pulled me to one side to say, “If you tell anyone…”.’
Did she return explicit images to him? ‘Yes, it was the way he was demanding and very aggressive in asking for them. If I didn’t send them, he was threatening to come to my house. He said he would come to my house and take me away. That’s why I sent them.
‘This went on for a few months, all the time he was employed as a Chelsea coach. I was too scared to tell anyone, my parents, my friends. He called it our secret.’
‘He made threats to me. He threatened me at training,’ the striker recalls to Adam Crafton
Soon enough, Hughes extended his gaze, taking an interest in Darcy’s older sister, Paris, who was 16 at the time.
Darcy grimaces: ‘He asked for my sister’s number, and I gave it to him. That was around the same time. He made it appear normal, but I started to realise. When I showed my teacher my football boots, I scrolled on purpose to the picture of him on my phone so they could see him.’
When the images were found by Darcy’s teacher, Hughes sought frantically to cover his tracks and began with emotional blackmail. ‘He sent a text to me saying how his mum needs him,’ reveals Darcy. ‘I was 12. He was in his twenties.’
Hughes, now 33, was handed a police caution and his name was placed on the sex offenders’ register for two years.
In the loft of the family’s home in Biggin Hill, south-east London, are the remnants of Darcy’s childhood. She retains those boots that John Terry admired, as well as 53 more pairs that she worked her way through. She has kept her Chelsea kit stashed away up there, too.
‘I can’t let go of it,’ she says. ‘Strikers will know what I mean when I say I miss that feeling of scoring a goal. But sometimes I just feel overcome and I can’t play. It’s everything that surrounds the sport, everything that it has been associated with in my life.’
Yet for Darcy, the images were only the beginning of her struggle. Previously the life and soul of the group, she began to suffer mental health difficulties, she became isolated at school and started self-harming.
After Hughes departed, Darcy remained at Chelsea initially.
After Chelsea Foundation coach Shane Hughes departed, Darcy remained at the club initially
Donna explains: ‘He had resigned. Darcy said she still wanted to go down there and it was a big club and a big opportunity she did not want to lose. But as she went down there, things started to become worse and worse. It all blew up. It spiralled out of control.’
Within six months, Darcy was admitted to London’s Maudsley hospital, the largest mental health training institute in the country.
While in hospital, Darcy alleged to her nurses — and later to her family — that she had been repeatedly raped by Hughes at the Chelsea training ground.
The police and CPS brought the case to trial in October 2015, where Darcy gave evidence behind a screen. The jury is reported to have heard a recording of a police interview.
Hughes admitted that the ‘texting got out of control’ and became flirtatious. He also said he texted the 12-year-old girl outside of working hours for the ‘ego boost’. Yet a tense and emotional five-day trial culminated in Hughes being cleared of the rape charges.
Afterwards, Darcy’s mental health deteriorated further. ‘I didn’t have a childhood afterwards,’ she says. ‘It ruined my life.
‘At school, I was in all the top sets but I could not cope with it after that. I left school after Year 7 really. It all went downhill.’
She has not sat any GCSEs or A-levels. ‘As a teenager, I was just at home. I didn’t really have friends. I wasn’t functioning. I was in hospital at one point for three months.’
During her teenage years, Darcy has made repeated suicide attempts. On one occasion, her mother walked into her bedroom at their Biggin Hill home to discover Darcy hanging. There were several attempts at an overdose. Life became a permanent battle for Darcy. For her parents, there was unimaginable anxiety when they would return home to find their daughter had disappeared and left behind a goodbye note.
‘It impacted us all,’ says Donna. ‘It was devastating. You cannot imagine what we have been through. When a parent takes their child anywhere, you expect it to be safe, but a big club like that — definitely.’
Wells posing for a photo with a medal and holding a trophy while donning her Chelsea strip
For Chelsea, this is a deeply unsettling story. This is not a relic of the 1970s. It happened just seven years ago and during the Roman Abramovich era.
The club, it should be said, were supportive after the images were found on her phone at school.
Chelsea made attempts to keep her engaged with football. They gave dispensation where Darcy did not feel able to attend training (she would often suffer flashbacks), allowed her to train with the Under 17 age group and also held a number of meetings with the family, as well as liaising with the authorities.
The Premier League and FA say they were satisfied with Chelsea’s handling of the case but the family feel that the club should have had in place a specific welfare or safeguarding officer dedicated to the girls’ younger age-group teams.
Chelsea point out that they fulfilled all the Premier League safeguarding criteria, but an additional welfare officer was employed for the young ladies age groups in the aftermath of the images being found, while they have also brought several welfare officers more formally into the safeguarding process.
Yet when it came to the trial, the family were left with the impression the club had let them down. Two former Chelsea employees, Emma Barnes and Bridget Higgs, who worked at the club at the time of the abuse, took to the stand to give evidence that supported Hughes’s defence.
However, Chelsea point out that two current employees not only refused to defend Hughes but also gave witness statements to support his prosecution.
Despite Chelsea’s overtures, the family do not feel that the club offered sufficient support either during or after the trial and that is a major factor in their decision to speak out now.
Searching for a change of environment, Darcy left Chelsea in 2014 (a year before the trial) and joined Charlton.
During her teenage years, the former Chelsea youngster has made repeated suicide attempts
Chelsea made a couple of calls to check in after she stopped attending training, but soon gave up. In the aftermath of the trial, where the extent of Darcy’s mental health struggles were laid bare, Chelsea’s contact dried up.
The club felt it would be inappropriate to make unsolicited contact with the family after initial attempts were rebuffed.
‘I feel they could have done more after the trial,’ Darcy says. ‘I am not asking for much — just check in regularly to see how I am and if they can help.
Donna says: ‘It did not feel as though they were there and present for Darcy. It felt like they were there for Chelsea. It felt as though they did not care. What I find annoying is they can act this way… but if it had been their child, it would have been different.’
The FA were made aware of the case in the earliest stages, handing a life ban to Hughes. Yet they made no contact with the Wells family to offer support.
Instead, they say this was the responsibility of children’s services, the police and the respective agencies involved. Chelsea have pledged to this newspaper that they will meet the family, if they wish, and offer support. The FA insist their door is open.
Hughes, meanwhile, has since changed his name by deed poll to Shane McNally and declined to comment.
The FA’s QC-led inquiry into historic abuse has a breadth of 1970-2005 and the family believe it should be extended.
Donna says: ‘Strip it down and my 12-year-old daughter suffered abuse in 2011 at a Premier League football club. Definitely there are grounds for that to be broadened. Darcy shows why.’
Searching for a change of environment, Darcy left Chelsea in 2014 and joined Charlton
Now 19, Darcy is in her best place for quite some time. She is settled with the father of the baby, and before her pregnancy she worked for the Chartwell Cancer Trust and organised fund-raising events.
She rocks baby River in her cradle, exchanging giggles, and laughter breaks out in the living room. This is a happy household for the first time in a long time.
Darcy has hopes of returning to football. ‘I can’t let go of football,’ she says. ‘Tottenham are the team I support. Dad has season tickets and Harry Kane is obviously my hero. I am hoping to go to trials at clubs in June.
‘Crystal Palace have been looking at me for a few years so I may go to trials there. They contacted me last year, but then I was pregnant. They said the door was open.
‘I am so happy with the way the sport has come on for women. We are getting better recognition, better money, and rightly so. Manchester United are finally on board, which is great for the profile.
‘I sometimes watch Chelsea Ladies on the television. But I just think, “That should be me”. There are times I can’t handle that. It just runs through my mind… “I could be there, playing, scoring goals, right now”.’
Darcy hopes to return to football and is pleased at growing recognition of the women’s game
She pauses, then says: ‘I do not want to put someone off from going to Chelsea, though. It’s a great thing to play for a big club. I enjoyed it to start off. And then once it started happening, it became different and I could not enjoy it any more.
‘But I am not ashamed to speak out and I hope women in the game admire me for speaking up.
‘Young women need to know they can speak out, be heard and that they are not alone.’
On Wednesday night, a Chelsea club spokesman said: ‘We are fully committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all children and young people who are in our care or attending our premises. Their welfare is of paramount importance.
‘The safeguarding policies and procedures in place at the club, and at the Chelsea Foundation, are robust, continually reviewed and audited regularly each year by the Premier League.
‘We offered Darcy and her family our full support,’ a Chelsea club spokesman said
‘We are confident that in this case, we could not have done anything more than was undertaken at the time. However, we are always determined to learn, to do the right thing and to have the best systems in place.
‘We offered Darcy and her family our full support and assistance at the time and afterwards, and will continue to do so.
‘We sought to keep in contact with Darcy after she left the club, and despite our attempts to do so it became clear that this is not something that was wanted at the time.’