Jimmy Aggrey was a victim of the Chelsea racism scandal – now he wants to talk

He was the tallest player. Even at the age of 16, Jimmy Aggrey stood well over six feet. The big lads went at the back. Line up and smile for the camera, please.

Chelsea liked him. They thought he had a good chance of making it. For such a tall kid, Aggrey had quick, skilful feet. His future was bright at a time, in 1995, when Chelsea were re-establishing themselves among the most glamorous football clubs in England.

“When I joined Chelsea, Glenn Hoddle was the first-team manager,” says Aggrey. “Ruud Gullit arrived later. The place was full of superstars: Gianfranco Zola, Frank Leboeuf, Roberto Di Matteo. So I can understand why many people might think it’s a great photograph. They should have been the greatest times of my life.”

Aggrey was in his fourth year in Chelsea’s youth system when that photograph was taken at their home ground, Stamford Bridge. So how does it feel, all these years later, to look at it now?

“You can see it in my face,” he says. “It’s full of stress, there’s no joy. I’m not smiling.

“I look at that boy and I just want to tell him, ‘You’re all right now, you got through it’. Because I know what he suffered. I wouldn’t want to go back to my life at that time.”

Jimmy Aggrey, circled in yellow, with Chelsea’s youth squad and the coaches who bullied him — Gwyn Williams (middle row, circled) and Graham Rix (bottom row, circled) (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

This is the first time Aggrey has spoken publicly about the culture of racism and bullying at Chelsea that led to an independent inquiry by children’s charity Barnardo’s and prompted the Football Association to bring in the police. It was, in Aggrey’s words, a “feral environment” in which he and other young black footballers were subjected to what the FA’s safeguarding investigation described as “vile abuse”.

In speaking to The Athletic, Aggrey has waived the anonymity that was granted to him by the High Court in 2018 as the first of four ex-players who launched civil action against Chelsea. On the night before it was due to go to trial, Chelsea agreed out-of-court settlements. The club do not accept liability but have apologised for “the terrible past experiences of some of our former players”. A number of players have received damages in follow-up cases.

The two perpetrators are on that team photograph, circled in red, and the most shocking part is that they were the coaches who had been entrusted to look after boys as young as nine.

One is Gwyn Williams, who spent 27 years at the club and was found by Barnardo’s to have subjected boys to a “daily tirade of racial abuse”. The other is Graham Rix, a former England international who was allowed to keep his job as Chelsea’s youth-team coach despite being sent to prison for under-age sex offences.

“Between them, they took away a large part of my childhood,” says Aggrey. “They were a tag team, every bit as bad as one another. And yet, I look at them now and I just feel pity. I refuse to let them keep me in some kind of mental jail.”

He is 45 now, a father-of-three happily settled in a part of Devon, in England’s south west, that likes to call itself the English Riviera. He has a charity, which has the Chelsea Foundation as a partner. Life is good. Waiving his anonymity, he says, is another part of the healing process.

In 2018, Aggrey was listed only as AXM in the High Court action against Chelsea that exposed one of the worst racism scandals in English football. Three weeks ago, The Athletic successfully applied to the court to overturn the anonymity order, including a written submission from Aggrey and a supporting letter from Chelsea.

“I’m ready to talk,” he says. “I’m proud of who I am and the resilience within my DNA and soul. But it’s not just about me. It’s about trying to help others and, if telling my story helps only one person, I’ve done my job.”

Jimmy Aggrey has a new life in Devon (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

If you want just a tiny insight into the culture Aggrey had to endure, it can be found in the glossy pages of Chelsea’s matchday programme for their game against Ipswich Town on January 20, 2001.

It was the day Zola made his 200th Chelsea appearance. Claudio Ranieri, the manager, paid tribute in his programme notes. So did Dennis Wise, as vice-captain, and chairman Ken Bates. Chelsea won 4-1 with Marcel Desailly and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink among the team’s A-listers.

On page 61, meanwhile, there was an article that briefly mentioned Aggrey, who had moved to Torquay United, and the observation from his time at Chelsea that he was “almost too nice to make it in football”. Aggrey, according to the author, was a “very tall, very lean, black guy who was the butt of a lot of jokes”.

It was a strange choice of words — why even mention the player’s colour? — and it would need a warped mind to portray what Aggrey encountered as innocent humour.

“I’d never experienced racism before,” says Aggrey. “I knew it existed. I’d seen it on TV and heard my parents speaking about it, but nothing had ever been said directly to me. Then I arrived for my first day at Chelsea and my first encounter with Gwyn Williams. His first words were, ‘Who’s this lanky f*****g c**n?’. That was my welcome to Chelsea. I was 12 years old.”

Aggrey, the youngest of three children, had been raised by Ghanaian parents a short distance from Griffin Park, Brentford’s old ground. He went to the same boys’ school, Isleworth & Syon, as Mo Farah, the future Olympic and world champion runner, and started attracting attention from football scouts while playing for West Middlesex Colts under-12s.

Football was his dream, but even at a young age he also knew it was a way to help his family to a better life. His mother was a cleaner, working long hours to provide for her children. His father ran a security company based in Wembley, north-west London.

Jimmy Aggrey, aged 11, with his youth football team Middlesex Colts (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

So the young Aggrey realised, early on, that if he wanted to fulfil his dreams he may have to learn how to deal with the abuse from his own coaches.

“How does a 12-year-old boy react to an adult in that position of power? He (Williams) calls you a lanky black b*****d. He refers to how dark you are. ‘Can you run like Linford Christie (the British sprinter)? Do you rob grannies on your estate? Are you keeping fit so you run drugs round the tower blocks?’. He would look at me in this way I’d never experienced from anyone. I didn’t know how to deal with it. All I wanted was to play football.”

Williams joined Chelsea in 1979, running their youth system for 20 years and taking huge influence at all levels of the club. He was racist, hard-faced and so divisive there were times when he arranged whites-v-blacks training matches. It was, to quote one player, like a “mini Apartheid state”.

Yet Williams somehow managed to keep it away from some of the key personnel at Chelsea even when, in Aggrey’s words, “we had a manager (Ruud Gullit) rocking dreadlocks”. Williams went on to become assistant manager to Ranieri and formed part of Jose Mourinho’s scouting staff before leaving Chelsea in 2006.

“I used to dread getting picked up for training,” says Aggrey. “We would go into the changing room. He’d walk in: ‘Hey, look at the f*****g blackies in here … f*****g rubber lips’. Let me tell you something, that was the most demoralising feeling you could ever have.

“I remember walking to the training ground and I’d be thinking, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? I can’t wait for this day to be over’.

“It was relentless, and it got physical, too. Gwyn would give you a slap. He’d flick your scrotum. Or if he was really mad and thought you’d had a bad game, he’d give you a crack round the side of the head. It was hard, a man hit. ‘You little black b*****d… you w*g’. I was 13. It took a lot out of me. He addressed me that way every single time he saw me.”

Gwyn Williams, then Chelsea’s assistant manager, at the 2000 FA Cup final (Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Some people might wonder why the players never reported it at the time. Why, Aggrey is asked, did he not speak out? But that would be to underestimate Williams’ position at Chelsea and the sport as a whole.

“That guy had power. You’re scared of people with power. It was said he had the biggest black book in London,” says Aggrey. “There was no proper safeguarding back then, anyway. If I said I wanted to raise an issue, guess where I would have been told to go: Graham Rix or Gwyn Williams. Go to the top of the club? But that was Ken Bates, the chairman, and Williams was his right-hand man. So you’re helpless, you’re cannon fodder. I was a minor. And that guy (Williams) was the governor.

“He could make or break you, not just at Chelsea, but break you when you leave — ring another manager and say, ‘Don’t touch him, he’s just another aggressive black guy’. I wouldn’t have had a career.”

Aged 15, Aggrey tried to find another way. He got a number for the FA, rang it from his home phone and asked to speak to the chief executive, Graham Kelly.

“I told the person on the other end of the line what it was about. She said, ’Can you hold the line?’. Then she came back a few moments later. ‘No, he’s too busy to speak to you today’. It was a brush-off.”

Terrorised by his own coaches, Aggrey started to develop a stutter. He was playing, he says, with “strings of confidence”. Every day was an ordeal.

“I’ve got diaries that I wrote at the age of 13, 14 and 15 and they’re harrowing. It’s a cry for help from someone who didn’t want to be alive. I was coming home quiet, all my confidence stripped away. It affected my life, my self-worth, my self-love. Even in my twenties, it affected my relationships. I didn’t really care about whether I lived or died until my kids came along.”

A former schoolteacher, Williams’ working relationship with Bates was so strong he followed him to Leeds United, taking on the role of technical director, in the years after Roman Abramovich’s 2003 takeover of Chelsea.

Williams, credited with discovering the young John Terry, ended up being sacked by Leeds for gross misconduct after he emailed pornographic images to colleagues, including a female member of staff. He had three years scouting for Hull City and, now 76, he is permanently banned from the sport after a FA safeguarding investigation into the bullying and racism claims ruled he posed “a risk of harm to children within affiliated football”.

Although he denies ever assaulting a player, Williams has accepted that he used extreme racial language. In his evidence to the High Court, he said it was never his intention to cause any hurt or offence, on the basis that “it was just the typical banter that would have been found in almost any male environment at that time”.

As for Rix, he was sentenced to a year in prison, serving six months, and put on the sex offenders’ register after admitting, in March 1999, two charges of unlawful sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Rix was reinstated by Chelsea immediately after his release. He was the first-team coach when Chelsea, under Gianluca Vialli’s management, won the FA Cup in 2000 and had a spell as caretaker manager after the Italian’s sacking later that year.

Rix, who won 17 England caps as a player for Arsenal, was suspended for two years while the FA investigated the complaints of bullying and racism. He was allowed back on condition he attended a series of educational courses. Up until a fortnight ago, Rix, 66, was the manager of Fareham Town in the Wessex League, but banned for life from under 18s’ girls’ football.

Graham Rix (right) with Gwyn Williams at Chelsea’s 2000 FA Cup final against Aston Villa (Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images).

“How that man is still in football, I will never know,” says Aggrey. “What other profession do you know where someone can be put on a paedophile register and go back to work in that industry within six months? It’s scary. I find it hard to understand how he’s still allowed in football.”

Rix has always denied any form of racial, physical or emotional abuse. A seven-month police investigation concluded without him or Williams facing charges and the Barnardo’s report, published in 2019, concluded that Rix could be “aggressive and bullying” but, on the evidence presented to its inquiry, not racially abusive.

Aggrey’s evidence to the High Court, however, depicted Rix as a racist bully with violent tendencies.

On one occasion, Aggrey says he was cleaning one of the first-team player’s boots when Rix started abusing him and, according to court documents, threatened to “lynch (his) black arse”. Tired of the constant harassment, Aggrey made a retaliatory comment. Rix’s response, he says, was to go red with anger and throw a cup of hot coffee into his face.

Rix, he says, assaulted him more than once, with punches and kicks and one incident in a training match when the ball went out for a throw-in.

“They (Rix and Williams) had this stereotypical idea that a big black guy should be mouthy and forever smashing people,” says Aggrey. “They thought I was soft. I liked to read, I could write poetry. I was a gentle person. My feet were my gifts.

Jimmy Aggrey, aged 17, featured in a Chelsea matchday programme (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

“I was 16, in the first week of my YTS (youth-training scheme), and Rix used to join in with training. He went to take a quick throw and I was standing directly in front of him. So he has just gone — bang — and thrown it as hard as he could into my face.

“There was no reason for it, just all that anger and hate inside him. Those balls were pumped up hard. My nose popped, there was blood everywhere. I was on the floor and Rix was shouting for me to ‘f*****g get up’.”

It was a month after his release from Chelsea that Aggrey tried to take his own life. He was 18 and free, finally, of the two men who had made football so hard and unforgiving. But he was lost, broken.

“I had a massive argument with my dad. He felt I’d wasted my life and that I could have gone to university. I went to my sister’s, bought two bottles of wine with whatever money I had, and got smashed. I was there, drunk, and I saw some tablets on the side. I just thought, ‘F*** it’. I grabbed a load and dashed them down the back of my throat. Then I just went to sleep.”

His sister, Lillian, saved his life. “She had been out that night and came back to find me. She literally dragged me to the toilet and put her fingers down my throat. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was puking up. All I can remember is waking up and her saying we needed to go to hospital.”

Jimmy Aggrey with his sister, Lillian, who found him after his suicide attempt (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

Aggrey was taken on by Fulham, then a fourth-division side, where the manager, Micky Adams, could never understand why a talented and dedicated midfielder from one of England’s top clubs had been “stripped of self-confidence”.

Adams submitted a written report as part of Aggrey’s legal submissions to the High Court. Aggrey, he wrote, was “a good professional with a beaming smile, but I always felt behind that smile was a person who clearly had his confidence knocked out of him at Chelsea. Whoever was responsible for that, I don’t know. He never gave me a problem. He was always on time and always gave his all”.

Aggrey moved to Torquay where he reinvented himself as a centre-half and won the supporters’ player-of-the-year award in 2001. Life on the south coast suited him. But the trauma was still there. There were nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks, waking up drenched in sweat, swinging punches in his sleep.

He played with fire burning behind his eyes. “If I came up against an opposition player who had the same accent as Rix, or spoke like Williams, they were triggers. I’d try to take them out, two-foot them. I ended up being one of the most booked players in Torquay’s history. I was trying to play the role of henchman because they (Rix and Williams) used to say I was too nice.”

Jimmy Aggrey with a player of the trophy award at Torquay (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

Over time, he came to realise he had post-traumatic stress disorder. It is the same for a lot of the kids at Chelsea who understand why Barnardo’s referred to a culture in which “the ongoing and repeated use of racially abusive language appears to have created an atmosphere in which abuse was normalised”.

These kids are now in their forties and fifties. Some find it too difficult to watch Chelsea on television. Others cannot go anywhere near Stamford Bridge. Aggrey has learned how to manage his own issues. But he can remember how “unnerving” it felt when he was invited to the ground in 2019 to meet Bruce Buck, then Chelsea’s chairman.

A psychiatric report, presented to the High Court, talks of him, as a younger man, experiencing “very severe distress and feelings of isolation and humiliation, all of which totally undermined his confidence in his footballing ability and as a young person at a critical age”.

He spent the rest of his playing career drifting through a variety of non-League clubs. There was an enjoyable spell with Welsh club TNS, lining up against Manchester City in a UEFA Cup qualifier in 2003. Overall, though, Aggrey’s love for football had diminished in his youth. He retired at the age of 27.

“I felt relieved,” he says. “But as a father of young children and, with the 2008 financial crash around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been any worse.”

To spend time in his company now is to find a man who is entirely comfortable in his own skin. Aggrey has a big smile and a big personality. The thought occurs more than once that football’s anti-racism organisations should want to tap into his knowledge and experience.

But it is only in the last 10 years, he says, that he has been able to shift the “heavyweight burden of unpacked mental trauma”. It was a long battle to get through “the internal, intrusive day-to-day thoughts that played on a loop. ‘What could I have done? Why did I let them do that to me?’. The self-blame, guilt and anger”.

There were other issues, too. Aggrey never earned the money associated with Premier League footballers. At the age of 28, his house was repossessed due to being unable to keep up with mortgage payments and arrears.

“One of my friends let me use his car, a Volvo S40, and that became my house. I’d find car parks where I wouldn’t be recognised and I’d sleep in the back seat. I spent my 32nd birthday sleeping in my car.”

Other friends gave him food. If he was in London, he would go to Brentford leisure centre for a shower. The woman at reception knew him from when he was a boy and waved him through. Or returning to Torquay, he would go to the Grand Hotel on the seafront and sit in an alcove where he knew there was an electricity point.

“I’d plug in my phone, ask for a glass of water and make it last, sometimes four or five hours. Then I’d get back in the car, park round the corner and try to keep warm and get some sleep. This went on for months. I felt like a failure. But these experiences have helped make me what I am today.”

It is an extraordinary story even before we mention that Aggrey has worked as a football agent, had a role in the Sky One series Dream Team and has written an eight-part TV series of his own. ‘Jimmy’ tells the story of his life — powerful, gritty, yet also uplifting.

His foundation, set up with the backing of the Professional Footballers’ Association, is dedicated to helping young people in marginalised, poverty-hit communities. TNS are one of the partners via his friendship with the club’s owner, Mike Harris, and their kits have been distributed to kids as part of one project in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is easy to understand why Aggrey talks so passionately about the Homeless World Cup, which will be held in South Korea in September. He became involved via his friend, Kasali Casal, a former Fulham player who became the football director for TV series Ted Lasso.

“Playing football after being homeless is dear to these people,” says Aggrey, “and it matters to me greatly after everything I have experienced.”

His father, James Sr, died in 2021. So much went unspoken and it will always be a source of pain that they never healed a rift that, at its heart, stemmed from a boy trying to protect his family from the brutal realities of Chelsea’s youth system.

“He had dreams of me becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” says Aggrey. “Because I was strong academically, he didn’t understand why I was embarking on a journey to be in a sport where I wouldn’t be accepted.

Jimmy Aggrey, pictured aged 13, had anger issues as a result of his treatment at Chelsea (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

“I didn’t want to tell him what was happening. Mum, as well. That was a heavy coat to wear as a kid. But they weren’t ones to confront institutions, so it would have been internalised and affected the whole house.

“He saw the changes in me. I had temper issues, getting into fights. I was going out too much. I think he saw an unobliging kid who had wasted his gift of academia.”

Life continues to have its challenges. Aggrey is coming to terms with the recent death of his aunt Irene. Last week, it was the funeral of Paul Holmes, his friend and ex-Torquay teammate.

Overall, though, he is in a good place, radiating warmth, signing off emails with “love and light”. He has learned to heal. And, in a strange way, it feels therapeutic for him to share his experiences, no longer living a secret.

“I feel blessed how my mind, my resilience and unwavering hope has kept me alive and going,” he says. “The line was thin and I can’t change the past. But I have to use my experiences for good and be grateful I’m still here.”

The Athletic asked Gwyn Williams and Graham Rix to comment, but neither has responded. Fareham Town have also failed to respond. Graham Kelly, who left the FA in 1998, said he could not recollect being told about the telephone call from Aggrey.

Whatever you’re going through, you can call the Samaritans in the UK free any time, from any phone, on 116 123.

(Top photos: Daniel Taylor/The Athletic; courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey; design: John Bradford)