Manchester United lionised as the star manager of its first female football team a convicted paedophile who abused young girls, The Times can reveal.

Geoff Konopka, in charge of Manchester United Ladies from 1983 to 2001, was celebrated by the club for his early involvement with the women’s game and recently visited Old Trafford as a “special guest” during a match attended by thousands of children.

An investigation by The Times has found that he was sentenced to four years in prison in 2011 and put on the sex offenders’ register for a decade after being convicted of 19 offences of indecent assault and gross indecency against girls aged under 16 and 14.

Despite Konopka also having an “active suspension” on the Football Association’s safeguarding system — banning him from working or coaching for any team — United commemorated his career and featured him in a display at the Old Trafford museum.

In response to the revelations, the club said that it had been unaware of his crimes and expressed “its heartfelt sympathy to the victims and all those affected by these abhorrent crimes”.

The club confirmed that it “will have no further connection” with Konopka and had contacted the legal and football authorities “as a matter of urgency”.

The Times has spoken to several former players from the United Ladies squad who first alerted the club to Konopka’s convictions. In emails to its safeguarding co-ordinator, they expressed their “shock” and “disgust” at seeing him “paraded hand-in-hand with Manchester United” in promotional material published on its website in July.

The United team beat Newcastle 2-0 at Wembley in 1996 in a match played before the men’s Charity Shield

The United team beat Newcastle 2-0 at Wembley in 1996 in a match played before the men’s Charity Shield

In an online article presenting Manchester United as an early advocate of women’s football, which was also published in a printed programme given to fans at a game last year, the club highlights the success of “Konopka’s Reds”.

They were one of the first female teams to play at Wembley Stadium, in 1994 and again in 1996, in informal fixtures regarded as milestones for gender equality in the sport.

Konopka, 79, was quoted praising the club for helping the squad, noting that “we were so well looked after” at Wembley with food, travel and branded kits paid for.

While there was scant mention in the piece of the female footballers who played, the club detailed an “extensive list of trophies they won under Konopka”, including the manager of the year award.

It also revealed that Konopka “in recent years has enjoyed seeing the current United Women side in action” and supplied memorabilia to the stadium museum.

In March last year he was at a Women’s Super League game as United’s special guest to watch the team play against Everton at home. The match, which he attended alongside a former United Ladies player, broke attendance records with more than 20,000 fans turning up to show their support, many of whom were young girls with their parents.

The former players, who played at the historic Wembley games, demanded a public apology from the club for presenting Konopka as the “hero” behind their sporting achievements and for allowing him to attend a recent women’s game as a “guest of honour”.

They also disputed United’s portrayal of how well they were treated, describing it as a “misogynistic” and “woman-hating club” that refused to provide them with footballs to train with or proper kits during matches in the 1980s and 1990s.

In one email to the club, a complainant said: “These women who have finally had their moment have been tainted by this disgusting human. Give them their true moment to shine. Name them individually so they get their moment they so deserve. Let them tell you the real stories of the hardship and grit they had to get to the stage they did for the love of the game.”

Another email, from a former United Ladies defender, reads: “The women’s game is ever evolving and there are a lot of vulnerable girls wanting to pursue their dreams who will be reading and looking at your website and possibly looking at him as a role model. I am sickened and disgusted to see this vile man online.”

The players also told The Times that Konopka had made them feel uncomfortable when he was managing the side. One said he often entered the changing rooms without knocking. Konokpa strongly denied the claims as a “pack of lies” and insisted he always knocked before entering.

The former players also said they had substandard medical equipment to treat injuries and had to fight the club just to be given footballs. “They sent us some really old, knackered ones on a couple of rare occasions,” a player recalled, adding that they were given access to club training grounds extremely rarely.

The United Ladies team also played at Wembley in 1994 against Oldham Athletic

The United Ladies team also played at Wembley in 1994 against Oldham Athletic

Team members claimed that they had to pay for their own club tracksuits and kit at cost price, as well as for their own coach travel to games, including when they played at Wembley.

Konopka acknowledged that he served prison time for offences he said were “historical” and took place about 30 years before his sentencing. This would have been just before his association with Manchester United.

“I never, ever entered the dressing room without knocking and never entered before I knew that everyone was changed and decent,” he said, before defending the club, saying there were “never any arguments with United over training balls” and that their travel to Wembley was paid for by the FA.

Manchester United would not take down the article after first receiving complaints, telling complainants it was “still in the fact-finding stage” while investigating their allegations. A safeguarding co-ordinator at the club said in one email that they are unable to find details of Konopka’s criminal convictions.

However, the co-ordinator assured a complainant that “Geoff is not involved in football with children at the club”, adding that an “FA suspension prevents individuals from working and coaching within football and with children”.

The online piece was deleted on Tuesday, a day after The Times contacted the club with conviction information from courts and the police. All mention of Konopka has been erased from museum displays and the club insists there have been no breaches of its safeguarding obligations.

Manchester United Ladies was dissolved in 2005 but reformed as Manchester United Women in 2018 under the official umbrella of the club. The team is regarded as one of the most professional and competitive teams in professional football.

The club said in a statement: “Manchester United has recently received information around these convictions, and as a matter of urgency has been in contact with the relevant legal and football authorities to substantiate the facts.

“The club has taken appropriate action after receiving this information and will have no further connection with the individual. Manchester United expresses its heartfelt sympathy to the victims and all those affected by these abhorrent crimes.”