As one of the country's most respected gymnastics and trampoline coaches, Paul Wells trained tens of thousands of youngsters - until his 20-year career was ruined by claims of child abuse.

He spoke exclusively to Lindsay Jennings about the four-year fight to clear his name.

THE rhythmic spring of the trampolines and the high-pitched laughter of school children could be heard on both sides of the heavy curtain. The din which echoed around the great hall was punctuated with barked reprimands from the teachers and the squeak of trainers on the polished floor.

The afternoon of Monday, November 16, 1998 was like any other Monday during term time. Paul Wells, the head gymnastics and trampoline coach at a sports centre in Newcastle, was patiently giving instructions to pupils, along with another coach, a teacher and a student, while on the other side of a partition in the hall, an 11-year-old girl was bouncing on the trampoline with a friend, being coached by Paul's daughter, Ashley.

As Paul drove back to his suburban Newcastle home that night, he was thinking about buying a new car. With three grown-up children, he was at a time in his life when he and his wife Elsie could afford to spend a bit more on themselves. He was unaware that the 11-year-old girl in the gym class was about to accuse him of the most heinous crime he could imagine - child abuse.

"I had no idea really who this girl was before she made the allegation," he says. "I knew she was one of the children who came during school hours with their teachers. But we would hardly speak to them because time was so short. To this day, I don't know why she chose me."

The girl had complained that Paul had gone around the curtain, grabbed her around the waist and moved his hand up and down her chest and stomach before slapping her bottom. When she told him to "get off" he allegedly replied: "You weren't like that when I was all over you last night."

Paul had been a coach for 20 years. He had coached up to 600 youngsters a week and his students included 32 national schools and British Trampoline Federation champions.

The children were either pupils visiting with their teachers or club members who were dedicated athletes. The school youngsters would visit for hourly sessions every week. But with the club members, the relationship between coach, athletes and their parents was much deeper - one of camaraderie and respect.

Paul is one of those old-fashioned people who insists on commitment and hard work. He would watch impassively during competitions, but his face would break into a huge smile if they won and words of praise would come tumbling out along with a congratulatory hug.

Asked to describe how the children saw him, he says as a second father. He would advise them to work hard at school and to get themselves off to university. Often children and parents would pile back to Paul's home after competitions. Elsie would feed the jubilant army, while in the living room, one of the dads would pop on the video he had recorded, so they could re-live the heady moments.

We are sitting in the same living room. On the walls are pictures of the Wells' smiling children in their graduation gowns. Paul brings over coffee and puts down a plate of chocolate biscuits. "I'm old-fashioned, me," he says with a shrug. " I put my arms around people."

It is this "old-fashioned" streak, from an era when it was safe to comfort or congratulate a child without being called a child abuser, which became his enemy in a politically-correct world.

Two days after the original allegation, Paul was suspended from his job as head coach and duty manager of the sports centre by Newcastle City Council. They could not say why, only that it was to do with his conduct at work. It was a month before he discovered the nature of the allegations from his solicitor.

Four weeks later he found himself splashed across his local evening paper, which warned of an "abuse alert" at the sports centre. Northumbria Police used the paper to publish helpline numbers asking for anyone with further information to contact them.

"My solicitor said you're going to have another 50 or 60 allegations - anyone you've ever upset," he recalls. "I used to have kids from rough schools and I shuddered to think how many run-ins I'd had with them. I was strict, you couldn't afford not to be because safety was paramount."

Several parents came forward saying their children, youngsters from the weekly school sessions, had been abused. Paul had allegedly handled them improperly during gymnastic moves and kissed them in front of their classmates, teachers and other coaches. Five months before his trial on six charges of indecent assault, he was sacked by the city council.

"We worked out that one of the girls who'd complained wasn't even there at the time of the allegations - she had been barred from the sports centre," he says. "My solicitor said it didn't matter about dates and times because of the number of allegations, and I thought 'well, how am I supposed to defend myself then?'"

But when it came to court almost two years later, in July 2000, Judge Maurice Carr halted the trial before Paul gave his defence. The judge questioned whether or not any indecency had taken place. Was it indecent, said the judge, if you had one arm across the chest of an undeveloped ten-year-old and one on her lower back as you were teaching her how to carry out a forward somersault?

Throughout his ordeal, parents and children continued to visit the Wells' house, bringing cards and messages of support. Among them was a music tape compiled by two of his teenage athletes, entitled: "You're Simply the Best." He is not one for tears, but he says he was choked when he received the tape.

After being acquitted, Paul won a case for unfair dismissal against Newcastle City Council. But he was devastated when, at a subsequent hearing, he was awarded nothing in compensation.

In a contradictory judgement, the tribunal ruled that Mr Wells was a "caring and tactile man who gave his best for children at the sports centre". They were in no doubt there had been "absolutely no intention on the part of the applicant to interfere with or harm the children". But he had been "nave" in the way he kissed and cuddled the youngsters. It was "inappropriate" in the workplace.

It is this which angers him most. "I denied and have always denied that I kissed the children. I have always said I put my arm around them to console or congratulate - I defy any coach to say they have never done this," he says.

'Imagine a child winning a competition and coming running towards you with excitement and you just standing there saying "well done, that was good," but keeping a distance. It is nonsense."

Paul is 64 next month. His career is ruined, he is in debt and has had to draw his limited pension early. The worst pressure, he says, was being worried about his wife and children and watching them turn to anti-depressants.

Deep down, it is clear that he would still love to coach. But though his name has been cleared by a court and a tribunal and removed from the Protection of Children Act List, Newcastle City Council says Paul is still barred from working with children in their leisure centres.

The telephone rings and Paul goes to answer it. He returns smiling. That was Gavin, he says, a gymnast on the verge of breaking into the England squad when the original allegation was made. He is now a boxer and is ringing to say he has won his fight and will bring the video round for them to watch.

"I would have gone on coaching until I dropped," he says. "The only thing I can look back on is that I've helped a lot of kids on their way in life - and I'm really proud of their achievements."