DISGRACED ex-football coach Bob Higgins has been jailed for more than 24 years for abusing youngsters he trained.
Judge Peter Crabtree announced the prison term at Winchester Crown Court today (Wednesday) following emotional scenes as many of Higgins’ victims went into the witness box to read statements detailing how their lives had been affected.
Higgins (66) was a former manager and coach at Bashley FC, although none of the charges related to his time there in 2001.
He sat impassively as victim after victim revealed how the defendant had robbed them of their dreams of footballing stardom and took after their innocence.
They described Higgins variously as a “monster”, “predatory paedophile”, “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “false prophet”.
When one said he hoped Higgins felt the “wrath of God”, there was applause from the packed public gallery. The sentence was 24 years and three months, in total.
The sentencing followed a retrial earlier this year at which Higgins was convicted of 45 charges of indecent assault against 24 boys while working for Southampton and Peterborough FC and running his own academy between 1971 and 1996.
Most of the victims were young footballers he coached.
He had stood trial over similar charges last year, when the jury found him guilty of one matter, not guilty of another and failed to return a verdict on the rest.
During the trials jurors heard how Higgins used his status as a “kingmaker” in the footballing world to manipulate young players and get their parents onside throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Higgins was an expert talent scout who coached future footballing stars such as Danny Wallace, Alan Shearer and Dennis Wise – who were not among the victims.
But all the while there was a “much darker aspect” to his character, prosecutor Adam Feest QC explained.
“Throughout the period the defendant was carrying out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against many of those in his charge,” Mr Feest said.
Higgins developed a “perverse” attachment to some while other acts of abuse were more “opportunistic”, Mr Feest said, occurring during “soapy massages” Higgins gave the boys at training camps and while he drove them to and from training sessions and games.
It was also said incidents occurred when youngsters stayed overnight at Higgins’ home in Southampton, where he lived with his wife Shirley.
“Behind all this abuse lay a systematic and all-pervasive pattern of grooming behaviour,” Mr Feest told the jury.
“The boys realised that they needed to impress their coach, particularly those with less footballing talent, to keep in his good books both on and off the training pitches,” he said.
“The defendant manipulated these feelings and desires, making sure that in order not to feel left out, the young teenagers would join in with the sexualised behaviour, their infatuation making them blind to the real nature of it.”
Mr Feest said the offences came to light after former Crewe Alexandra footballer Andrew Woodward appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme in November 2016 and revealed he was abused by football coaches when he was younger.
That generated a high level of publicity and the NSPCC set up a dedicated helpline for victims to report historical abuse in sport.
“The telephone started to ring and one name – as far as football was concerned – was mentioned over and over again: that was the name of Bob Higgins, this defendant,” Mr Feest said.
Speaking after the sentencing, Claire Booth of the Crown Prosecution Service said: “Many young boys dream of becoming a footballer and training for a prestigious team.
“Bob Higgins preyed on and abused young boys – some of who adored him – and in doing so tainted and shattered the dreams of many.
“Being scouted by such a talented renowned coach was not something you would have turned down.
“Sadly it meant some had to grow up with this terrible secret, which for some was all-consuming.”
She added: “We would like to thank all the victims who came forward and who had the courage to face Bob Higgins, as well as their families and all the witnesses.
“We now hope that with this sentence all of the victims in this case will be able to find some closure.”
Both Southampton and Peterborough FC have offered an apology to the victims.
In a statement Southampton FC said: “We recognise that some of the boys under our care suffered exposure to abuse when they should have received protection from any form of harm. For this, the club is deeply sorry.”
The club stressed since the allegations emerged it has worked with police, the Football Association and a review into historic abuse in football being led by barrister Clive Sheldon.
It said while the trials had been ongoing it was not allowed to interact with victims and witnesses but would now take steps to contact them and should any wish to pursue further legal proceedings they should contact the police or the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers.
The club added: “It is important for the club to rebuild relationships with those who suffered abuse while under our care in the past.
“We realise that it will take a significant amount of time and consultation with the victims and survivors to start to rebuild these relationships.
“However, we hope that over time we will be able to provide the support, understanding and tangible action to help each of them.”