A TOP football coach was a “predatory paedophile” who used his influence and standing within the game to abuse aspiring players for more than two decades, a jury heard.
Bob Higgins (66) was a “serial abuser of young teenage boys” while coaching youngsters at Southampton and Peterborough football clubs and running his own academy in Hampshire, Bournemouth Crown Court was told.
He was also a coach at Bashley FC and was manager for a short period in 2001 but none of the charges relate to his time there.
Opening the trial, prosecutor Adam Feest said Higgins used his status as a “kingmaker” to manipulate young players and get their parents onside throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
“It is the Crown’s case [that] during this time there was a much darker aspect to the defendant’s character and behaviour, an aspect which his footballing roles, and the power that came with them, gave him the opportunity to indulge,” Mr Feest said.
“Throughout the period the defendant was carrying out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against many of those in his charge.”
Outlining the nature of the offending, Mr Feest continued: “For some boys he appeared to have developed a real, if somewhat perverse, affectionate attachment, telling them that he loved them and getting them to display signs of affection towards him.
“For others his sexual acts were more opportunistic, testing out how far he could go before his victim would rebuff him.”
The abuse occurred during “soapy massages” Higgins gave the boys at training camps and while he drove them to and from training sessions and games, Mr Feest said.
It was also said incidents occurred when youngsters stayed overnight at Higgins’ home in Southampton.
“Behind all this abuse lay a systematic and all-pervasive pattern of grooming behaviour,” Mr Feest told the jury. “He gained the trust of young boys and their parents.
“The young footballers idolised the defendant. He held supreme power over their football futures, a fact which he made abundantly clear to them.
“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.
“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 added: “Whether that be maintaining physical contact with him as he drove them around or cuddling up to him in the sofa in their living room, the inappropriate and sexual became normalised for many of his victims.
“Once their trust had been gained and their devotion to him made absolute, this predatory paedophile with a sexual interest in young teenage boys was able to act with near impunity.
“After all, if any of these boys did ever complain, thereby putting any hopes they might have of playing professional football in serious jeopardy, who would believe them bearing in mind the position that the defendant held in the prevailing atmosphere that existed at the time about this type of offending?”
Not all the charges relate to his time working in football. Two are said to have happened when Higgins was a young man.
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.
“As the calls came in to the helpline and were then pursued and investigated by the police, a process which in itself led to a discovery of other victims, a clear picture emerged.
“Particular types of behaviour came to light time and time again from people who did not know each other, or who have not spoken for years since their footballing days.”
Some of them had made “brief mention” in the past to loved ones or their family about the alleged abuse, but had not reported it to the authorities due to “unfounded shame or embarrassment”, Mr Feest added.
The prosecutor told the jury Higgins had stood trial for similar offences in the 1990s but was found not guilty.
He said some of the complainants in the current case had not supported the prosecution back then, but attributed that to a “different atmosphere about this type of allegation”.
Some of the alleged victims made it as professional footballers while others did not, Mr Feest said. Many described Higgins as a “father figure” to them when he was coaching, and some had kept in touch with him for years after the alleged abuse.
Telling the jury the trial will last six to eight weeks, Mr Feest explained: “As you will see, various themes will emerge, patterns of behaviour which recur over the years and across victims.
“The victims of the defendant give compelling accounts of his sexual behaviour against them, with the intimate details they give and patterns of behaviour they describe supporting accounts of other victims that they could not have known about.”
Higgins has pleaded not guilty to a total of 51 charges of sexual assault against 24 complainants.
The trial continues.