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Former coach Bob Higgins tells jury he is innocent of abuse charges

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Former Southampton FC football coach Bob Higgins (Photo: Solent News and Photo Agency)
Former Southampton FC football coach Bob Higgins (Photo: Solent News and Photo Agency)

A TOP football coach denied abusing promising players under his charge over a 25-year period and defended forming close relationships with their parents while giving evidence at his trial.

Bob Higgins (66), a former manager of Bashley Football Club, insisted he had not acted inappropriately towards youngsters when he appeared before Bournemouth Crown Court.

Higgins has pleaded not guilty to 51 charges alleging he indecently assaulted 24 youngsters from 1971 to 1996. None relate to his time working for Bashley FC.

Most of the alleged victims are said to be young footballers he coached while at Southampton and Peterborough FC.

Led by Adam Feest QC, the prosecution said that, while Higgins was a talented football coach, he hid a dark side as a “predatory paedophile” who used his status as a “kingmaker” to abuse aspiring players and coerce them into silence.

The complainants, who cannot be named for legal reasons, allege Higgins abused players while they stayed overnight at his Litchfield Road home in Southampton or as he drove them to games and practice sessions.

Some have also alleged they were indecently assaulted during soapy massages by Higgins at some of the training camps he ran.

This week at the retrial, Higgins, who worked as Southampton’s youth development officer, went into the witness box and maintained he was not guilty.

He likened his coaching role to that of a social worker, explaining he helped the boys in all aspects of their lives and would console them if they were down. He also said he was the one who told players they were going to be released, which “devastated” them.

He admitted to advising the young players against having girlfriends because it could affect their abilities on the pitch, and told the jury he became friendly with parents of the boys as part of efforts to “sell” the club to them as well.

The court heard he even went on holiday with some parents, while it was not uncommon for boys under his tutelage to send him Christmas gifts and birthday cards.

The jury was told one player sent him a plaque, while others wrote letters thanking him for his coaching and for letting them stay at his home.

In some of those letters, defence barrister Alistair MacDonald QC pointed out, the youngsters had referred to Higgins and his wife Shirley as their “older brother and sister”.

Giving evidence, Higgins elaborated: “They probably looked at me like a second dad.

“I think at the time and up to today, many players look to coaches they work with and call them their second father.”

Mr MacDonald highlighted one letter, apparently penned by an alleged victim, which read: “In the years I have known you both [Bob and Shirley Higgins] I have loved you very much. You gave me love and care that only my mum and dad would give me.”

At court, Higgins admitted driving players to games and training sessions and having them to stay at his home overnight.

Asked by his barrister if he ever took players to his bedroom or acted inappropriately with them in his home, Higgins replied “no”.

He also denied ever having players lay their heads in his lap when he was transporting them to games or practice sessions.

Higgins admitted that after training at Southampton FC’s former Dell stadium, youngsters would shower in an open area afterwards and the coaches would have baths nearby at the same time.

Denying he took baths there to “spy” on youngsters, Higgins said: “In that era we always had baths or showers, whether you were youth team manager or youth development officer.

“Professional players, who were men, or adults, would be having showers with 16-year-olds who were going onto the first team – in those days it was common,” he said.

The court has been told that while Higgins worked at Southampton FC, he fell out with the then youth development manager, Dave Merrington.

In court, Mr Merrington claimed he confronted Higgins over rumours of inappropriate behaviour, causing Higgins to storm out and quit the club soon after.

The defendant, however, claims the fall-out was prompted by a religious player coming to him for help because Mr Merrington had advised him to drink alcohol and chase girls.

The court has been told of an array of top professional footballers coached by Higgins, including Dennis Wise and Rodney Wallace, neither of whom are named as alleged victims.

It has been established that during his career, Higgins worked for the Maltese FA, ran training camps at Lymington and Calshot for Southampton FC and operated his own soccer academy from locations including the New Forest.

The court was told the defendant came under investigation 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.

Mr Feest described how Mr Woodward’s claims 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.”

The trial continues.

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