Bob Higgins: victims reveal impact of abuse by football coach

Court told of decades of anguish and shame after abuse by former youth team coach

Victims of the former Southampton FC and Peterborough United junior football coach Bob Higgins have branded him a monster who stole their innocence and wrecked their dreams by grooming and sexually abusing them.

At the start of his sentencing hearing at Winchester crown court, victim after victim testified that they had suffered decades of mental health problems because of Higgins’s crimes and expressed anger, shame and guilt at what had happened to them.

Some told the court they had tried to kill themselves or turned to drink and drugs to try to blot out the abuse. Many said they had struggled over the years with flashbacks, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, lack of trust, and problems with personal relationships.

Higgins, 66, from Southampton, has been convicted of sexually abusing 24 schoolboy players during a 25-year period following two trials.

He ran youth training programmes at Southampton and Peterborough football clubs and spent a period as the Maltese national youth coach. Over two trials a picture of Higgins emerged of a man who abused his position of power to take advantage of a string of vulnerable players.

During the sentencing hearing one victim criticised the FA and Southampton FC over their handling of Higgins. Another said that during a game the former Chelsea captain Dennis Wise had taunted him as being one of “Bobby’s boys”.

Some of the victims broke down in tears as they gave evidence. Some stared at Higgins as he sat showing little emotion in the dock. The end of each impact statement was greeted with warm applause from the public gallery.

One of the most emotional witnesses was the mother of Billy Seymour, a former youth player at Southampton who waived his anonymity to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the case but who died in a car crash earlier this year without being able to witness Higgins being convicted.

Jean Seymour read a statement from her late son addressed to Higgins. Seymour said he felt “sick to the stomach” that he had felt love towards his former coach and had felt broken by him.

“I am in safe hands now, real safe hands, not those you offered me. I am a fighter, this is closure. Goodbye Bob Higgins.”

She told the court her son’s mental health problems caused by the trauma of being abused by Higgins had led to him living a “ghost of a life”. She said she felt guilt and shame at letting her boy fall into the “clutches of a rampant paedophile”.

Some victims addressed Higgins directly in their impact statements. One said he hoped Higgins would now, while going to sleep in prison, feel the fear he had experienced at his hands.

Others told how excited they had been when they were scouted by Higgins. “I had no idea he was grooming me,” said one. “I was football crazy. I thought this was my big chance.”

One former Southampton youth player said Higgins had treated him “like a son” but it had all come “tumbling down” when he was abused during a soapy massage at a training camp in Kent.

He said: “There’s an anger inside of me, a feeling of disgust that turns my stomach.”

The player also posed the questions to the court: “Where were Southampton? Where were the FA? Where was their due diligence and safeguarding policies? They had a duty of care, a responsibility. Bob Higgins is guilty but it’s also the people in the system who chronically failed us as well.”

The theme was picked up by a second former player who said: “I hope Southampton FC and the English FA have learned from their mistakes. I hope proper safeguarding is in place.”

Addressing Higgins in the dock, one former player told him: “You said you loved me and would make me a star.” But he said his dream of making it in the game had turned into a nightmare. “You sexually and mentally abused me. Behind a mask of affection you created a conveyor belt of abuse.”

Yet another reeled off the questions that had plagued him: “Why did he choose me? Is it my fault? Does it mean I’m gay? Is this normal? Why did I allow it to happen?” He said he had secretly blamed his parents and had dreamed of revenge.

Another said Higgins had given him extra kit and taken him to games. “I developed a deep and unhealthy affection for Bob Higgins,” he said. “I wanted to please him and be his number one.”

He said he had become reliant on alcohol and antidepressants. When the football abuse scandal broke he realised his self-destructive nature was down to Higgins. “It hit me like a sledgehammer. It was like a revelation to me,” he said.

One said he was abused by Higgins in a gym. Calling him a monster, he said: “You didn’t care that we were children. You changed from being a father figure to a bully and sexual predator.”

A former Peterborough United youth player told Higgins: “I thought you were a god. You are pure evil, a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You said you would go to prison for me. You are going to prison Bob. Those are the only true words you have ever spoken to me.”

Southampton FC has issued an apology to the victims.

Higgins will be sentenced on Wednesday morning.