'The FA didn't stop him': The long road to justice for Bob Higgins' abuse victims

Cultivation of father-figure role allowed coach to get away with sexual abuse of boys for decades

Bob Higgins was the star-maker, the super-coach. He worked with the likes of the former England great Alan Shearer, the Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier and the ex-Chelsea skipper Dennis Wise when they were promising juniors, hungry for success.

He was admired – loved is not too strong – by the impressionable schoolboys who believed he was the gatekeeper to the world of football. They were “Bob’s boys”, hanging on his every word, following him around Pied Piper-like.

One former player described Higgins as the sheikh and the young players his harem. Another said he was “like God”. He groomed the boys with boots, tracksuits, tickets to games – but more than anything by giving them the hope they would make it big.

Home life seemed stable, mundane. Over the years, Higgins lived in modest homes in London and Hampshire with his wife, Shirley. She enjoyed bingo and they liked to holiday in Blackpool. There is no suggestion that she knew about the sexual abuse.

But there was a much darker side to Higgins. For a quarter of a century he was given access to hundreds of schoolboy players. Scores of them have claimed he sexually abused them while on football camps, in his car as he played romantic music, at the homes he shared with Shirley. He even indecently touched boys on the training pitch during heading drills and as he showed them how to hold opponents’ shirts.

Players who went on to have good careers in football, remain scarred by the abuse four decades on. One, Billy Seymour, said he was so damaged that, despite having a career at the top of the professional game, he turned to drink and drugs because of Higgins and ended up in prison when he attacked a taxi driver whose eyes and smell reminded him of his former coach, explaining: “He’s inside me.”

Billy Seymour.
Billy Seymour.

Tragically, Seymour died in a car crash shortly before he was due to give evidence at Bournemouth crown court. Moving videos of his testimony were played, watched by his family from the back of the court.

Some victims are still coming forward. One, a former player identified as X, told police only weeks before the trial that Higgins had sexually assaulted him hundreds of times.

He told the jury that Higgins called him “son” and encouraged him to address him as: “dad”. When X became an apprentice at Southampton, he inscribed the back of a picture of himself for Higgins with the message: “To my dad, from your everlasting son.”

One scene of abuse was an old military camp on the Kent coast where trainings camps were staged. Higgins would tell boys: “I’m going to break you and rebuild you.” Schoolboys often threw up after taking part in gruelling runs into the wind along the pebbly beach.

But it got worse after training. Inside, boys were told to lie on a bench – one called it a butcher’s block, another a mortuary slab. Higgins would give them “soapy massages”, supposedly to aid their recovery, and indecently touch them.

Higgins took teams to play in the the Gothia Cup youth tournament in Sweden, abusing players on the ferry and during the competition. The jury was shown a picture of a group of boys during one such trip. Among them was Shearer.

There is no suggestion that either he or Wise were victims. Le Tissier did not give evidence in court but he has described being given a naked massage by the coach.

Higgins’ car was a frequent scene of abuse. He would play love songs by Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie on the stereo and encourage boys he was taking to training or games to rest their heads on his lap. He would then indecently assault them.

Born in 1953, Higgins grew up in north-west London. His mother, Leah, was a bus conductor and his father, John, a security officer at an aircraft factory.

John died in 1961 when he was 33 and his son was eight and boarding at a school in Surrey run by Roman Catholic nuns.

After his father’s death he returned to London and played football for his school team. Though he loved the sport, he knew he would never be good enough to play at a high level so set about finding another route into the game.

A teacher who moonlighted as a scout offered encouragement and in 1970, aged 17, Higgins was finding and training players for London clubs, including Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers.

The sexual abuse was also beginning. In the early 70s, Bournemouth crown court heard, he carried out his first indecent assault on a boy – not a footballer - several years his junior.

His career blossomed. The Southampton manager, Ted Bates, asked Higgins to open a centre in Slough, Berkshire, for the south coast club. After Lawrie McMenemy took over as Southampton boss in 1973 he appointed Higgins as youth development officer. Higgins began to run academies across the UK.

He married his long-time girlfriend, Shirley Cubbitt, in January 1974 and they had a child. With a move to Southampton, Higgins seemed settled in both his personal and professional life.

His position at the club meant he had easy, unchecked access to schoolboys. In court it was said the club regarded him as a father figure and had no problem with boys staying at his home.

He was adroit at isolating boys from their parents, making sure they relied on him and then taking advantage of their vulnerability.

One player who spoke to the Guardian said he was “a role model, a father figure, my main carer. He was this super-coach. He had an aura about him.”

In February 1989, Dave Merrington, who went on to manage the club but was then in charge of the apprentices, was driving players back from a game when he heard them laughing about Higgins’ sexual proclivities. Alarmed, he flagged the issue to his bosses, the police were called and Higgins left Southampton.

In April 1989, as the Guardian has revealed, the Football League wrote to all clubs saying it was “opposed” to the Bob Higgins Football Academy.

At about that time, six boys came forward to allege sexual abuse by Higgins. In court, his defence successfully argued there should be separate trials for each complainant. After he was found not guilty at the first trial – it was his word against a single complainant’s – the other trials were dropped.

In 1995, Higgins was back in professional football as the under-16s coach at Peterborough United. There he worked with Kit Carson, another respected youth coach and star-maker.

Carson, 75, died in a car crash on the January morning this year that his trial for abusing 11 boys was due to start. At least one boy has said he was abused by both men.

Kit Carson leaves Cambridge magistrates court in April last year after indicating not guilty pleas to the child sexual abuse charges against him.
Kit Carson leaves Cambridge magistrates court in April last year after indicating not guilty pleas to the child sexual abuse charges against him. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Higgins left Peterborough in 1996, the club blaming his religious views – he was claiming to be a faith healer and “baptised” some boys in his bath.

The following year, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme focused on abuse in football and featured Higgins. He denied all allegations but in the same year Hampshire police and social services warned schools and youth groups to get in touch if he approached them trying to recruit players.

Police say they have found no evidence that he abused boys after 1996 but one of those who said he was abused by Higgins and cooperated with the Dispatches programme, told the Guardian he was shocked his former coach was allowed to carry on working with a string of semi-professional clubs in Hampshire.

“What angers me most is that the FA didn’t stop him. What he did was disgusting. It got swept under the carpet,” the former player told the Guardian.

In 2013, a player Higgins abused at Peterborough reported what had happened to him. Hampshire police investigated but decided not to press charges. It was judged, again, to be the victim’s word against Higgins’s and there was no realistic chance of a prosecution.

The Football Association was told of this but Higgins was still working in the game in 2016 when the Guardian broke the story of abuse within football. The revelations led to the children’s charity the NSPCC setting up a special helpline. Higgins’ name was mentioned time and again by former players. A new police investigation was launched – Operation Quantum – and finally he was brought to justice.

• The NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and to footballers who have been abused on 0800 023 2642. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.