Victims of Southampton coach Bob Higgins, who sexually abused schoolboy football players over a 25-year period, have described how he could change in a “split second” from a “father figure to a bully, a child abuser”.
The 66-year-old was found guilty last year of one count of indecent assault, then in a retrial was convicted of a further 45 counts, and is due to be sentenced at Winchester Crown Court.
Impact statements of 24 victims were read out in court to a sentencing hearing, with many describing how Higgins abused his position of power as a coach for youth training programmes at Southampton and Peterborough United.
Abuse survivors told of how the coach would grope them, often during post-match soapy massages or at home and in his car.
The court heard how many saw him as God-like, a mentor and a father figure, and were afraid to speak out about the abuse in case it ruined their football careers.
One victim described how Higgins hid “behind a mask of affection” and used it to create a “conveyor belt of abuse”.
“Bob Higgins said he loved me and would make me a star. I had a dream of being a footballer, you created a nightmare that I still live to this day,” he said.
Another player called Higgins a “monster” and said the coach turned in a “split second from a father figure to a bully, a child abuser” and added: “My chance of being a professional with Southampton Football Club was over”.
He continued: “I want you to suffer just as I have.”
The victims fought back tears as they recounted their experiences, with many having suffered guilt, shame and depression for decades.
Millwall and Coventry City player Billy Seymour, who died in a crash involving a drink-driver earlier this year before he was able to see Higgins convicted of his crimes, had described how he lapsed into “self-destructive behaviour” following the abuse.
The late player’s words were read out in court by his mother, Jean Seymour, who said her son had resorted to drink and drugs and ended up in court, and had been diagnosed as bipolar with a borderline personality disorder.
Mrs Seymour read: “Only now am I coming to terms with what you did to me as a young, defenceless lad who admired you, hero-worshipped you and, I feel sick to my stomach to say, loved you.”
The statement concluded: “I am in safe hands now, real safe hands, not those you offered me. I am a fighter, this is closure. Goodbye Bob Higgins.”
Another victim said Higgins had treated him “like a son” and given him the confidence to become the “pride” of his school and family.
He said: “Bob Higgins gave me a glimpse of what my life could be, and it all came tumbling down during a soapy naked massage.
“Could I really have made it? I suppose I will never know, my chance was stolen.”
He also blamed Southampton FC and the Football Association, asking, “Where was there due diligence and safeguarding procedures? They all had a duty of care, they both had a responsibility.
“Bob Higgins is indeed guilty but it was also the people in the system who failed us as well.”
Southampton FC has issued an apology to the victims and said it has launched an investigation.