A paedophile ex-coach who “created a conveyor belt of abuse” to prey on dozens of young footballers has been jailed for more than 24 years.

Bob Higgins, who ran the youth training programmes at Southampton and Peterborough football clubs, was found guilty of 46 counts of indecent assault against a total of 24 teenage boys between 1971 and 1996.

Sentencing the 66-year-old at Winchester Crown Court, Judge Peter Crabtree said he was “predatory, cunning and manipulative” and used sexualised behaviour to “normalise” the abuse he carried out.

He added: “A number of the boys idolised you and were prepared, and did, anything to further their dreams of becoming a professional footballer.

“You encouraged many of them to treat you as a father figure. For a number of boys who were brought up without a father and were vulnerable, this had a profound effect.”

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File photo dated 01/06/18 of a court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Bob Higgins watching a witness interview in the dock at Salisbury Crown Court, as he has been found guilty at Bournemouth Crown Court of 45 charges of indecent assault against teenage boys
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Higgins was described as ‘pure evil’ by one victim

The trial heard Higgins abused his “position of power” over the future careers of the young players in order to take advantage of them for his own sexual needs.

He was convicted of groping them during post-exercise soapy massages as well as at his home and in his car.

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The impact statements of the 24 victims were read to the first part of the sentencing – with many fighting back tears.

One victim said: “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.

“You sexually and mentally abused me – behind a mask of affection, you created a conveyor belt of abuse.”

Higgins was described as “pure evil” by another victim, who added: “I swore you wouldn’t break me.”

The words of former Millwall and Coventry City player Billy Seymour, who died in a crash involving a drink-driver earlier this year, were read by his mother Jean Seymour.

In his statement, Mr Seymour detailed how he spiralled into “self-destructive behaviour”, resorting to drink and drugs, and ended up in court and stated he was diagnosed as bipolar with an emotional 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.”

Higgins was acquitted at a previous trial in the early 1990s which allowed him to return to his job and continue his abuse.

Southampton FC has issued an apology to the victims and said it had launched an investigation.