Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Bob Higgins: The Southampton football coach who abused boys

Bob Higgins Image copyright Other
Image caption Bob Higgins was youth development officer at Southampton until 1989

Such was the influence of Bob Higgins as a youth coach at Southampton, he was known as the "star-maker".

He was seen as instrumental in the development of several players who would go on to become household names; during his time at Southampton, players of the calibre of future England stars Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier broke into the football club's first team.

But Bob Higgins was also a ruthless, predatory paedophile, who used his position of power to groom and then abuse boys whose dreams of a playing career he could make or break.

Nearly 30 years after he was first accused - and cleared - of sexual abuse, the crimes of 66-year-old Higgins have finally caught up with him, with his conviction at Bournemouth Crown Court of 45 counts of indecent assault.

His unmasking as a serial sex offender was the consequence of scores of former players coming forward in 2016, when the extent of historical abuse in the game began to become clear.

When, at the time of the scandal, the NSPCC set up a dedicated phone line to offer support to victims, 87 people called the charity and a further 32 contacted police directly with allegations of abuse relating to Southampton.

One name - and only one name - was mentioned time and again in connection with abuse at Southampton: Bob Higgins.

Image copyright Solent News & Photo Agency
Image caption Higgins abused youth players in his care over several decades

The eight-week retrial - held after a previous jury at Winchester Crown Court could not reach verdicts on 48 counts of indecent assault - was told Higgins kept an open house at his homes in Camberley, Surrey, and later Southampton.

He would let boys stay there while they attended training sessions at weekends or during school holidays.

This allowed him to groom his victims. He would give players lifts to and from training, playing songs by Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie in an effort to create a romantic mood.

Sitting on the sofa at his home, he would demand cuddles from the boys and go on to touch them inappropriately.

He would also use the pretext of treating injuries or performing soap-water massages to abuse youngsters at the club.

There is no suggestion that any of the club's biggest names who were coached by Higgins - including the likes of Danny Wallace and Steve Williams, as well as Shearer and Le Tissier - were abused by him.

But many of those youth players who were sexually assaulted were left so distressed that they gave up football entirely.

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Media captionBilly Seymour, a charity ambassador campaigning against abuse in football, waived his right to anonymity

Billy Seymour, a trainee at Southampton from 1983 until 1986, was one of them.

He died before he could see his abuser face justice - although Higgins was found guilty of a single count of indecent assault at the earlier trial in 2018.

The 47-year-old died in a crash in Oxfordshire in January, shortly before the retrial was due to begin.

In an unusual step, audio of his appearance in the witness box from the first trial was played to the jury in the retrial, as well as a video of his police interview.

Mr Seymour said his life "unravelled" after the abuse; he struggled with anger issues and served time in prison.

The court heard how he "nearly killed" a taxi driver he had threatened to attack with a plasterer's knife, as he reminded him of Higgins.

Shortly before being sentenced, he told his mother that his victim "looked like Bob, smelt like Bob", adding: "He's inside me."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption England internationals Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier were coached by Higgins

Rumours about Higgins's activities had circulated for years.

Nonetheless, the court heard how the coach was trusted by parents and idolised by youngsters, providing him with the cover he needed.

There was an implicit trade-off: boys knew they needed to keep quiet or risk losing their shot at a career as a footballer.

Many said nothing, even to close family members, for up to 30 years.

Higgins left Southampton in 1989 after being confronted by a colleague who had overheard youth players sharing stories about him.

He went on trial in the early 1990s but was acquitted. This allowed him to remain in football for many more years - and to continue offending.

It was only in 2016, when victims of child abuse in football aired their experiences on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme, that a stream of complainants, including Mr Seymour, came forward.

The police reopened their investigation and began to build a new case against Higgins.

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Media captionMatt Le Tissier said he was given a "very, very wrong" massage by Higgins

Described in court as a "rubbish" player, he had nevertheless been a respected scout and youth coach.

Higgins joined Southampton in the early 1970s and over the next two decades played a key role in bringing through some of the club's best players.

In the 1980s, Wallace and Williams, both acknowledged as his discoveries, were part of one of Southampton's most successful teams.

Higgins also helped develop the skills of Shearer and Le Tissier.

When the football abuse scandal broke in 2016, Shearer said he had "huge respect and admiration" for former team-mates who had come forward.

"Whilst I am lucky and have no personal experience of the terrible stories that have been described, I know from my work as an NSPCC ambassador the pain and lasting damage abuse can cause."

Le Tissier told the BBC in 2016 he had been given a "naked massage" by Higgins. In the interview, Le Tissier said he was not abused but the incident was "very, very wrong".

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Media captionLes Cleevely was abused while watching Match of the Day at Higgins's home

Les Cleevely, who went on to become a successful goalkeeping coach, recalled how, as a 12-year-old schoolboy scouted by Higgins, he was "mesmerised" by the "young, trendy and charismatic" coach.

Like many others, he was invited to stay at Higgins's house. He described his night there as a "horror story".

"The whole thing [the abuse] went on in pitch black while we were watching Match of the Day," he said. "So for the entire length of Match of the Day it was horrendous.

"And then the rest of the night spent at the house was with your eyes wide open wondering what was going to happen next.

"He had power over our careers. It was everything we wanted in life as kids he held the key to. Some people thought, 'is it going to put my situation in jeopardy?'"

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Media captionJamie Webb eventually tore up his contract with Southampton

Jamie Webb still recalls the "magical moment" he joined the club and met Higgins at Southampton's then home, The Dell.

"I was really in awe. I couldn't believe, walking down the old Dell steps," he said.

But Mr Webb says his memories of his time at the club are tainted by the abuse he was subjected to by Higgins while he stayed at his house.

"We were all vying for affection in a way and the banter would be more like, 'Oh Bob loves you and you're one of Bob's favourites'," he said.

"It was almost what you wanted to hear. I'd get given kit. Sometimes I'd buy some kit and I'd get an extra top thrown in and shorts."

At the time he was pleased with the attention, but now he sees the behaviour for what it was.

"For me, it's just grooming."

Image caption Boys would be invited to stay with Higgins and his wife Shirley during weekend and school holiday training camps

Jurors were told Higgins would play pop songs on the car stereo as he touched boys inappropriately while driving to and from training sessions.

Mr Seymour recalled Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All playing and Higgins telling him: "It reminds me of you."

"Whenever it comes on, it takes me back," he told the court last year.

"Looking back, I tried to normalise it, but it wasn't normal to be in that situation."

Such was his emotional hold over them that many boys wrote Higgins letters, expressing love and gratitude, calling him a "second father" or a "brother".

One victim said it made him physically sick when he was recently shown a letter he had written to Higgins.

"I was only 13 and I was just a kid and I didn't know any different," he said.

"Bob would put you under a lot of pressure to write those letters.

"He'd basically show you letters of famous players. You wanted to be that player and I wanted my career, and whatever it took, I'd do that."

Image caption Lawrie McMenemy said Higgins would have been "out of the door" if the club's management had known about his abuse

Lawrie McMenemy, Southampton's manager between 1973 and 1985, said he had not been in any way aware of Higgins's offending during his time in charge of the club.

"I didn't know he was taking kids home," he said. "None of my staff knew that.

"It's horrific what he's done. If we'd have known, he wouldn't have lasted two minutes. He'd have been out the door."

Rumours about Higgins's activities were certainly circulating by the late 1980s, though.

Dave Merrington, who was youth team manager and would later manage the first team, recalled being "troubled and disturbed" when he heard banter among players in a minibus.

Image caption Dave Merrington said he challenged Higgins, who threatened to sue anyone who made claims about him

"I realised they were talking about Bob," he said. "Unfortunately, the comments were of a sexual nature that I wasn't happy about."

He raised the matter at a staff meeting and was told it would be brought to the attention of the board.

Later, he was told he should be the one to raise the issue with Higgins, which he did at a meeting in the players' lounge at The Dell.

"He jumped up, got extremely annoyed and said: 'I'll sue anyone who says anything about me,'" Mr Merrington said.

"I tried to cool him down but he got extremely annoyed. He stormed out. Within a week or a fortnight he had resigned, as I understand it, and left the club."

A police investigation followed and Higgins was accused of abusing six boys, but he was acquitted of one charge in 1991 and the other charges were discontinued.

Mr Merrington had given evidence along with complainant Dean Radford, who was 18 when he came forward in 1989.

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Image caption Dean Radford signed with Southampton as a schoolboy

"For a boy to open up at that particular stage of his career - he was a very, very brave young man," Mr Merrington said.

"No-one from the club spoke to us about [the court case]. That disappoints and hurts me.

"I felt the system let him down very badly."

Guy Askham, who was Southampton chairman at the time, said the club's board had been part-timers who tried their best to deal with the issue.

"We believed the board had taken the right decision in reporting the allegations to the police," he said.

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Media captionFormer Southampton player Dean Radford talking in 2016 about the abuse he suffered

Mr Radford recalled being "scared to death" giving evidence and being cross-examined.

"I was just told on the telephone he'd been found not guilty," he said. "They let it go. That was it, he was a free man."

Following Higgins's acquittal, the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction on the remaining charges.

Higgins gave an interview to the Southampton Daily Echo newspaper, headlined: "My two years of hell", and continued working in football, taking up a coaching job with the Malta Football Association.

He stayed there until 1994 when he began working with youth players at Peterborough United. The court heard how Higgins, who had recently claimed to have become a Christian, baptised boys in his bath at home.

Two charges in the retrial related to cases at Peterborough. One witness told the trial he was assaulted 10 to 20 times in Higgins's home.

Image caption Hampshire and Southampton social services warned parents about Higgins in 1997

Allegations against Higgins were aired again in January 1997 in a Channel 4 documentary.

After the Dispatches programme, both Hampshire and Southampton social services consulted police and wrote to local youth organisations expressing concern about him coaching boys.

A joint letter from the departments, unearthed by the BBC through a Freedom of Information request, urged parents to "make an informed choice about his contact with your child/ren".

Dr John Beer, the head of Southampton Social Services at the time, said he received several replies from parents criticising him for impugning Higgins's good character.

"That is the standard way that we learn that paedophiles operated," he said.

"The safest way for them is to groom parents and figures who have status in the community, so if the young person made any allegations they were likely to be disbelieved."

Higgins continued in the game in Hampshire, with coaching roles at Bashley, Winchester City and Fleet Town, until the football abuse scandal broke in 2016 and his career in football was finally brought to an end.

Det Ch Insp David Brown, of Hampshire Constabulary, said the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme had been the "catalyst" that prompted many more victims to come forward.

But with allegations dating back decades, there was no forensic evidence or any paperwork that could provide a "smoking gun" to convict Higgins.

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Media captionBob Higgins "did not speak a single word" during 15 hours of interviews, police said

Moreover, the media coverage, which encouraged more victims to come forward, proved a doubled-edged sword for the investigation team.

It meant they had to interview all of the complainants quickly to ensure they did not communicate with one other ahead of a trial and potentially jeopardise the criminal case.

Their testimony confirmed a pattern of predatory behaviour from Higgins.

"We had a large number of people and it was repeated similar factual evidence - the same songs played in the car, the same activities, the same bedtime routines - that helped build a compelling case," Det Ch Insp Brown said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Young players would train in the gym at The Dell

Detectives were unable to trace all the paperwork from the legal proceedings in the 1990s. However, they found trial documents from an unlikely source - Higgins himself.

When they searched Higgins's house they discovered detailed accounts of the trial, statements boys had made to police, as well as memorabilia, letters and photos from the 1980s.

"Much of the material he retained was used as evidence of controlling, coercive behaviour," Det Insp Brown said.

Several victims and witnesses at the recent trial explained how they had not felt able to talk of the abuse when interviewed by police in the early 1990s.

"I was not ready - mentally, physically or emotionally - to divulge the horrific things that had happened to me," Mr Seymour told the court.

"I knew something was seriously, seriously wrong. I was just not ready to deal with it at that precise moment."

Higgins's wife Shirley stood by him in court. She claimed Mr Merrington had a "vendetta" against her husband and boys had been cajoled into making allegations against him.

She said she had acted as a "second mother" to the youngsters staying at their house.

When asked if she had ever seen her husband act inappropriately with any boys, Mrs Higgins replied: "No. Never. I wouldn't be married to him for 45 years if he had."

Mrs Higgins said it was she who had kept cards and photos from young footballers, which she said gave her "happy memories".

Image caption Higgins covered his face while entering and leaving court throughout the retrial at Bournemouth Crown Court

However, after more than a week of deliberation, the jury found Higgins guilty of dozens of offences.

For his victims, it meant a long wait for justice was over. Police believe more abuse survivors could come forward following his conviction.

Double jeopardy rules meant Mr Radford, whom Higgins was cleared of abusing nearly 30 years ago, was unable to be a complainant in the recent trials. However, he did give evidence as a witness.

"I'd like him to sit behind bars and know that he's there partly because of me," he said.

Victims have spoken about how they remain haunted by the abuse. Many are also left wondering about what might have been.

Mr Webb eventually tore up his contract with Southampton.

Now in his 40s, he cannot know how far he could have gone in football.

"A lot of people said I was good and everything, but it's hard looking back on that period.

"I just used to say to people that I wasn't mentally focused. I'll never know what might have been."

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