An ex-football coach has been jailed for 24 years and three months for sexually abusing young players.
Former coach Robert Higgins, known as Bob, 66, was sentenced at Winchester Crown Court on Wednesday after he abused football players over a 25-year period.
Higgins, who was youth coach at Southampton Football Club in the 1980s, was jailed for 45 counts of indecent assault against 23 victims which he carried out between 1971 and 1996.
Former professional footballer Billy Seymour, had not lived to see the day his abuser received justice today – after he died in a car crash in January – but his mother read out a powerful note he had written to Higgins.
It read: ‘This is closure. Goodbye, Bob Higgins.’
Sentencing Judge Peter Crabtree told Higgins: ‘You exerted the power and control you possessed over the boys to further that abuse with confidence that they would not disclose what you were doing.
‘You showed not one jot of remorse.’
After Higgins began his association with Southampton FC in late 1973, he had helped nurture and develop some of the best young players – including England stars Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier (corr) – although there was no suggestion those two were victims in the case.
Seen as a brilliant and respected talent scout, the coach was looked up to as a God by the young boys in his care, who thought he could make their dreams of becoming professional footballers true if they could only impress him – both on and off the pitch, which allowed Higgins ample opportunity to carry out his abuse.
Higgins used ‘typical grooming behaviour’ to target vulnerable victims in the youth systems, heard the court.
The coach had free reign to molest and abuse his favourite young athletes, known as ‘Bob’s boys’, when he gave them lifts to and from training or had them around to his ‘open house’ at his homes in Camberley, Surrey and later Southampton.
He demanded cuddles, administered soapy-water sports massages and pretended to give them treatments for injuries – all just a pretext for touching them inappropriately.
Judge Crabtree continued: ‘That process included giving boys gifts, such as football boots, taking a number of them to watch, what at the time would have been first tier football.
You encouraged many, if not all of them to treat you as a father figure.
‘In many cases the jury heard how you played love songs in your car and encouraged boys to touch you. You encouraged many of your victims to stay at your home overnight or on the weekend.
‘You encouraged many of them to write to you in loving terms. Such inappropriate behaviour became normalised and paved the way for your abuse.’
Billy Seymour, one of the victims during the trial to waive his right to anonymity, told the court how Higgins made him lay his head in his groin and groped him.
He said the abuse drove him to misuse drugs and alcohol in later life, and was even jailed in 2010 after he threatened a taxi driver with a plasterer’s knife because he reminded him of Higgins.
The judge added: ‘As a scout and a football coach working for Southampton and Peterborough United, you were good at spotting talent, such that many went on to achieve success as professionals.
‘However, there was another side to you.’