A FORMER youth footballer has told how he believes he was groomed by a coach who promised to be his ‘father figure’.
Lee Smith waived his anonymity to speak to The News after watching former players’ videos making allegations against former Southampton coach Bob Higgins.
Lee, now a self-employed builder, said he felt it was his duty to speak out about what he claims Higgins, 63, did to him. He wants others to do so too.
The 45-year-old, who lives in Portsmouth, said the grooming started when he was 12 when Higgins offered to be his ‘father figure’ as his own dad was not around.
Alone with Higgins in a car, Lee agreed. But suddenly Higgins was holding his hand before then rubbing his thigh.
Ex-defender Lee said: ‘He said to me: “Would you let me be like a father figure to have and help you through?”
‘He said it would be a good thing for somebody on a council estate to make it as a professional footballer.
‘To be honest, I jumped at the chance. I was privileged to have somebody say these sort of things to me.
‘But now I look back at it and see it was grooming, as far as I’m concerned.’
He added: ‘He said he would make me into a professional footballer and make my mum proud.
‘I believed in him and trusted him. I agreed to it.
‘And all of a sudden he wanted me to hold his hand whilst he was driving. The hand moved, it went on to my knee and rubbed up and down my leg.’
Lee said things were quiet for a short time until a trip away within the county.
Scared after watching a horror film, Lee said Higgins was there offering comfort.
‘He was saying ‘‘don’t worry, I’m here now, nobody is going to touch you”.’
When he travelled to play in Sweden, he said he was subjected to naked hot soap water massages by Higgins before every game.
He said: ‘Now I look back on it and think it was all wrong.’
Returning from the tournament in Sweden, Lee said Higgins stroked his hair under cover of darkness on a ferry.
‘Bob was above me in the bunk bed cabin,’ he said.
‘He put his hand down the side of the bed and started rubbing my hair. He wanted me to hold his hand.’
Lee, who spent three years at Southampton with Higgins, eventually quit at 15 and later moved to Pompey after he said Higgins touched his genitals while training.
He lied and told Higgins he was being bullied by other players about coming from Portsmouth so that Higgins would release him to leave.
Lee said he never experienced any problems at Pompey and has some of his greatest footballing memories from that time.
He played for Pompey youth teams between 1988 and 1991, making it to the FA Youth Cup semi-final.
Friends have praised Lee for speaking out and his wife Tracey, 45, has supported him.
She said: ‘He got quite upset, he said “I’ve never told you”. It was a shock to me and I was quite angry.’
Lee has said he felt compelled to speak out after seeing others do so. He has now reported his allegations to the NSPCC helpline.
Higgins has declined to respond to previous allegations. He was cleared of six indecent assault charges against boys in 1992 on the direction of a judge.
Dozens of potential suspects have been identified more widely in connection with historical child sex abuse allegations in football, police said.
Ninety-eight clubs spanning all tiers of the game have been ‘impacted’, according to figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
A total of 639 referrals from a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) helpline and directly from police forces have been received by Operation Hydrant, a national co-ordination hub.
n Call Portsmouth Area Rape Crisis Service’s men’s helpline on (023) 9266 9516 or the office on (023) 9266 9513.
n The FA and NSPCC’s 24-hour line is 0800 023 2642.
n Were you coached by Bob Higgins? Call the newsdesk on (023) 9262 2118.