IN HIS darkest hour one of disgraced youth football coach Bob Higgins’ victims was left on the brink of ending his own life – and he fears there may be more people out there abused by the arrogant manipulator.
Lee Smith, from Portsmouth, gave evidence twice at disgraced youth coach Bob Higgins trial and subsequent retrial – ensuring the ‘untouchable’ pervert is now behind bars.
Speaking to The News, dad-of-two Lee said he fears more victims have not yet come forward.
The 46-year-old said: ‘We still know that there’s people out there who weren’t brave enough to come forward – I hope they get a sense of justice and satisfaction from what we’ve done.
‘It’s not just 24 of us – it’s the mums and dads, the sons and daughters, they’ve all been through it. They’ve not been through the abuse but they’ve seen our worst times. It puts a strain on your relationship with people.
‘It has been really difficult, traumatic. I’ve had bad dreams – nightmares of Higgins sat on the end of my bed.’
The ex-defender added: ‘The 10 months leading up to the case, to the end of the last trial and the beginning of this – it was one of the worst experiences ever in my life. I’m going to take it each day as it comes.’
Lee said he has since uncovered a chilling image of Higgins standing feet away from pervert football coach Barry Bennell, who was jailed last year at the age of 65 for 50 charges of sex abuse.
‘I’ve had to live year after year knowing that Higgins knew Bennell – and it’s only just come out now,’ Lee said.
An image dating back to 1984 found at his 73-year-old mother’s home shows Lee as a youngster dressed in football kit standing next to a suited Higgins.
Lee spent three years at Southampton with Higgins and was groomed from the age of 12 before he quit at the end of a line of abuse when Higgins touched his genitals.
Emotional Lee told how his life has been devastated since coming forward and naming Higgins as a paedophile in December 2016. But with support Lee said he has come out from Thursday’s guilty verdicts a ‘better person’ – despite being accused of ‘colluding’ with other victims at the trial.
He said listening to the evidence in court was seeing a ‘jigsaw being put together’. He has now become an ambassador for the Offside Trust – a charity campaigning against child abuse in sport.
Lee said: ‘I (almost) can’t believe some of the stuff he was capable of doing. It’s sick. He’s one sick individual.’
Lee, who endured the pain of seeing Higgins in the court corridor each day, said: ‘If it wasn’t for the Offside Trust there’s a possibility I might not be here today. I got to a point around April 2017 where I was walking to my counsellor and I got to a point where I crossed over a train bridge I thought to myself “do I wait for the next train or don’t I?”
‘It was thoughts in my head I was totally messed up but with great counselling and great individuals around to help me and my wife I’ve come out a better person.’
Powerful Higgins had styled himself as a ‘father figure’ to Lee and many of the 23 other victims but has now been convicted for decades of abuse while training young players at Southampton.
‘It’s been a long time coming,’ said Lee now back at home after spending four weeks at Bournemouth Crown Court watching the trial from the public gallery – including nine days of jury deliberations.
‘It finally caught up with him – his arrogance, his lies and intimidation,’ Lee said and added: ‘He got what he deserved.
‘I wanted to be there at the start and the end. It gave me that satisfaction hearing those words: “take him down”.’
Since the time he called an NSPCC helpline and reported the abuse and told his wife in December 2016, he has contemplated suicide, his mother has nearly died from severe illness and his wife Tracey, 47, suffered a cancer scare - all while having the gravity of the trial weighing down on him.
Lee, who has had has had around 40-50 counselling sessions, finally saw justice catch up with 66-year-old Higgins – who denied ever abusing children in the now notorious ‘soap water massages’, in his car and at home.
He added: ‘I think he just thought he was untouchable - perhaps he just thought he’s got away with it. Now he’s got 46 convictions and let’s hope the judicial system gives him a long sentence.
‘For me, no sentence is not going to make any difference for me. I hope they lock him up and throw away the key – but we will have to wait and see.
Call Portsmouth Area Rape Crisis Service’s men’s helpline on (023) 9266 9516 or the office on (023) 9266 9513.