A professional football coach used his ‘supreme power’ over the future careers of ambitious teenage players to carry out a ‘systematic campaign of sexual abuse’ spanning a quarter of a century, a court has heard.
Bob Higgins, who ran the youth team coaching for Southampton Football Club and Peterborough United as well as the Maltese Football Association, is accused of using his position to act with ‘near impunity’ against the trainees, several of whom went on to become professional players.
The 65-year-old is on trial at Salisbury Crown Court accused of 50 accounts of indecent assault against 24 complainants dating between 1971 and 1996.
Adam Feest QC, prosecuting, told the jury that the allegations against Higgins were made after ex-pro player Andy Woodward, of Crewe Alexandra, appeared on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme and spoke of the abuse he suffered from an unconnected coach.
He said this led to the NSPCC setting up a helpline, adding: ‘The telephone started to ring and one name was mentioned over and over again – that is the name of Bob Higgins, this defendant.’
Mr Feest said Higgins was a ‘talented coach’ who was ‘idolised’ by the young players he trained to the extent that ‘young teenagers often turned down more prestigious clubs so that they could train with him at Southampton FC, hoping that by doing so they would have the best possible chance of becoming professional footballers.’
He said: ‘During this time there was a much darker aspect to the defendant’s character and behaviour, an aspect which his footballing roles, and the power that came with them, gave him the opportunity to pursue and to indulge.
‘Throughout this period, this defendant was carrying out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against many of those in his charge.
‘The young footballers came to idolise the defendant. He, in their eyes, held supreme power over their footballing futures, a fact which he made abundantly clear to them.
‘The boys realised that they needed to impress their coach and particularly those, perhaps, with slightly less footballing talent, to keep in his good books both on and off the training pitches.
‘The defendant manipulated these feelings and desires, making sure that in order not to feel left out, the young teenagers would join in with the general sexualised behaviour, their infatuation in him and no doubt their naivety of the world making them blind to the real nature of it.’
Mr Feest added: ‘Once their trust had been gained and their devotion to him made absolute, this predatory paedophile with a sexual interest in young boys was able to act with near impunity.
‘After all, if any of these boys did ever complain, thereby putting any hopes they might have of playing professional football in serious jeopardy, who would believe them bearing in mind the position the defendant held and the prevailing atmosphere that existed at the time.’
Mr Feest said the abuse allegedly occurred in training, during massage sessions and in the defendant’s car and home while some of the boys stayed overnight.
Higgins, of Southampton, Hampshire, denies the charges.