How Portsmouth's FA Youth Cup starlet escaped the clutches of disgraced Southampton coach Bob Higgins
Upon the dreaded evening knock at the front door, a petrified Lee Smith would hide behind his bedroom curtains.
Having fled long-time tormentor Bob Higgins, the traumatised 15-year-old swore never to return to Southampton Football Club.
Smith possessed an encouraging future, a prolific striker who once netted 360 goals across a season and partnered future England skipper Alan Shearer in attack for the top-flight club at youth level.
Higgins, Southampton’s trumpeted star finder whose approval was so treasured among his young flock, rated the one-time England schoolboy triallist as silver-gold standard, such was that immense promise.
Then Smith walked out, shunning subsequent attempts by club representatives to contact him at his Landport home.
For 30 years he locked away the reasons behind that abrupt departure, never confiding in a soul. Yet one other person knew.
On Tuesday, Higgins was sentenced at Winchester Crown Court to 24 years and three months in prison on 45 counts of indecently assaulting 24 boys.
The former youth football coach had sexually touched and groped victims between 1971 and 1996, among them Smith, who waved anonymity.
The Cosham builder told The News: ‘I was vulnerable and brainwashed. When Bob was no longer showing that affection towards me, I felt it was an insult.
‘He gave affection to others, I could see it, but at that time was giving me nothing. Then he abused me during training. I’m so glad he did – I discovered the character he really was.
‘During heading drills, he stood in front of me and got another player to throw up the ball, instructing me to jump above him to try to win the header.
‘Yet, all of a sudden, while I was in the process of jumping, his hand came back and grabbed my balls, squeezing them, twisting them. I fell to the floor winded. He then stood over me and said “Get up Smithy, you puff”.
‘This was clearly his new technique for how to touch people. I got up, stood by the doorway and didn’t participate again in that session. Once I changed, I never returned.
‘Training was twice a week in the evenings and one of our coaches would come round to pick me up from my Landport home.
‘That coach did nothing wrong, there is nothing to suggest he was involved, Bob was the only one. But I wasn’t going back. Not to him.
‘After I walked out on Southampton, that coach still knocked on the door as usual to pick me up, but I was hiding behind the curtains upstairs petrified. I would call downstairs to my mum: “I’m not going training, can you tell him I’m not here?”.
‘My mum didn’t realise the situation. She has never had a clue about football, she only ever came to watch me twice and that was both Liverpool games in the FA Youth Cup for Pompey.
‘From behind my bedroom curtains I watched that coach, making sure I waited for a couple of minutes. There was the danger he was hanging around in the hope of catching me leaving the house, believing he had gone. I had to make sure.
‘I think he got fed up with those fruitless trips. I never went back to Southampton.’
Smith maintained his football career with a switch to home-town club Pompey, signing apprenticeship forms in July 1988.
It was a golden crop also consisting of Darren Anderton, Darryl Powell and Andy Awford, arguably the finest Blues youth team for several generations.
With Smith operating as a marauding left wing-back, they ventured to the 1990 FA Youth Cup semi-finals, having eliminated Liverpool, Arsenal, QPR and Millwall during the journey.
They were celebrated days of a football career ended by injury aged 28, yet the former City of Portsmouth Boys’ School pupil retained the secret which influenced his Fratton Park arrival.
Smith added: ‘When I signed centre of excellence forms for Southampton at the age of 12, Bob Higgins came to my house in Landport so my mum could also signature the documents. In court, he denied ever coming to my home.
‘He also said he was never alone with anyone in the car, absolute nonsense. That same day he took me back to his house, just the two of us in his car, and on the journey told me he wanted to be my father figure.
‘I was a vulnerable kid and he played on that, he knew my circumstances. I never had a dad, I’d love to know where he is even now.
‘Bob Higgins’ name at the time was big, I wasn't going to turn that down, I thought he might give me preferential treatment.
‘We were alone in the car, driving back to his house, I was in the front passenger seat and he started holding my hand. At times his hand came over to my leg and started rubbing up and down the inside of my thigh, he was getting affectionate.
‘Mum never had much money, she couldn’t afford all the top football kit and boots, yet Bob had it at his house ready for me, in a big Patrick sports bag.
‘It contained a compartment on the bottom for boots, and was full to the brim with kit. He told me: “There’s a gift, don’t tell anyone else”. It turned out he was handing it out to us all.
‘In court, whenever any of us lads spoke about those car incidents, Bob always provided an alibi.
‘It was either his dead father-in-law who had been in the car with him or an ex-coach now with senile dementia. He said they would speak up for him – but unfortunately couldn’t.’
Smith’s Southampton age group included Shearer and Jeff Kenna, who would graduate to amass almost 300 first-team appearances between them.
Branded as the next George Best by Pompey boss Alan Ball upon his Fratton Park arrival, his own career was dogged by injury, although featured at non-league level for Waterlooville, Fareham, Gosport, Newport Isle of Wight, Worthing and Selsey.
He said: ‘I vividly remember the moment at Southampton which made me think “This isn’t right”.
‘We were on a schoolboy week away, 40 kids and three or four coaches. Aged 13, we were the youngest of the three age groups present.
‘In the evenings, Bob would organise talent nights, just like the ‘X Factor’, and on occasions we watched videos, in this instance the horror film ‘Salem’s Lot’.
‘There’s a bit where a ghost comes up to the window, really slowly. It stands there as though a kind spectre, then all of a sudden turns evil, which frightened many of us. At that point, Bob told us youngest we could go to bed.
‘Now we were allowed to wear only shorts in bed, never a top, always shorts, no matter the weather, and he would always tuck us in and say goodnight.
‘We were starting to fall asleep, but still petrified from this video, and as I nodded off somebody banged on the window right next to my bed.
‘There was screaming and crying as everyone in my room ran out into the corridor – and who should be there waiting for us but Bob Higgins.
‘He ushered us back into the bedroom, we were snuggling around him, sat on the bed cuddling him, crying, and he was stroking our hair and bodies. He started to stroke my thighs, cuddling me tightly. That night I slept underneath my bed.
‘After that we were on a tour to Sweden and I ended up in his cabin. Even though there were another two lads in the cabin, he started stroking my hair, rubbing my shoulders, I was uncomfortable.
‘Then his attitude towards me changed a good while later when I came into training wearing a roll neck jumper to cover up a couple of love bites on my neck.
‘We were instructed not to have girlfriends, Bob said they were a distraction, that you were wasting his time if you got involved with a girl.
‘I didn’t have a girlfriend, it was just a stupid night at Fifth Avenue night club in Portsmouth, collected on a Monday night during a disco for youngsters. He noticed and called me into the dressing room before really ripping into me.
‘Bob always used to be affectionate, but from that moment there was nothing, he became horrible, a bully. He wouldn’t speak to me, there was no encouragement. If players didn’t do what he wanted, he would drop them to make them suffer, he manipulated people.
‘A few weeks later that training ground incident occurred – and I walked out forever. In the end, Pompey put in a seven-day approach to sign me.
‘Then I received a letter from Higgins demanding to know why I hadn’t returned to training. It read “Write a letter giving me a valid reason why I should release you, then I will”.
‘I couldn’t write a letter explaining what he had done, nobody would believe me, especially a 15-year-old. So I made up a story that I was being called a “Scummer” at school and it was affecting my schoolwork.
‘He released me and Pompey gave me the best playing days of my career.
‘But that letter was his insurance policy. He escaped any blame.’
Smith broke his uncomfortable silence in December 2016, after former Southampton colleagues Dean Radford, Jamie Webb and Billy Seymour stepped forward to lift the lid on Higgins.
Following 23 years of marriage, he decided to reveal his own experiences to wife Tracey during a family holiday in Tenerife.
Arriving home on the Friday night, Smith contacted the NSPCC the next morning.
Now Higgins has been imprisoned, with more victims expected to come to light.
‘The nightmare over the last two-and-a-half years has been horrendous, my life has been awful,’ the 47-year-old added.
‘I had post traumatic stress disorder, there were suicidal thoughts, voices in my head telling me to do stupid things like jumping in front of the next train as I walked over a bridge.
‘But, with great guidance and also help from my family, especially my wife Tracy, I have grown more confident in myself.
‘Hampshire police have been superb, Dave Hurst has always been there for me, Pompey and especially Colin Farmery have been so supportive. Darren Anderton and Andy Awford gave me team-signed shirts to auction for the Offside Trust, of which I am an ambassador.
‘I don’t want pity, I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. We are not brave people, we are not courageous people, we were just unlucky.’