Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Football coach Bob Higgins 'abused trainees'

Artist's impression of Bob Higgins Image copyright Julia Quenzler
Image caption Bob Higgins faces 51 counts of indecent assault at his Bournemouth Crown Court retrial

A football coach was a "serial abuser" of trainees at professional clubs over many years, his retrial has heard.

Bob Higgins sexually touched and groped 24 boys, mostly trainees at Southampton FC and Peterborough United, between 1971 and 1996, the court heard.

The allegations arose after the NSPCC set up a dedicated helpline for people who had encountered childhood abuse within football, jurors were told.

Mr Higgins, 66, denies 51 counts of indecent assault.

Image caption Mr Higgins is accused of sexually touching and groping 24 boys between 1971 and 1996

Opening the prosecution's case, Adam Feest QC told Bournemouth Crown Court the charity's helpline was set up after the "high level of publicity generated" from the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme in November 2016.

"The telephone started ringing and one name was mentioned over and over again - that of Bob Higgins," Mr Feest said.

There was "no doubt" Mr Higgins, who now lives in Torquay after formerly residing in Southampton, was a "talented coach" who had helped players achieve success, the jury was told.

"However, it is the crown's case that during this time there was a much darker aspect to this defendant's character and behaviour," Mr Feest added.

Image caption Mr Higgins used a supermarket bag to partially cover his face as he entered the court

The abuse ranged from fondling the boys to more serious sexual assaults, the court heard.

Mr Feest said the defendant had abused one of the complainants "at least twice a week for some months" in the early 1970s.

Mr Higgins visited this complainant, who cannot be named, in 1990 to say he had "found God" and "needed to say that he was sorry", Mr Feest told the court.

Another "football-mad teenager" was touched on the leg while Mr Higgins drove him to a training camp and played love songs in his car, jurors heard.

The same complainant was later touched inappropriately as he was given a massage by Mr Higgins, Mr Feest said.

Image copyright Solent News & Photo Agency
Image caption The former football coach was described as a "serial abuser of young teenage boys"

The jury was also told one trainee was "shocked" to be asked by Mr Higgins to carry out a sex act on him but complied because he feared the defendant "would take revenge by ruining his football career".

Mr Feest told the court that Mr Higgins had shown a "systematic and all-pervasive pattern of grooming behaviour".

"He gained the trust of the boys and of their parents," he said.

"The young footballers idolised the defendant. He held supreme power over their footballing futures, a fact which he made abundantly clear to them."

The evidence of former footballer Billy Seymour, who was killed in a car crash in January, will also be heard during the trial.

The court was told Mr Higgins was "infatuated" with Mr Seymour, who later misused drugs and alcohol as a "coping mechanism" for the abuse.

Image caption Alleged victim Billy Seymour died in a car crash in January

Mr Feest told the court Mr Higgins had developed "a real, if somewhat perverse, affectionate attachment" for some of the boys he abused.

"For others, his sexual acts were more opportunistic, testing out how far he could go before his victim would rebuff him," he said.

He said if the boys complained they felt like they were putting their future careers in jeopardy.

"It is the crown's case that for the best part of 25 years this defendant has been a serial abuser of young teenage boys," said Mr Feest.

The trial continues.

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