A former youth football coach who held “supreme power” over the futures of budding players has been found guilty of indecently assaulting boys.
Bob Higgins sexually touched and groped 24 victims, most of them trainees at Southampton FC and Peterborough United, between 1971 and 1996.
Bournemouth Crown Court heard his status as a “God-like” figure enabled his decades-long campaign of abuse.
A jury found him guilty of 45 counts of indecent assault.
Higgins’ conviction will allow a Football Association (FA) review into child sex abuse allegations to conclude its investigations, a spokesman said.
The independent review, led by Clive Sheldon QC, would continue working to establish what the clubs and the FA knew about Higgins.
During Higgins’ trial, prosecutors told the court the defendant was “idolised” by trainees, who viewed him as a mentor and father figure.
Media captionEx-footballer Dean Radford said trainees treated Bob Higgins like “god”
Victims said they were abused during post-exercise soapy massages, in Higgins’ car while he played love songs on the stereo and at his home where he cuddled with boys on his sofa
Adam Feest QC said Higgins had shown a “systematic and all-pervasive pattern of grooming behaviour” in gaining the trust of the boys and of their parents.
‘Keep quiet or risk losing everything’During his time as a coach, Bob Higgins worked with young footballers who would go on to become national heroes and household names.
But others were not so fortunate.
Some were haunted by their ordeals, and gave up on football entirely.
Such was Higgins hold over those he abused, many felt unable to say anything, even to close family members, for up to 30 years.
The allegations arose after the NSPCC set up a dedicated helpline for people who had encountered childhood abuse within football.
It was launched after a number of former footballers, including Billy Seymour, spoke on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme in November 2016.
Higgins faced trial last year, but a retrial was ordered after jurors failed to reach a verdict on all but one count of indecent assault.
Image caption Victim Billy Seymour died in a car crash in January
Mr Seymour, a Southampton youth player who went on to play for Coventry City and Millwall, waived his right to anonymity to speak publicly.
He gave evidence at last year’s trial but was killed in a car crash in January before he could give evidence at the retrial.
‘Arrogance and lies’
Quiet sobbing from the packed public gallery became audible as guilty verdicts were returned on all six counts relating to Mr Seymour.
Higgins showed no emotion as the jury returned verdicts after more than 41 hours of deliberations.
In a joint statement issued through police, his victims said: “Higgins’s arrogance and lies have finally caught up with him.
“When Bob Higgins returned to court eight weeks ago, he gave a clear message to us all with his continued refusal to accept responsibility for what he did to us as children. However, that message made us all stronger and more determined.
“At last, after all these years, we can finally get a sense of closure and try to move on from this nightmare.”
At Higgins’ earlier trial, the single guilty count related to former Southampton junior player Greg Llewellyn.
He was abused in the defendant’s car around the time of his 14th birthday on their way to a training session.
He said he had an “overwhelming sense of anger” afterwards and had punched Higgins during the practice.
Now aged 50, he said the ordeal had “caused me many difficulties in relationships, marriage, none of those positive.”
“It doesn’t disappear because there are always circumstances or scenarios that remind you of what happened,” he said.
Although responsibility for the abuse lies with Higgins, Mr Llewellyn said Southampton FC could have done more to protect the young players.
He said the coach’s “total carte blanche control” allowed him to do things “that simply wouldn’t happen today”.
“I can’t hold the club responsible but you have to point the finger and there was some negligence there but there was only one perpetrator,” he said.
Det Ch Insp Dave Brown, of Hampshire Police, said Higgins’ victims suffered “horrendous experiences” at the hands of a “predatory paedophile”
“He thrived on controlling and manipulating his victims and knowing that he held the career prospects of many young men in his hands.” he said
Media captionBob Higgins “did not speak a single word” during 15 hours of interviews, police said
Police believe there could be more victims, who Det Ch Insp Brown urged to come forward.
Higgins is due to be sentenced at a later date.
Southampton FC said it offered its “sympathy and support to any player who suffered any kind of abuse or harm while under our care”.
A statement said: “We have been working closely with the police, the FA and the Sheldon review for nearly three years to help to uncover the truth.
“While the offences cited are historic, the club is committed to constantly reviewing our current safeguarding provision to raise standards.”
His is the latest in a string of high-profile prosecutions of former football coaches.
The FA also said its review was also awaiting the outcome of further investigations into allegations of abuse by Barry Bennell.