A former professional football coach used his reputation as a “kingmaker” to act with “near impunity” as he carried out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against teenage players, a court has heard.
Bob Higgins, who ran youth team coaching for Southampton Football Club and Peterborough United, is accused of using his position of “supreme power” to abuse the ambitious trainees, several of whom went on to become professional players.
The 66-year-old is facing a retrial at Bournemouth Crown Court accused of 51 counts of indecent assault against 24 complainants dating between 1971 and 1996, which he denies.
Adam Feest QC, prosecuting, told the jury the allegations against Higgins were made after ex-pro player Andy Woodward, of Crewe Alexandra, appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme and spoke of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of another coach.
He said this led to the NSPCC charity setting up a helpline and added: “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 explained that Higgins was a “talented coach” who was “idolised” by the young players and described as a “kingmaker” because of the extent of his reputation and influence.
He said one complainant viewed Higgins as a “father figure” and described him as “like a God”.
He added 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 continued: “During this time there was a much darker aspect to the defendant’s character and behaviour, an aspect which his footballing roles, and in particular the power that came with them, allowed him the opportunity to pursue and to indulge.
“Throughout this period, this defendant, we say, was carrying out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against many of those in his charge.”
Mr Feest added: “The young footballers idolised him, the defendant.
“He held, in their eyes, 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.”
He said they felt they had to “keep in his good books both on and off the training pitches.
“This defendant manipulated those feelings and desires, making sure that in order not to feel left out, the young teenagers would join in with what was sexualised behaviour, their infatuation, their naivety, their age, making them blind to the real nature of what was going on.”
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 teenage boys was able to act with near impunity.”
Mr Feest said that the abuse was alleged to have taken place during training as well as during massage sessions, and also in the defendant’s car and home while some of the boys stayed overnight.
He said that some of the victims had felt unable to speak out about the alleged offences for many years.
Higgins, of Southampton, Hampshire, denies the charges and the trial continues.