A series of missed opportunities allowed the predator pedophile Bob Higgins to sexually abuse a number of schoolboy footballers while working as a coach in Southampton, concludes a judgmental report from the children’s organization Barnardo’s.
Higgins, considered a “god-like” starmaker by young people who dreamed of a career in football, was able to operate “seemingly undiscovered” in Southampton from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. and continued to work elsewhere in the sport until 2016.
The report concluded: “It is an unavoidable fact that adults at Southampton Football Club at the time Higgins worked for them or on their behalf did not consider the welfare and welfare of the boys involved in the club as their main consideration.
“The consequences of and the harm caused by Higgins’ abuse of children in his care during the time he was employed at Southampton Football Club is incalculable. The damage to their physical and mental health as they grew up, their relationships, their families and even their ability to be self-confident parents has been devastating.
“It is these individuals who, in our view, have paid the price for what appears to be the inertia of board members who failed to ensure that young boys, in contact with Higgins, were as well protected as they should have been.
“We do not believe that there were any considerations or malicious intentions from these individuals, it is our view that they simply did not consider the well-being of boys as their responsibility, and since Higgins had left their employment, they saw no reason to warn anyone about the allegations made against him. “
Higgins was jailed in 2019 for 24 years for sexually abusing 24 boys over a 25-year period from 1971, but the report said more than 100 people had turned up to testify about Higgins’ abuse.
The report’s authors spoke with 26 men who were abused or knew Higgins. They talked about the team he had over them. “He was like a god-like figure, immovable,” one said. “Boys fought for his attention.” Another said, “Bob Higgins was like a god sitting on a throne with boys draped around him.” “He could ruin our career with a click of the finger and we would do anything at that age,” said another.
They told how he cared for them with gifts and promises. “He promised me he would be my father figure. He used to give me gifts, attention,” one explained. “I loved him. I wanted his approval. I wrote letters; I put love last, ”testified another.
The men described how Higgins could initially be cautious in his movements to see how boys reacted: “random” touching, sexual teasing, commenting on their bodies and genitals. “He patted you and said well gone, but he touched my testicles,” said one. Another added, “He would knock you on the butt. You felt it was not okay. He would make you do stretching exercises and touch you. None of the boys would talk about it.”
Higgins also “nursed” parents and encouraged them to attend training sessions where soapy water massage would obviously take place, which the report said was “essentially a technique he used to allow him to abuse boys”.
The former players gave an insight into the pain they had suffered since. One said he had turned to alcohol, another has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A third told of a recurring nightmare: “a figure hugs me to the bed and … I can not escape.”
The report said it had not found evidence that Higgins was part of an organized pedophile ring, but highlighted that he knew coaches such as league addict Barry Bennell and Kit Carson, the former Peterborough United, Norwich City and Cambridge United Coach who died in a car crashed on the day his sexual offenses trial against 11 boys was due to start.
“In our opinion, it is highly likely that these individuals would have had some awareness of each other’s inclinations,” the report said.
The report said Higgins started working for Southampton in 1975 – at a time when concerns had been raised about him. He resigned in 1979 after a complaint, but was appointed a full-time youth development worker at the club in 1980. Throughout the 1980s, rumors circulated about him and his being nicknamed “Dodgy Bob”, the report says. In 1989, an employee heard boys on a minibus make allegations about Higgins’ sexual behavior.
This was taken up with the board. The report says it was “particularly significant” that the board took four months before noticing that this should be reported to police – and then not checking that a report had actually been made. “This failure to report or act was a dramatic failure for boys entrusted with Higgins’ care,” the report said.
The report said that like many other football clubs, in the 1970s and 1980s Southampton was run by a board of local businessmen, lawyers, sponsors and farmers. None of them are still on the board.
Higgins left Southampton in 1989. Police spoke to a number of boys who told them they had been sexually abused by Higgins.
Higgins was first brought to justice in the early 1990s for being charged with indecent assault on six boys, but was acquitted on the orders of the presiding judge in January 1992. Five of the boys who told police about the assaults they had been exposed, was never asked to provide evidence at trial. The report said Higgins had the freedom to continue his abuse.
The report also highlighted how boys often lived with Higgins and his wife, Shirley, in their home in Southampton, where many were abused. It said: “There was no managerial oversight to ensure that accommodation for boys in need of accommodation was adequate. Board members did not neglect to address the issue of boys’ accommodation arrangements when they left home.”
Southampton issued a deep apology. In a statement, the club said: “Bob Higgins held the dreams of so many young boys in his hands. He completely betrayed the trust of these boys and their families. We now know that Higgins had unlimited power in Southampton Football Club and that they held senior positions did nothing to ensure that appropriate controls were in place to prevent abuse from occurring.
“No one in a position of power did anything to properly find out what was going on, to take action to ensure that the abuse was stopped and properly reported once it was discovered, or to offer support to those who was targeted by Higgins.
“Those in power in the club should have known what was going on at a much earlier stage. We have seen evidence that even when senior officials found out about the allegations of abuse at that time, it appeared that they “did nothing to act and still failed to report the abuse properly. These errors shockingly gave Bob Higgins time off to work in football until he was arrested in 2016.”
The club continued: “It is very clear that the club completely failed to protect so many young people from being abused over an extended period of time. Clearly, many people involved in leadership positions at the club should have done so much more to support the children who had been abused and to prevent Higgins from continuing to insult, either in Southampton or elsewhere. There were simply so many missed opportunities to end the shameful, horrific abuse that was being carried out. “
The club said others were also to blame. “A whole host of people in clubs, the Football Association, the English Football League and the police had the chance to properly investigate or report Higgins’ notorious behavior. Instead, they chose not to act and not to believe those who spoke, which meant Higgins did not finally faced justice before 2019. “
Hampshire police defended their behavior, pointing out that Higgins had been charged in the 1990s, saying that a claim of historic abuse brought to them in 2013 had been thoroughly investigated, but that “on the basis of all available evidence at that time no prosecution was able to be brought ”.
The FA said Clive Sheldon QC would review the report to determine if a supplement to his 2018 report on sexual abuse in football is required. EFL has been contacted for comment.