A former football coach who helped launch the careers of a string of household names has been found guilty of sexually abusing schoolboy players.
Bob Higgins, who worked with hundreds of youth players, was found guilty of 45 charges of indecent assault against teenage boys at Bournemouth crown court.
The jury found him not guilty of five counts of indecent assault and were unable to reach a verdict on the final count. He showed no emotion as the verdicts were read out and he was convicted of offences against 23 victims.
He was convicted at an earlier trial of an offence against one other victim. The judge, Peter Crabtree, discharged the jury and thanked them for their service. Higgins will be sentenced at a later date at Winchester crown court.
Higgins, who coached at Southampton FC and Peterborough United, was a predatory paedophile who used his reputation as a star-maker to abuse vulnerable boys.
He indecently assaulted them at training camps, at home when his wife and son were under the same roof, in his car, and during “soapy” massages after training.
Higgins, 66, denied the offences, claiming the allegations were false memories or lies. His mask slipped once when, while giving evidence, he conceded he may have become sexually aroused while massaging boys.
Complaints about Higgins were first made 30 years ago but, even though the police and football authorities knew of the serious concerns about him, he continued to work in the game until the Guardian exposed widespread football abuse in 2016.
It can now be revealed that:
• More than 100 former schoolboy players have said they were abused by Higgins. The most serious allegations involving boys as young as 11, and involving 24 youngsters, were put before the jury at Bournemouth crown court.
• Police believe there may be more victims who have not contacted them. They are still keen to hear from anyone else who was indecently assaulted by Higgins.
• Higgins kept letters, pictures and witness statements in his attic as “trophies” from boys he had abused.
• Detectives believe Higgins committed offences in Sweden during a youth football competition but he cannot be prosecuted there because of legal restrictions.
• Higgins had close links with another coach accused of sexual abuse against children, Kit Carson, who worked with Higgins at Peterborough. Carson died in a car crash on the morning his trial was due to begin in January.
• Famous names that came up in Higgins’s trial included the England internationals Alan Shearer and Dennis Wise. There is no suggestion they were victims.
An independent review into child sexual abuse in football is looking at what the Football Association and clubs knew about Higgins.
A spokesperson said: “Following the conviction of Bob Higgins … it will now be possible for investigations into what the clubs and the FA did or did not know about Higgins to be concluded.”
The senior investigating officer, DCI Dave Brown, of Hampshire police, said: “Higgins was a great coach. The boys would do anything for him and he exploited that position. He identified vulnerabilities of the boys he coached and used his position to groom them so he could fulfil his own sexual needs. Boys worshipped Higgins as a father figure. He was clever and manipulative, a typical predatory paedophile.”
Asked why Higgins had been able to carry on working with children after complaints were made, he said: “You have to look at what the DBS [disclosure and barring service] and checking processes were at that time. There are very different safeguarding processes now. The fact he would be a risk would be identified and it would be highly unlikely he would find himself in a position where he could continue to offend against young people.”
He described the victims as incredibly brave. “I hope it gives others who may be victims the confidence to come forward. We will treat them with dignity and respect. I’m sure there are more that haven’t come forward,” he said.
Many of the victims described Higgins as god-like, their mentor and their father figure. Several spoke of their inability to make a complaint against him earlier because they feared it would be the end of their dreams of a career in football.
The court heard Higgins was acquitted at a trial in the early 1990s of a series of indecent assaults, including against the former professional Dean Radford who waived his right to anonymity to give evidence as a witness in the current proceedings.
The public gallery was charged with emotion as the chairman of the jury announced Higgins was guilty of six charges in relation to the former Southampton trainee Billy Seymour who died in a car crash earlier this year. His evidence against Higgins was presented to the jury through videos he had given to police.
In a joint statement issued through the police, the victims in the Bournemouth case said: “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.
“The verdicts from the jury after hearing all of the evidence mean that Mr Higgins’ arrogance and lies have finally caught up with him. At last, after all these years, we can finally get a sense of closure and try to move on from this nightmare.
“On behalf of everybody who’s taken part in the trials, we would like to thank everyone involved in the case for having faith and belief in us.
“We would particularly like to thank the prosecution and investigation team who must have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours putting this jigsaw puzzle together.
“But, most of all, we must thank our loved ones, wives, girlfriends, sons, daughters, mums, dads, brothers, sisters and close friends who have supported us right through to the end. It must have been difficult for them also.”
Referring to Seymour, they concluded: “We did it Billy, love you our good friend and brother xxx”.
Southampton FC said it noted the verdicts “with deep regret”.
The club said in a statement that it offered its “sympathy and support to any player who suffered any kind of abuse or harm while under our care”. been working with the police, the FA and the independentinquiry “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.”
Claire Booth, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Many young boys dream of becoming a footballer and training for a prestigious team.
“Bob Higgins preyed on and abused young boys – some of who adored him – and in doing so tainted and shattered the dreams of many.
“Being scouted by such a talented, renowned coach was something no boy would have turned down. Sadly it meant growing up with this terrible secret, which for some was all-consuming.”
• The NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and to footballers who have been abused on 0800 023 2642. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.