A tragic catalogue of missed opportunities to stop Bob Higgins from repeatedly abusing young footballers has been laid bare in a damning report that concludes with Southampton accepting a “complete institutional failure” to protect boys in their care.
Higgins began working part-time at Southampton during the 1970s but was allowed to continue coaching at various clubs right up until 2016 when the scale of football’s sexual-abuse scandal was uncovered. He was finally sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2019 after being found guilty of 45 charges of indecent assault against 23 teenage boys over a 25-year period.
The 126-page report, which followed an investigation by children’s charity Barnardo’s, reveals that a complaint was made about Higgins when he was scouting for Southampton in 1979 and that he then resigned from his position days later only to be appointed as the club’s youth development officer in 1980.
The nature of the complaint, however, was not detailed in retrieved minutes of board meetings and a senior former club official said that, although they could not recall the complaint, it “would not have been related to any issues concerning abuse”.
Higgins had begun working with Southampton around the mid-1970s and it was also revealed that, in 1974, police records detailed an alleged conversation between a local headteacher and a club board member. The teacher had complained about Higgins' “inappropriate behaviours” but was told by the board member not to repeat this “gossip” or legal action would be taken.
It was also revealed that Higgins was allegedly briefly sacked in 1985, that the FA sent a letter in October 1987 advising all clubs not to have contact with Higgins and that abuse allegations were directly reported to the club in 1989. Higgins again resigned that year but was left free to coach and abuse boys elsewhere.
Although board minutes state an intention to raise concerns with the police some four months after the allegations were raised, police action is initially believed to have followed an earlier complaint by a parent. A trial on six counts of indecent assault collapsed on the direction of a judge in 1992. Five of the boys who had told police of abuse they suffered were never called to give evidence and no useful records about the trial could be found. In their report, Barnardo's reported ongoing questions among survivors as to “whether the decisions and actions taken during the trial... were influenced by factors outside of the legal process”.
Barnardo’s said that they could find no evidence to support that assertion but state that “questions continue to be asked about why certain decisions were taken and why, importantly, there are no papers available from any agency pertaining to the trial of Higgins”.
In a statement to accompany the report, Southampton acknowledged that their complete failure to protect boys in their care “was then compounded by the complete lack of support for those boys who were brave enough to speak up about the abuse”.
They have apologised for their failings and also attempted to answer why action was not taken earlier. “Regrettably, we have to conclude that it was because it was simply easier not to see the signs of potential abuse, not to listen to the children who were abused, not to properly challenge Higgins and not to stand up against his disgraceful behaviour,” said the statement. “Too many people, at the club and in other organisations, knew or should have known what was going on. They all failed to act. For so many boys to be abused while pursuing a dream to become a footballer is unforgivable and completely inexcusable.
“These failings, shockingly, left Bob Higgins free to work in football until his arrest in 2016. It is very clear that the club completely failed to protect so many young people from suffering abuse over a long period of time. There were simply so many missed opportunities to end the disgraceful, horrific abuse carried out.”
Dean Radford, who first complained about Higgins in 1989, said that the report's conclusions were "completely damning". He said: "There's no reasoning behind why they wouldn't have reported these allegations about Higgins or investigated at least.”
The Barnardo's investigation involved interviews with more than 20 former players and reported how Higgins groomed parents, as well as young boys, in gaining their trust to allow overnight stays at his house. Among its conclusions, the report found there was "no managerial oversight" of boys staying overnight at Higgins' home, and the board had been "neglectful" in not addressing the issue.
It was said that he was a “god-like figure’ who exerted vast control to the extent of threatening young players with their release if they had a girlfriend. One former youth player said that Higgins “booted me around the gym” after finding out that he had been dating a girl.
The Barnardo’s report was put to some of the surviving senior club figures who stated “that any suggestion that any board member or managers had any awareness of rumours was simply not true”.
The report stresses that “we have been unable to confirm exactly who knew what and when” but that judgements have been made based on the “balance of probabilities”. It concludes that “it is difficult to understand how senior officials in the club did not hear of rumours about Higgins, over a period of 15 years, when we have heard that so many other people had”. It added that it is “our view that it was convenient for the board to minimise and disregard significant concerns about Higgins and not take action when they should have done”.
Barnardo’s says that “childhoods were stolen or ruined by Higgins” and that “the collateral damage on their families, their employment and on their physical and mental health and wellbeing is incalculable”.