Bob Higgins’s behaviour takes on new meaning in light of sex abuse scandal
Former Southampton youth coach had aura that seemed to cast a spell over people
There are so many questions that need to be answered in relation to Bob Higgins that it is difficult to know where to start
Two things spring to mind when I think of Bob Higgins and Southampton. The first is that Higgins was an exceptional football coach. The second is that it was a bloody strange week that I spent at an army barracks one year, singing a Michael Jackson number in front of Higgins in a dormitory, receiving a personal hygiene lecture that strayed into the importance of keeping your penis clean, and watching lads stroll in and out of a room wearing nothing but a cup.
To give this some sort of context I was 13 at the time and I also want to make it clear that I’m not in any way trying to portray myself as a victim in this awful scandal that has engulfed football. But at the risk of stating the obvious, I witnessed some weird things under Higgins.
I first started training with Southampton when I was 12, back in 1987, and it didn’t take long to realise that Higgins ran the show when it came to schoolboy football at The Dell. He was the kingmaker, the only man whose opinion mattered, and we’d all hang on his every word – children, their parents and Higgins’s staff at Southampton.
Higgins had this aura about him that seemed to cast a spell over people, so much so that players who trained alongside me in his academy almost 30 years ago have been on the phone this week to say how they now feel that they were totally brainwashed. “My dad just told me that I took more notice of Bob than I did of him at that time,” said one player, who remembers being devastated when Higgins left Southampton in 1989.
It’s easy to see why young, impressionable wannabe footballers blindly followed Higgins. He was a brilliant coach who could also demonstrate what he wanted you to do and that earned him respect. Little things stick in my mind, such as the way he would break down the technique behind heading the ball into such detail and how he could hang in the air.
We were all in awe of him. He had a track record of producing players and, perhaps more than anything, an incredible amount of power in his hands. Every youngster in that academy knew that Higgins held the key to their future at Southampton. You did what he said and never questioned it, right down to silly little things, such as smearing your forehead with Vaseline before matches to stop the sweat running in your eyes (the fact that sweat had never gone into my eyes didn’t enter my mind).
I trained once a week in Bath, in one of many regional hubs that Southampton had around the country at the time. During the school holidays we would often go to Tidworth army base, in Wiltshire, and stay away for five or six days with lads from all over the country. In the morning and afternoon it was football. In the evening, Higgins sometimes liked us to take part in shows.
On one occasion I was one of the contestants in what is probably best described as a 1980s version of The X Factor. Higgins, lying on a bed in one of the dormitories, surrounded by 40-50 boys aged between 12-14, handpicked those who had to get up and perform and I had the misfortune of being selected. I sang Smooth Criminal and I dread to think what Simon Cowell would have made of it. Everyone laughed, Higgins took the piss and I was given a mark out of 10 that was at the lower end of the scale. Another lad, who went on to be a professional footballer, sang Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative and Higgins enjoyed it so much that he asked him to do it again.
At the time I thought it was some sort of character-building exercise and, if we give Higgins the benefit of the doubt, maybe that was the case. Perhaps it was also a way of having a bit of fun during some downtime and creating a bit of camaraderie. Except nothing seems quite so innocent now that we know Higgins’s name has cropped up again and again in connection with allegations of historical sexual abuse.
I find myself questioning everything and so do other people who were there at the time. Was all of this performing actually for Higgins’s gratification? Why did some lads walk into the room later that evening, in another part of the “entertainment”, with a polystyrene cup covering their genitals? Was it normal to be taught about cleaning your penis while being away with a professional football club?
Some will wonder why I and others didn’t seek answers to those questions at the time. Yet I never even discussed it with my parents and I don’t recall there being any conversation among the lads I played alongside. Furthermore, Southampton was the only professional club that I’d been involved with at that time and I just assumed that was how football worked.
Looking back now, Higgins, with his tight inner-circle of coaches (most of whom were useless, as several lads have since reminded me), had created such a strong powerbase that it enabled him to operate exactly how he wanted and free of any restrictions. Some of the schoolboys were routinely staying at his house, which everybody, from other players to all the parents to the staff at Southampton, knew all about. Yet this was a different era and no one thought it was odd – or if they did, they didn’t say anything.
Not long before Higgins left Southampton he took a large group of young boys to a tournament called the Gothia Cup, which I was unable to attend. The parents who travelled to Sweden had little contact with their children, who vividly recall spending evenings in a gymnasium, lying on beanbags, looking at lads cuddling up to Higgins while listening to Whitney Houston love songs. “Thinking about it now, it was like being part of some sort of cult,” said one of the players.
When Higgins hastily departed, with no explanation from Southampton to the parents or the players (little did we know that the club was investigating allegations of sexual abuse over which he was later cleared), there was a mass exodus. I signed for Aston Villa and eventually joined Swindon Town on a two-year apprenticeship before turning professional in 1994.
Higgins, who has in the past denied any wrongdoing, never crossed my mind again until I received a phone call after the Dispatches programme went out in 1997, drawing my attention to the allegations that a number of Southampton and Peterborough players had made.
Like the rest of the football world, I carried on without thinking too much about the subject until Andy Woodward bravely spoke out last month about the horrific sexual abuse he suffered at Crewe Alexandra. As soon as that story broke, I thought it was only a matter of time before Higgins would be named and so did others at Southampton.
I made some calls to those who knew Higgins and also received a few, including one from a former Peterborough apprentice who saw the Football League letter that the Guardian published showing that every professional club was warned in 1989 to stay away from Higgins. Peterborough chose to employ Higgins as their youth-team coach six years later and it is extraordinary to hear some of the stories about his one season with the club.
Higgins, it is alleged, brought someone else in on a Saturday to drive the youth-team minibus to matches so that he could follow behind in his car. One player – and one player only – was allowed to travel with him on each journey. At Peterborough, it seems Higgins again kept preaching the importance of “trusting him” and, as absurd as it sounds now, it became a challenge among many of the apprentices, in particular the younger ones, to see who could be invited into his car.
Once inside, I have been told, Higgins played slow music, talked about being “like a second dad” and, according to one of the players, placed his hand on the youngster’s knee. “It was grooming. And it was the most uncomfortable two hours of my life,” he said.
On other occasions, Higgins would bring the players back into London Road on an evening to do an aerobic class in just their shorts. There were the notorious “soap water massages” that have been mentioned in relation to many Southampton players, lectures in the London Road boardroom about sex, and one individual evaluation session took place while Higgins was naked in the bath.
Once again, Higgins was holding all the cards the whole time. “The way you felt was if you didn’t do what he wanted you to do, or wouldn’t do what others in the team under his spell were doing, you were behind in the pecking order on the football side,” one former Peterborough player explained. “And yet none of those things he wanted you to do had anything to do with football.”
There are so many questions that need to be answered in relation to Higgins that it is difficult to know where to start. In the meantime perhaps we should comfort ourselves with the knowledge – and I hope this doesn’t sound naive – that it is hard to believe any coach could operate in the same way at a professional club these days, with so many more checks in place and much greater vigilance.
From a personal point of view, I don’t believe that Higgins held my football career back in any way. Yet given what we know now, there is no pleasure to be taken from the fact that I was once part of his soccer academy. As someone who knew Higgins well told me earlier this week: “He was a good coach. But he ain’t a good man.” Guardian Service