A former youth football coach has been jailed for 24 years and three months for abusing young players.

Bob Higgins sexually touched and groped 24 victims, most of them trainees at Southampton FC and Peterborough United.

In May, Higgins, 66, was found guilty at a retrial of 45 counts of indecent assault between 1971 and 1996. He was convicted of another count last year.

Judge Peter Crabtree called Higgins a “predatory, cunning” serial sex abuser who “carefully groomed” the teenagers.

Higgins’ victims told Winchester Crown Court of suicidal thoughts and relationship problems later in life.

An emotional statement, read by Dean Radford on behalf of the victims on the steps of the court, said Higgins’ “arrogance was his downfall”.

“You can call us brave, you can call us courageous – we were not – we were the unlucky ones for falling into the entrapment of Higgins’s manipulative, deceitful and sexual behaviour,” it said.

During Higgins’ trial, prosecutors told the court he was “idolised” by trainees, who viewed him as a mentor and father figure.

Victims said they were abused during post-exercise soapy massages, in Higgins’ car while he played love songs on the stereo and at his home where he cuddled with boys on his sofa.

‘Severe psychological harm’

Judge Crabtree said Higgins had shown “not one jot of remorse”.

“They believed you held the key to their futures,” he told the defendant.

“You normalised cuddling and stroking, which paved the way for more intimate abuse.

“For many the impact extended to their performance on the field or to turning their backs on a football career. Some of them suffered severe psychological harm.”

Higgins made no reaction as the sentence was passed.

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The allegations arose after the NSPCC set up a dedicated helpline for people who had encountered childhood abuse within football.

It was launched after a number of former footballers, including Billy Seymour, spoke on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme in November 2016.

Higgins stood trial last year, but a retrial was ordered after jurors failed to reach verdicts on 48 counts of indecent assault.

Mr Seymour, a Southampton youth player who went on to play for Coventry City and Millwall, had waived his right to anonymity to speak publicly.

He gave evidence at last year’s trial but was killed in a car crash in January before Higgins’ retrial.

On Tuesday, his mother Jean read his victim impact statement, written before his death, to the court.

Addressed to Higgins, it said: “I am sick to my stomach of giving you any more thought. I have been a broken man. You have debilitated my whole life.

“The mist is clearing. I can see some light at the end of the tunnel.

“I will beat the hating of you in my soul. This is closure. Goodbye, Bob Higgins.”

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Mr Radford had given evidence as a character witness because Higgins was found not guilty of abusing him at a separate trial in the early 1990s.

Reading the victims’ statement, he said: “There were so many warning signs out there but no-one would listen – that let this monster walk free and carry on abusing.

“We believe that many people must have known what was going on, the truth will come out in the end.

“Today is not just about us complainants and witnesses who have suffered through this nightmare, it’s the wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters who have suffered with us.”

He also paid tribute to their “dear friend” Billy Seymour.

“We did it Billy – just like you said we would, you can now rest in peace.”

‘Further allegations’

Det Ch Insp David Brown, of Hampshire Constabulary, said the conviction was “testament to the bravery of those who came forward to give evidence”.

“There can be no understanding of the damage that individual has caused to the lives of the people who stood with us through the criminal trial”.

He said the force was “assessing a number of reports” of further allegations against Higgins.

Southampton FC offered an “unreserved apology” to his victims last week.

In a statement, the club said it recognised boys under its care “suffered exposure to abuse when they should have received protection from any form of harm”.

‘Keep quiet or risk losing everything’

During his time as a coach, Bob Higgins worked with young footballers who would go on to become national heroes and household names.

But others were not so fortunate.

Some were haunted by their ordeals, and gave up on football entirely.

Such was Higgins’s hold over those he abused, many felt unable to say anything, even to close family members, for up to 30 years.

Read more: The ‘star-maker’ who abused young footballers

A BBC South Today documentary about the Higgins case, A Saint and a Sinner, is available on BBC iPlayer