Victims have lined up to describe a “conveyor belt of abuse” suffered at the hands of “pure evil” coach Bob Higgins who sexually abused schoolboy football players over a 25-year period.
The 66-year-old from Southampton was found guilty last year of one count of indecent assault, and a further 45 counts in a retrial at Bournemouth Crown Court.
The trials heard that Higgins abused his position of power over young players to take advantage of them for his own sexual purposes during his time running youth training programmes at Southampton and Peterborough United.
He was convicted of groping them during post-exercise soapy massages as well as at his home and in his car.
Many of the victims described Higgins as God-like, a mentor and a father figure, showing the influence he held over them.
Several said they could not make a complaint against him because they feared it would be the end of their burgeoning football career.
The impact statements of the 24 victims were read to a sentencing hearing at Winchester Crown Court which Judge Peter Crabtree said will conclude on Wednesday.
Victim after victim fought back tears as they spoke of having suffered shame, guilt and depression for decades as well as suicidal thoughts and having difficulties forming relationships, and each received applause from the public gallery.
The words of former Millwall and Coventry City player Billy Seymour, who died in a crash involving a drink-driver earlier this year, were read by his mother Jean Seymour.
It detailed how he spiralled into “self-destructive behaviour”, resorting to drink and drugs and ending up in court, and said he was diagnosed as bipolar with a borderline personality disorder.
Mrs Seymour read: “Only now am I coming to terms with what you did to me as a young, defenceless lad who admired you, hero-worshipped you and, I feel sick to my stomach to say, loved you.”
Her son concluded: “I am in safe hands now, real safe hands, not those you offered me. I am a fighter, this is closure. Goodbye Bob Higgins.”
In her own statement, Mrs Seymour said: “How could I allow my lovely boy to fall into the clutches of this rampant paedophile? How could I let him down so badly?”
One victim called Higgins a “monster” and said the coach turned in a “split second from a father figure to a bully, a child abuser”, and added: “My chance of being a professional with Southampton Football Club was over.”
He continued: “I want you to suffer just as I have.”
Another victim said: “Bob Higgins treated me like a son, from being a slacker I was elevated to pride of my school and family because he gave me the confidence.
“Bob Higgins gave me a glimpse of what my life could be, and it all came tumbling down during a soapy naked massage.
“Could I really have made it? I suppose I will never know, my chance was stolen.”
He added to a round of applause from the public gallery: “Where were Southampton (FC)? Where were the FA? Where was there due diligence and safeguarding procedures? They all had a duty of care, they both had a responsibility.
“Bob Higgins is indeed guilty but it was also the people in the system who failed us as well.”
Another victim said: “Bob Higgins said he loved me and would make me a star. I had a dream of being a footballer, you created a nightmare that I still live to this day.
“You sexually and mentally abused me – behind a mask of affection you created a conveyor belt of abuse.”
Higgins was described as “pure evil” by another victim who added: “I swore you wouldn’t break me.”
Greg Llewellyn, 50, who has waived his right to anonymity, said Higgins had left him an “emotional cripple”, and added: “You gave me an inferiority complex, feeling different to normal people.”
He added that Higgins was not a “superstar” coach and his trainees had succeeded not “because of him but in spite of him”.
Southampton FC has issued an apology to the victims and said it has launched an investigation.