A FORMER Saints coach has been described as "pure evil" after being jailed for 24 years and three months for sexually abusing schoolboy football players during a 25-year period.

Bob Higgins, who ran the youth training programmes at Southampton and Peterborough football clubs, was found guilty of 46 counts of indecent assault against a total of 24 teenage boys between 1971 and 1996.

Sentencing the 66-year-old at Winchester Crown Court, Judge Peter Crabtree said he was "predatory, cunning and manipulative" and used sexualised behaviour to "normalise" the abuse he carried out.

As well as the prison sentence, Higgins was ordered to sign the sex offenders' register and was also banned from working with children and made subject to a supervision order on his release.

The judge told him: "A number of the boys idolised you and were prepared, and did, anything to further their dreams of becoming a professional footballer."

Judge Crabtree added that Higgins "carefully groomed" the boys by giving them gifts such as football shirts signed by professional players and trips to football matches.

He continued: "You encouraged many of them to treat you as a father figure. For a number of boys who were brought up without a father and were vulnerable, this had a profound effect."

Praising the victims for their "courage and fortitude", the judge told Higgins: "The only person who should feel shame and guilt is you", adding: "You show not one jot of remorse."

The defendant, who wore a hearing aid during proceedings, sat impassively and showed no emotion as the sentence was announced.

The trial heard that Higgins abused his "position of power" over the future careers of the young players in order to take advantage of them for his own sexual needs.

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, from Southampton, as God-like, their mentor and their father figure, showing the influence he held over them.

Several spoke of their inability to 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 the first part of the sentencing hearing on Tuesday.

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 in forming relationships and each received applause from the public gallery.

One 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."

One victim called Higgins a "monster" and said that the coach had 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".

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.

In his statement, Mr Seymour detailed how he spiralled into "self-destructive behaviour", resorting to drink and drugs, and ended up in court and stated he was diagnosed as bipolar with an emotional 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."

Higgins was acquitted at a previous trial in the early 1990s which allowed him to return to his job and continue his abuse.

Southampton FC has issued an apology to the victims and said it had launched an investigation.

Following the sentence, Claire Booth of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Many young boys dream of becoming a footballer and training for a prestigious team.

“Being scouted by such a talented renowned coach was not something you would have turned down. Sadly it meant some had to grow up with this terrible secret, which for some was all-consuming.

“We would like to thank all the victims who came forward and who had the courage to face Bob Higgins, as well as their families and all the witnesses.

“We now hope that with this sentence all of the victims in this case will be able to find some closure.”

An NSPCC spokesperson added: “An NSPCC helpline set up to make it easier for victims of abuse in football to report their experiences led to 87 referrals to Hampshire Constabulary. All of them named Higgins.

“This case shows how important it is that victims feel confident and empowered to speak out so they can at last achieve justice, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. We encourage anyone who has experienced abuse, or is worried a child is at risk, to contact our helpline on 0808 800 5000.”

Speaking outside the court, Detective Chief Inspector Dave Brown said: “Bob Higgins used his position as a trusted and respected football coach to abuse young boys for decades.

“His actions have destroyed the lives of many of his victims – some of whom have only recently had the confidence to acknowledge this abuse and report it to police.

“Today’s sentence reflects how seriously we take this sort of offending and should offer hope to those people who have been victims of non-recent sexual abuse that any information they give will be taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly.

“I would like to thank those men who came forward and who have worked with us over the past couple of years – often having to disclose some of the most personal information. We appreciate how difficult and distressing this has been for them and their families, friends and loved ones."