Former professional football coach Bob Higgins has been jailed for 24 years and three months for sexually abusing teenage football players.

The 66-year-old, who ran 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 Higgins 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.

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As well as the prison sentence, Higgins was ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register, 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 said 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 trial heard 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.

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.

Court sketch of Bob Higgins in the dock at Salisbury Crown Court at 2018 hearing over sex assault charges (PA)

Many of the victims described Higgins, from Southampton, Hampshire, 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 destroy their only chance of becoming a footballer.

Impact statements from the 24 victims were read to the first part of the sentencing hearing on Tuesday.

One 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”.

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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.

Ms 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.”

Additional reporting by Press Association