Football's darkest secret brought into the light in new documentary

Football's darkest secret brought into the light in new documentary

March 21, 2021

Football’s darkest secret brought into the light as new BBC documentary airing on Monday night reveals the shocking failures in tackling sexual abuse of schoolboy players

  • New three-part BBC documentary Football’s Darkest Secret begins on Sunday
  • It shows extent of challenges facing those fighting coaches like Bob Higgins
  • Dean Radford was one of Higgins’ victims and was crucial in the conviction
  • Radford is now campaigning against double jeopardy law on behalf of victims

It is Dean Radford’s description of what happened in court which makes you wonder where he found the resolve to keep up the fight against the Southampton football coach who abused so many young players like him.

Radford’s February 1989 evidence against Bob Higgins, offered at a time when very few felt able to speak out, saw the paedophile brought to trial in the early 1990s.

Higgins’s barrister then attempted to reduce Radford’s credibility and testimony to shreds, by claiming that his parents’ separation somehow made his evidence invalid. Radford left the courtroom feeling like he was the criminal.

Dean Radford showed incredible resolve in court to keep up the fight against Bob Higgins

A new three-part BBC documentary shows what those fighting against Higgins faced

‘I didn’t go back to court after I’d testified,’ he says. ‘I just kept ringing the police to find out how the trial was going and whether he’d been convicted. I didn’t get a call back. I tried so many places for support. The Professional Footballers’ Association couldn’t help. And then I found out that he’d been acquitted.’

It was an extraordinary verdict. Five other young players had also testified to Higgins’ crimes – but a decision was taken that six separate trials should be held. When Higgins was found not guilty in the first of them, the other five were dropped. Higgins marched out of court with his wife and another middle-aged woman on each arm, grinning broadly. He would go on to abuse dozens more boys at Peterborough United.

A new three-part BBC documentary which begins on Monday on football’s child abuse scandal reveals far more vividly than last week’s 710-page Sheldon report what boys like Radford were up against in Higgins, who held their football dreams in his hands.

‘Football’s Darkest Secret’ reveals cine film footage of the coach’s young players chanting his name on training runs. ‘It was like a cult and he was the Messiah,’ Radford says. ‘We ran around on warm-ups, chanting out his name. And as you ran by you would shout it as loud as you could, because you wanted him to hear your voice above everyone else’s.’

Victims and their families after Higgins’ sentencing for sexually abusing schoolboy footballers

Higgins abused in plain sight. His deliberate touching up of boys as they land from jumping exercises was inadvertently captured by local TV crews, who saw nothing in it.

He basked in his own profile. The documentary also reveals him posing for photographs in the lounge of his home, his paunch hanging out over a tight T-shirt. It was in that same home that he abused boys like Radford. ‘Love him or loathe him, Bob Higgins is a star-maker,’ declared one local TV reporter for a package broadcast after his acquittal.

The notion that the abuse was simply a product of the time is exploded by the fact that another Southampton coach, Dave Merrington, challenged Higgins when he heard the boys talking about it. Merrington ensured Higgins was drummed out of the club and faced trial.

‘Dave’s actions were monumental, in saving so many of us from facing more of the abuse,’ Radford reflects. ‘Yes, those were the 1980s but they weren’t the Dark Ages. It was still possible to see right from wrong like Dave did.’

The Sheldon report supports claim there were no grounds for concern about Higgins’ conduct

The Sheldon report has not brought Radford the solace he might have expected because its conclusions about what Southampton and the FA knew are baffling, to say the least.

Sheldon supports an FA claim that there were no grounds for concern about Higgins’ conduct with young children until 1995 – long after he had abused Radford. Yet his report documents a meeting between the FA, the Football League and Southampton in February 1989, to discuss concerns about Higgins, who was then running a football academy. The report concludes it cannot prove the concerns were abuse-related.

Also in 1989, Crewe manager Dario Gradi wrote to FA director of coaching Charles Hughes, tipping him off about Higgins’ academy and implying it should be shut down. Again, the report concludes there is no proof that suspected abuse was the reason.

In 2019, Higgins was found guilty of 46 counts of indecent assault on 24 victims, predominantly Southampton and Peterborough United trainees, between 1971 and 1996.

Dario Gradi wrote to FA director of coaching in 1989 tipping him off about Higgins’ academy

Radford is campaigning to reform the double jeopardy law so that sexual offenders like Higgins could potentially face retrial for previous abuse allegations.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse has formally recommended such a change to the law. As of last night, a petition raised by Radford had garnered over 11,000 names.

‘It’s taken some time to get my head around all the detail of the Sheldon report,’ he reflects. ‘But parts of it trouble me deeply. It goes to every length to give people the benefit of the doubt and see the other side. The crimes were actually going on right in front of their eyes.’

Football’s Darkest Secret begins on Monday at 9pm on BBC One. It will then be available on iPlayer.

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