The Malta Football Association is not aware of any allegations of misconduct with regards to Bob Higgins who had served as Youth Development Officer in the early nineties.
In the midst of a sexual abuse scandal in England where former professional players waived their rights to anonymity and talked publicly about child sexual abuse by former coaches in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990, six players had alleged abuse by Higgins, until recently a first team coach at non-league side Fleet Town.
Addressing a press conference at the Centenary Hall on Wednesday, MFA President Norman Darmanin Demajo gave a timeline of events with regards to the period Bob Higgins was employed by the association.
Higgins was appointed Youth Development Officer at the Malta Football Association in July 1989. In January 1990, the then MFA President Dr George Abela became aware of an article in the Daily Mirror reporting that Bob Higgins was assisting police in the UK with regards to sexual misconduct. These allegations regarded indecent assault during the time Bob Higgins was youth development officer at Southampton between 1985 and 1987. Dr Abela and the Head of the MFA Technical Centre Fr Hilary Tagliaferro travelled to the UK to visit him in his home and informed him that pending the outcome of the court case, they were suspending him with immediate effect. On January 16, 1990, a meeting was held with parents, informing them of allegations and of the MFA’s decision to suspend him, pending the outcome of the court case.
Two years later, in January 1992, Higgins was not found guilty. This was also confirmed by a letter to the MFA by his barrister in March 1992. Higgins was engaged once again as Youth Development Officer on five-year contract as from September 1992 with a one-year probation. Less than two years in his contract, he submitted a letter of resignation stating that he would be leaving in June 1994. The MFA accepted his resignation, even though a petition by parents was presented to both Higgins and the MFA asking him to reconsider his resignation. A few weeks later, Higgins informed the MFA that he was willing to stay and fulfil his contract. However on June 8th, 1994, the Executive Committee decided not to accept his request for re-instatement.
Darmanin Demajo stressed that everyone seemed to be satisfied with his work and no reports of misconduct were ever reported. He went on to say that he did not recall anyone having an issue with him.
On a more general note, the MFA President said “We are not here to judge anyone, our job is to protect children.
Football has an obligation to protect.”
MFA Safeguarding Officer Andrew Azzopardi said that he was appointed to this role in September 2015 following an experience at The FA. He said that since his return to Malta, he had started discussions with the MFA with the main objective being that of making football safe place for children.
“We started a journey in small steps where we agreed with the MFA Technical Centre that any person – coach or administrator – would have safeguarding training. We worked closely with the Youth FA, with regards to the policy and training, and also with nurseries.”
“Our job is not to just have documents in libraries but to make it alive on the pitch. That is our challenge and takes investment and resources,” added Azzopardi.
Andrew Azzopardi said that while in England, many had told him that he was making a mountain out of a mole hill but now following the sexual abuse scandal which hit the headlines over the past days, they would rethink about it.
Azzopardi added that this was a massive wake up call for people in charge in clubs and associations and that it was important that associations to take responsibilty for creating a safe environment and not just wait for something to happen.
The MFA Safeguarding Officer said that at the MFA works on four main pillars, namely
1. Safe recruitment – right persons with qualifications and background checks
2. Right policies and training – for administrators and coaches and eventually for children themselves, to empower them
3. Take action on allegations – give powers to association
4. Allow space for victims to come forward
Azzopardi encouraged anyone who had anything to share with regards to abuse should call 179 or use the support provided by the website kellimni.com
“We are here to listen to any allegation. We have no interest to protect any institution,” stressed Azzopardi.
Andrew Azzopardi concluded by saying that wherever there was power and vulnerability, there was a huge risk and what he hopes and trusts is that people in leading positions, take responsibility to safeguard children.
Photo: Copyright domenic aquilina