Gareth Farrelly: ‘I believe he destroyed far more kids than he ever developed’
Former Ireland midfielder claims MacDonald left a ‘dark shadow’ over players
Gareth Farrelly playing for the Republic of Ireland in 1996. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
“It was a culture of verbal and physical bullying, but there were no checks and balances; he operated with “impunity . . . It was like a dark shadow came over.”
Gareth Farrelly, now 43 and a qualified lawyer, with a Premier League and international career behind him, is recalling the bullying he says he endured as a young player at Aston Villa in the 1990s from the coach Kevin MacDonald. It was a “relentlessly negative” regime under him.
“He would say: ‘You think you’re a fucking player? You’re not a fucking player. You’ve got fucking no chance.’ He would be calling players ‘cunts’ all the time; crazy stuff when you think about the role of responsibility he operated in.”
There was also physical aggression in training; sometimes MacDonald would join in and become confrontational, Farrelly recalls, kicking the young players. “In training it wasn’t unusual for people to end up squaring up to him, games would have to be stopped. It became normal. People were lucky not to have their legs broken. Every day you’d go into work, put your boots on, and think: ‘Here it comes again’. It took a huge toll.”
A skilled midfield player from Dublin who joined Villa on a professional contract in 1992 aged 17, Farrelly finally made the Villa first team in 1996, after traumatic years under MacDonald’s regime. Looking back, he says that at 19 and 20 he was not equipped to understand the “very dark places” the bullying took him to. He recalls physical and mental exhaustion from the battle to fight back and not let the abuse defeat him, feelings of depression and, at its worst, suicidal thoughts.
At the end of the 1996-97 season he moved to Everton where he helped keep the club in the Premier League by scoring against Coventry City in the final match of the season, then played for Bolton Wanderers, also winning six Republic of Ireland caps. In 2008 he suffered a life-threatening aneurysm, and was saved by emergency surgery, intensive care and months of rehabilitation. Despite having left school at 16 he was accepted for a law degree course at Edge Hill university near Ormskirk, and on New Year’s Day this year, having trained with a London law firm, he qualified as a solicitor. He is now working for a firm in Liverpool.
In his work suit and tie, talking calmly but deeply emotionally at the Guardian’s Manchester office, Farrelly says he was “incredulous” when he read more than 20 years later about the finding of bullying against MacDonald by a Premier League investigation.
A young player’s father, who has not been named, had complained that MacDonald was verbally and emotionally abusing his son, and taking him towards depression. Dissatisfied with the club’s handling of his concerns, the father complained to the Premier League, whose investigation found that Villa had dealt with the issues inadequately and MacDonald had bullied the player.
However, the Premier League permitted MacDonald to continue at the club, coaching the under-23s, while insisting on a series of improvements to Villa’s academy system. MacDonald was found guilty of bullying a Villa player only last year but the club retained him as the under-23s coach – a decision that led Farrelly to come forward to the Guardian.
Separately, a friend of Farrelly’s had confided in him that he was a victim of sexual abuse by the Villa coach Ted Langford, who was sacked by the club in 1988 and subsequently convicted of criminal offences.
“I have huge respect for my friend and the other people who have come forward to talk about sexual abuse, what it has taken for them to do that,” he says. “My experience is not remotely close to the horrific nature of what they have gone through.
“I was obviously unaware of it at the time but in the period that I was there it was a toxic, bullying culture for young players. Then, 20-25 years later, I subsequently find out that this has continued and this person is still there. There is a finding of bullying but they left him in that position – it is difficult to process that.”
He rejects the idea that MacDonald’s regime was “old school” coaching which operated by breaking players down to build them up again. “It went way beyond that; there was nothing positive about it. Villa point to all the players who came through – I was one of them. But I was always going to make it, with the ability I had. Yet looking back over my career, I can honestly say that I never fulfilled my potential.
“A number of other players I was with did not achieve their potential either. That still pains me; if they had been treated better, fairly, you can never say that anybody would definitely have made it, but they would have had more of an opportunity to develop. Some people never recovered from the negativity. They drifted completely out of the game, which is horrible.
“I don’t accept it was the culture of the time. I believe he destroyed far more kids than he ever developed.”
That belief is so firm partly because MacDonald’s methods replaced a more positive regime. Villa’s former head of youth development Dave Richardson recruited Farrelly, who as a teenager had starred for Home Farm. Farrelly’s mother had had cancer, and his older brother died aged two from asthma so the family did not want Gareth to leave, but Richardson won their trust.
“He is a really good man, I still consider Dave a friend, but I joke with him that he left us to the dark forces. If he had stayed at Villa I believe I and many others would have had a much better outcome.”
Richardson was so well-regarded that he left within months of Farrelly’s arrival to become the Premier League’s head of youth development. MacDonald, a former Coventry, Leicester City, Liverpool and Scotland midfielder, was working with Brian Little at Leicester, and when Little was appointed Villa manager in November 1994, MacDonald followed as coach to the older youth-age groups. Farrelly says the abuse began almost from the beginning, as the culture changed.
Despite the effort it took to withstand the regime, Farrelly did do well, scoring goals in the reserves and being capped by Ireland – he recalls the trips, with under-21s coach Ian Evans and senior manager Mick McCarthy, as “brilliant”, a positive, encouraging environment, respite from Villa. But that caused different mental turmoil, self-doubt, because he was alongside his idols, but the only international not playing for his club’s first team. When he returned from one tournament, the summer US Cup, he remembers MacDonald sneering: “I hope you don’t think you’re a player now; those fucking Mickey Mouse caps you’ve got.”
Later Farrelly was dismayed when MacDonald was appointed assistant manager of Ireland under Steve Staunton. He left the Ireland job in 2007. Since then MacDonald – a double winner with Liverpool as a player in 1986 – has been caretaker manager of Villa three times, and had a short spell managing Swindon.
At Villa, MacDonald also let Farrelly know he was not sending positive reports up to Little, which Farrelly attributes to him getting fewer first-team opportunities than he otherwise might have had – in his final season he was repeatedly an unused substitute despite being in the full Ireland squad.
All the negativity affected his confidence. His family were constantly challenging him as to why he wasn’t breaking through, while friends in Dublin assumed he was living the dream. At such a young age, he says he did not have the knowledge or experience to deal with the negative feelings:
“You don’t have the skills to deal with it so you end up in extremely dark places, because you have no easy answers. I have been extremely fortunate, blessed, with people I met, friends who helped me and continue to help me.”
Farrelly lived on his own in a house he bought with a second, improved contract, and he struggled to comprehend why, in peak physical shape, he constantly felt exhausted. He leans forward, arms on his knees, and remembers finding himself sitting on the stairs in his house at 3am.
“When you are isolated you feel you have no outlet or anybody who understands the position you’re in . . . it becomes very, very difficult. When people talk about depression or suicidal thoughts, I can understand and empathise with that. I was there when I was 20.
“When you are in the eye of the storm you haven’t got the ability to think analytically or with a degree of separation or objectivity; you don’t understand it. There is a voice running which is reflective of the voices you are hearing, which is purely negative. So you end up thinking: ‘I can’t do this any more, I can’t put up with this any more. I don’t want to go and do the one thing I love: play football.’ And that is at 19, 20 years of age, how wrong can that be?
“It took me to a place at 20 that nobody should have to go to. And I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
He says he would hate to think that other players have been subjected to the same experience, and says that in his work as a lawyer, he wants to try to help people.
After Villa received questions from the Guardian about Farrelly’s recollections, the club responded by informing the Football Association and the EFL, and commissioned an independent investigation by a barrister. Aston Villa said MacDonald has been instructed not to comment publicly until the outcome of the investigation.
The club said in a statement: “That investigation will commence immediately and as a neutral act Kevin has been temporarily reassigned to non-player-facing duties pending completion of the investigation.” – Guardian