Wednesday 26 October 2016

'I am part of the 10pc that survive' - Ex-Ireland midfielder Gareth Farrelly

The law is the latest challenge for ex-Ireland midfielder Gareth Farrelly who is lucky to be alive

Alan Smith

Published 09/10/2016 | 11:00

Gareth Farrelly says he would not have become a solicitor were it not for the illness he suffered in 2008, and right, in his playing days with Everton.
Gareth Farrelly says he would not have become a solicitor were it not for the illness he suffered in 2008, and right, in his playing days with Everton.

Eighteen years have passed and Gareth Farrelly has been through the wringer since, but he can still recall the "weird and surreal" day he kept Everton in the Premier League with vivid detail. It was the final afternoon of the 1997-'98 season and Howard Kendall's team required at least a point against Coventry to survive.

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The boyhood Evertonian was not known for finding the net but he was there when his team's needs were at their greatest, scoring his only league goal for the club in a 1-1 draw to keep them up and send Bolton down.

Gareth Farrelly of Everton in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Wimbledon at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England. The game ended 0-0. Photo: Getty
Gareth Farrelly of Everton in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Wimbledon at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England. The game ended 0-0. Photo: Getty

Yet such is the remarkable nature of Farrelly's story, the significance of that one shot, the type of moment many players would declare to be their greatest, is a minor segment. The six-time Ireland international became a manager at 28 not too long after falling out with Sam Allardyce at Bolton, whom he helped to promotion having earlier relegated them, and a couple of years later prompted a change in Fifa's transfer rules.

The 41-year-old is now a trainee solicitor with Peters & Peters in central London, no mean feat for someone who left school at 16 to join Aston Villa. But the most striking chapter of all was what led to his career change: surviving a condition that has a 90 per cent mortality rate. "Everybody has their own story," he says. "I was very, very lucky."

On April 30 2008, his daughter's birthday, Farrelly was driving to Bournemouth to meet a friend when he took quite ill on the M40. He pulled in and began vomiting blood but was able to call an ambulance. Battling to stay conscious, the emergency services had him at Warwick hospital in 15 minutes.

The initial diagnosis was not promising: a lump was found and he was transferred to Coventry where a CT scan showed an aneurysm of the splenic artery. Immediate, critical surgery was required to remove it, plus 20 per cent of his stomach, 40 per cent of his pancreas, part of his colon and his entire spleen.

"It's eight-and-a-half years ago and I still think all the time that I am part of the 10 per cent that live," Farrelly says. "I don't get up, open the curtains and smell the roses every day or anything like that but when you're having a bad day it is nice to reflect on it."

It took nine months to fully recover, having spent the first four days post-surgery in intensive care. He lost 10kg in weight and the road back was tough but he is eternally thankful to the NHS and all the staff at Walsgrave hospital for the "immaculate" care he received.

"My kids were incredibly young and you don't want to think about what could have happened. I met amazing people from the moment I phoned an ambulance to when I left the hospital to do my rehabilitation. I'm only here because of them.

"It was an horrendous, difficult recovery. I sat there thinking: 'What if I can never play football again.' Any player will tell you that they are incredibly resilient in the face of adversity but I had to think about what I was going to do in life if I couldn't play again. I had the management experience at the time but that's now become even more competitive than before, so I thought about my interest in law."

Farrelly completed his rehab at Preston and made a brief comeback for Sammy McIlroy at Morecambe, yet when the choice came full-time education won. His 15 years as a professional footballer were at an end, though he looks back on a tumultuous career now with nothing but fondness.

A product of the successful Home Farm academy in Dublin, Farrelly grew up as an Evertonian because "all my friends supported Liverpool or Manchester United, with a bit of Celtic thrown in."

At 17, he joined Villa, but with game-time not exactly plentiful and his heart ruling his head, moved to Merseyside in 1997. "I was coming from a situation at Villa where the team was doing very well but I had a toxic relationship with one of the coaches there. Then joining Everton, they weren't doing very well at all," he says.

Results were poor, aside from winning four from five around Christmas, and he recalls being jeered in their penultimate home game when missing a good chance in defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. The following week Everton were battered 4-0 at Arsenal, who became champions.

So it all led to Goodison on the final afternoon where a defeat would send them down. "It was a weird day," Farrelly recalls. "Everybody has their own particular version but, for me, what was really interesting was a couple of hours before the game, there were thousands inside and outside the ground already.

The women's team had won their cup and were out on the pitch beforehand. The youth team had won their cup, too, and were out there. So there was a sense of pressure for us and expectation mixed with the reality of what would happen if the day didn't go well."

For Evertonians it must not bear thinking about. Perhaps Farrelly's greatest trait as a player was the strength of his left foot but he scored with his right after chesting down Duncan Ferguson's header just outside the penalty arc with only six minutes on the clock. Coventry would fight back and equalise late on, effectively meaning the Dubliner's strike kept Everton up.

Kendall would still be fired, though, and the midfielder soon learned he was not part of Walter Smith's plans the following season. "I played eight minutes of football for Everton after that, so for me to go through such a difficult season and have an outcome like that, it shows the reality of football," he says.

Having sent Bolton down, Farrelly then became Allardyce's first signing, initially on loan, and was chided for relegating his new club. But when Wanderers needed someone to stand up, again he was there, scoring the opener in the 2001 play-off final win over Preston with the same right foot and from a similar distance. Once again, however, a hurdle was not too far away. A personality clash with Allardyce spelled the end and he went on three loans in a year before an unusual offer for a 28-year-old.

Back in Dublin, Bohemians were searching for a new manager. "I got to the point where I had good managers and bad managers and had this opportunity. I had a strong plan about what I wanted to do and the irony is that I met John Giles shortly after resigning from there. If I had spoken to him before I took the job, I probably would never have done it."

Off the pitch Bohs were having difficulties. The club had speculated hugely with their budget and failed but Farrelly did well in the circumstances despite there being "a legal matter nearly every week". After that he joined Blackpool, playing only once at Bloomfield Road before returning to Ireland with Cork City in February 2007.

Inevitably, there was a problem. He could not play due to Fifa's three-club rule, which meant he and team-mate Colin Healy would have to wait until July 1 before appearing, midway through the league campaign.

That gave Farrelly another taste of the law - an appeal was turned down by the court of arbitration for sport, a week before their ban was to end. "We did the classic fighting Irish thing, put up a great argument and lost," he says. Fifa, though, was pressured into altering the rule a couple of months later.

At the beginning of the following season he picked up a knee injury and when visiting his family, who were still living in England, during treatment the illness took hold. To compound matters, Cork City were placed in examinership and because of the illness he was effectively sacked and bumped down the list of creditors when it came to wages owed. He won a case for unfair dismissal afterwards.

Farrelly says he would not have become a solicitor were it not for the illness, but initially he found a route in hard to come by. One university in Liverpool turned him away immediately before he went to Edge Hill and was placed on a fast-track course. The head of the law department, Franco Rizzuto, put him on an intense six-week programme and said if he passed there would be a place on its law degree course.

He stuck his head in the books while playing on a non-contract basis for Morecambe. "The new season started, I was enjoying it and I was fitter than ever. Then Morecambe went to Exeter one weekend. It was a six-and-a-half-hour journey, like a trans-Atlantic flight, and at the same time I got a letter to say I had a place on the degree. I knew I was never going to play in the Premier League or Championship again and had made my peace with that.

"I didn't want to be away from my wife and kids for two days to play 10 minutes against Exeter and the next week I went in to see Sammy. A more standard talk would have been: 'Why aren't you playing me? I'm better than so and so', but instead I went in and said: 'Thanks for everything but I'm finishing on Friday.' I started university on the following Monday."

It is some achievement, defying popular conventions about footballers leaving education early, and while it would also be understandable for Farrelly to look back and feel some hurt about the harsh treatment he received at certain points of his career, his love for the game is still strong. "The most interesting thing about football for me now is that I have a nine-year-old son and we've started going to some of the games. It's nice to see his excitement."

Everton go about it quietly but they treat their former players very well and Farrelly returns quite often. Those of a certain age are unlikely to ever forget the moment he was their saviour because without his goal things could have gone very differently. "The club have not been in that position since," he says.


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