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A dad at 16, a Wigan star at 17 and Great Britain captain at 21 - the making of Andy Farrell, Ireland head coach


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A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (top left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson after completing the League and Cup double in 1991. A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points (middle left).  Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy (bottom left) after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash.

A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (top left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson after completing the League and Cup double in 1991. A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points (middle left). Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy (bottom left) after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash.

A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (top left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson after completing the League and Cup double in 1991. A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points (middle left). Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy (bottom left) after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash.

THE man with the child in his eyes. Central Park, Wigan. June, 1985.

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Haydn Walker can still see him now, the kid with the grown-up name; the abbreviated Andy would come later. As a boy, everyone called him Andrew.

Haydn still calls him Andrew to this day; maybe because he always knew what kind of man the boy would one day become.

Central Park is the town’s sporting mecca. The eponymous rugby league side had already embarked upon one of its country’s most spectacular runs of sporting successes and on a bright, summer’s day in 1985 are laying more foundations with a multi-sports camp.

Haydn Walker’s career had been cut short by a knee injury so he decided to add to the town’s bristling tradition of amateurism, founding the Orrell St James club to the west of the city, a short hop from Freshfield Road where Farrell was raised.

And he also helped Wigan, too. There were more than 200 kids in the town’s sporting cathedral that day, playing soccer, cricket, tennis, volleyball and, obviously, rugby league; but only one stands out.

And not just because he is wearing a garish, orange Blackpool FC shirt that, although clearly one size too big, is still not sufficient to hide the squat figure lodged within.

"He was a very shy individual," recalls Walker now, some 35 years later of his first meeting with the 10-year-old who would, before he would even come of age, become a British sporting icon in one of its greatest teams.

"But it was obvious even then he had the athletic gifts to play any sport. He’d never played cricket before and he was doing things that kids aged 14 or 15 couldn’t do.

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Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash

Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash

Andrew Farrell, as he was called as a child, proudly holds the trophy after Lancashire U11s beat Yorkshire U11s in annual "War of the Roses" clash

"Although he was short and stocky, he nevertheless had great feet in terms of movement and kicking. He had played lots of soccer which was a help.

"But my word he was throwing 20-metre spin passes at 11 years of age! These were all natural gifts. I’d like to say I had something to do with it but so many of his talents were just natural."

Nature and nurture would prompt him; although his dad used to bring him to Maine Road to watch City, rugby league was the only sport that counted in the heaving northern town of 80,000 people and the only thing that mattered to the family in which he was brought up.

His dad Peter is steeped in the sport and remains head of ID at Warrington Wolves; ironically, Wigan hosted Warrington to kick off the 2020 season on Thursday night. His grandfather played for Wigan and three generations would watch each week from the family pen adjoining the players' tunnel.

As a teenager, Andy would fall in love with local girl Colleen O’Loughlin, herself a scion of rugby league royalty; the first match Andy remembers in Central Park was against Widnes with his future father-in-law, Keiron, a starring performer; brother-in-law Sean started his final season with the club on Thursday.

"Using the word religion is slightly ridiculous but it is a sport that pervades town," explains Ewan Phillips, a producer of ‘Mock the Week’ on BBC and a contemporary of Farrell’s in the 1980s hotbed.

"If you parade any sense of athleticism at all, you’re expected to have a go. If you don’t, people will wonder why you haven’t. It’s knitted into the fabric of the town. We visited Wembley every year for the Challenge Cup final like a privilege. It was just an obsession.

"Even if you try to say you’re just a football fan, they will still know all about it. It seeps in even if you actively shun it."

Still, Walker had to cajole the initially cautious youngster whose skills had wowed him. "So much so that I had to persuade his dad to get him to join us at Orrell."

It was a fateful decision.

"Haydn used to pick me up, take me to training, look after me at weekends and take me back," Farrell recalled this week. "I look back and that’s what being a coach is about: caring, being the right mentor."

Kids needed minding. An industrial dispute, pitting teachers against Thatcherism, slowly undermined the coaching of sport in schools and so the amateur clubs became the breeding ground in Wigan, a petri dish of furious competition.

Like Union in Limerick, League in Wigan was fiercely parochial; boasting a significant Catholic community, the town of his youth almost resembled the parishes of Farrell’s now adopted country.

Since the schism in 1895 caused by the issue of broken-time payments, Union remained active largely in the skilled south, while League would flourish predominantly in the unskilled north.

"The old muscular Christianity of the Christian Brothers tradition that held sport was a good way of expressing yourself allowing the sport to flourish in schools, especially Catholic ones, although Andy went to Hawkley Hall, which was Protestant," explains Phillips.

"But there is a really strong Catholic community in the town and it interweaves with education and sport a bit like you find in areas of Wales and its rugby."

Every church had a school and they each had a club. Wigan St Patrick’s. St Judes. Rosebridge. St James’. St Cuthberts. Ashton. And, of course, Orrell St James.

"It was full-on, fierce," notes Walker. "It’s not a big area but it’s a rugby league area. You represent your street, your family, your parish."

At one stage, their ground was actually located in the territory of St Helens; another fabled name in the sport; needless to say, the encounters were as feisty amongst kids as they were amongst adults.

"The standard of schoolboy rugby in these clubs was astonishing," says Phillips, who has authored two books on League in Wigan.

"Merely getting into an U-11 team was such an achievement. And getting into your local team was like getting into a county team in other areas.

"Everyone played it but not everyone could play it well. Kids would be there from U-7 officially but we always knew kids would be there from the age of four. As soon as you had any ability, it was a case of, 'Send him down to Orrell or St Pats.'"

And so the young boy exchanged his Blackpool shirt for Orrell St James. The journey had begun and already the man making it seemed gripped with impatience to make every step even bigger than the last.

As an 11-year-old, he was already a nascent star with the U-13s but a resounding lesson in humility would temporarily restrain, and then thoroughly remove, any trace of narcissism.

"I dropped him for a Cup semi-final with the U-13s," smiles Walker; for Farrell, the incident, and its lasting memory, lingers to this day.

"We still laugh about it now. Apart from the World Cup final in 2007, it was the only time he was ever dropped. He acted as water-carrier and effectively he was assistant coach.

"We won that match, the final too. And he was man of the match, of course."

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A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points, confirming their status as the beat amateur side in the business and Farrell's, still just 13, as an emerging star.

A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points, confirming their status as the beat amateur side in the business and Farrell's, still just 13, as an emerging star.

A severely weakened Orrell St James U14 side, with Farrell - fourth from right on the back - playing stand-off, took on the combined forces of Hull and won by over 70 points, confirming their status as the beat amateur side in the business and Farrell's, still just 13, as an emerging star.

And still Farrell kept galloping ahead like a thoroughbred amongst novices; at the age of 14 he toured with the U-15s to Australia, a place which held a mythical status even in Wigan.

In the short time since he helped found them, Orrell St James were such a strong outfit that they became the first amateur club to be invited to tour Australia; moreover, the reputation that preceded them meant that instead of playing clubs, representative sides provided the opposition. And Townsville, on the Sunshine coast, were one of the strongest.

They would soon catch an unforgettable glimpse of a player whose own reputation was growing at almost as startling a pace as the physical manifestation of Andrew David Farrell.

"We were losing late in the game," Walker relates it now, as if it were 30 minutes ago, not 30 years. "We were losing with four minutes left. He took the ball on short side of a play the ball (a ruck in Union) then beat four defenders to score, right in the corner. Then he kicked the conversion from the touchline to put us in front.

"But that wasn’t him done. Two minutes later, they had an international centre who broke down their left-hand side and Andy literally came from metres behind him, from the other side of the field and corner-flagged him. And he was a forward!

"The locals were just rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Nobody had ever run this kid down. All the other kids on our team had their hands on their heads, thinking, 'Oh no we’ve lost the game.'

"Andy’s only thought was, 'We have to win this game.' So he just went after him. And got him. It showed determination and will to win. That’s all internal motivation. You can’t teach that. It’s innate."

This sense of leadership had already impacted upon his peers back home.

"He was very much the dominant figure in my age group," said Phillips, who went to St Peter's.

"It makes you a target, coaches and players are trying to take a shot at you to test your toughness and he coped with all that so level-headedly.

"He was never a dirty player but very tough and balanced all that with outstanding talent. Everyone was aware of him and that carries its own pressures. But he bore it all so remarkably for someone of his age. There’s no training for that.

"Yes, he was incredibly talented but there were many of similar talent. He was incredibly strong but so were many others. He just had this aura.

"All the other alpha-males seemed to naturally gravitate towards him. These kids who wouldn’t listen to anybody else, or who considered themselves cock of the walk would just defer. 'Oh Faz has said we should do this. So let’s do it’'"

Wigan couldn’t sign him professionally until he was 16 but had de facto acquired his signature two years earlier. Within months of his 16th birthday, having skipped much of the Academy, he had captained the reserves and made his first-team debut.

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A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (back-row third from left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson (kneeling at front) after completing the League and Cup double in 1991

A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (back-row third from left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson (kneeling at front) after completing the League and Cup double in 1991

A 16-year-old Andy Farrell (back-row third from left) celebrates with his Wigan Academy team-mates including Jason Robinson (kneeling at front) after completing the League and Cup double in 1991

"His parents were being pestered by other clubs, phone constantly ringing with other scouts looking at him but it was always going to be Wigan," says Walker, who would follow his charge to Wigan.

"I was with him in the boardroom when he signed but it was open secret. Yet it didn’t affect him with his team-mates or when he was playing.

"Other parents from rival clubs would be bothering him on the side-line but he just brushed it off. Nothing ever bothered him."

Not even when he and Colleen became parents in their teens; you may have heard of the progeny who would himself become a prodigy, Owen.

“It had a profound effect on his maturity,” observes his former team-mate, Martin Offiah, a point taken up by Phillips.

“Having a child at 16 and dealing with all the problems that brings, in a sensible and mature manner, accelerates a person’s development.”

And so he would rise before six each morning to do some weights training or some such, then a day’s work as an apprentice joiner, more training with the reserves, then home to be a dad to the first of four children.

It seemed that the quicker life came at him, the faster he responded to each of its challenges.

"I can remember at school," says Phillips, marvelling still at the memory, "people saying this guy can be as great a loose forward as Ellery Hanley. Maybe captain of Wigan. Or captain of England even.

"And, you know what? By 21 he had already done all three."

Life in a northern town. And a story that, even it had already told the world so much, was really only beginning.

The Guinness Six nations kicks off on Saturday, Virgin Media One will televise all 15 games. Virgin Media One will broadcast every game live. Joe Molloy will be on presenting duties with expert analysis from Ronan O’Gara, Matt Williams, Shane Horgan and Shane Jennings. VMTV’s Rugby Correspondent, Sinéad Kissane will be reporting from the Ireland camp during the tournament. Commentators include Dave McIntyre, Alan Quinlan, John Forrest, Reggie Corrigan and Darren Cave. Highlights will air on Virgin Media Two on Saturday & Sunday nights at 11pm. Team Announcements & Pre Match News Conferences will be live on Virgin Media Sport throughout the tournament.

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