Tuesday 16 July 2019

Paul Kimmage meets Gareth Farrelly: Making the most of life in the second chance saloon

After Gareth Farrelly suffered an aneurysm of the splenic artery, he was told there was only a 10 per cent survival rate. Now he's making the most of a new lease of life and a new career

Gareth Farrelly. Photo: Ray Farley
Gareth Farrelly. Photo: Ray Farley
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

What's so interesting about Gareth Farrelly? Well, some would say it was the goal he scored to keep Everton up on the final day of the season in 1998. But it's not that. And some would say it was the goal he scored to earn Bolton promotion in the play-off final in 2001. But it's not that. And show me a player - any player - who would walk out of the Premier League to manage Bohemians! But it's not that either.

No, the most interesting thing about Gareth Farrelly is the brown, chicken salad pita that was sitting in his belly as he drove towards Bournemouth that afternoon.

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Gareth Farrelly in his Everton days. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Allsport
Gareth Farrelly in his Everton days. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Allsport

The date was Wednesday, April 30, 2008. His daughter, Isobel, was four years old. He had blown out the candles on her cake, kissed his wife Susan goodbye and jumped into his car for the long drive south.

'Ugggghhhh,' he thought, as the first pang hit.

'I'm going to be sick,' he thought, as he pulled onto the hard shoulder.

'That fucking chicken,' he thought, as he began to retch.

Gareth Farrelly as player-manager with Bohemians. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Gareth Farrelly as player-manager with Bohemians. Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

But he was vomiting blood.

He grabbed his phone and dialled 999. An ambulance arrived and he was hooked into a drip and speeded to Warwick Hospital. A gastroenterologist called Jeremy Sherman was on call and arranged for an immediate transfer to the Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry. "There's something in your stomach," he announced.

It was an aneurysm of the splenic artery.

Susan arrived that evening before he went under the knife. The surgeon, Vinod Menon, removed 40 per cent of his pancreas, 20 per cent of his stomach and his entire spleen. He spent three days in intensive care and three weeks in hospital. His temperature wouldn't regulate. The pain management didn't work. It was agony.

Gareth Farrelly in action for Ireland against the USA in 2000. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
Gareth Farrelly in action for Ireland against the USA in 2000. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

But there was also some good news.

"Do you believe in God?" the surgeon inquired.

"Why?" he replied.

"Because 90 per cent die from that kind of aneurysm."

We meet, 11 years later, on a wet Tuesday in Liverpool. He greets me in the lobby of Bermans, the law firm where he works, and we retire to the boardroom . . .

1. The Bourne Identity

More than 100 retired footballers face losses of £100 million after investing in film and property deals recommended by two financial advisers operating at the centre of the game. Some of the sport's biggest names could face ruin after pouring money into the tax-efficient investment schemes, many of which have either failed or are being investigated by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for alleged tax avoidance.

The Times,

November 2015

Paul Kimmage: I'd like to start, Gareth, with a couple of lines from the bio on your company website: "Gareth qualified as a solicitor in 2018 following his degree in law. He has accrued a wealth of experience in a wide range of white-collar crime matters, including SFO investigations and corporate compliance." What are SFO investigations?

Gareth Farrelly: (smiles) Serious Fraud Office.

PK: Okay, let's go with that.

GF: My first day at my law firm was a European arrest warrant for a Russian billionaire that had fallen out with Vladimir Putin. I thought it was some sort of test: "Let's bring the new lad in and see how long he reads this before going: 'Ahh, good job. You've got me.'"

PK: What did it entail?

GF: It was someone who had fallen out with Vladimir Putin, and Russia had issued a European Arrest Warrant which meant he should have been arrested with a view to being extradited back to Russia. He had successfully contested it in other countries - France and Switzerland - but obviously, within the UK, it was still outstanding, so we had to prepare representations to the court.

PK: So you were defending him?

GF: Yes. It was one of the firm's areas of specialism, and just a taster for me in that white collar/business crime area. The second case I was involved in was a Proceeds of Crime Act, which had been a seizure of cash from a South African client. We were representing him to try and have the order removed, so basically the obligation was to prove that these assets hadn't come from . . .

PK: Illicit gains?

GF: Yeah.

PK: What was the outcome?

GF: We were successful with both.

PK: How did winning compare to winning in football?

GF: Good question. It's probably more rewarding. Football was my life. I had a feel for it and an understanding for how it worked. The law was new. It's still new. I'm still learning. Like football, it's adversarial - there's the chase, the tactical battle and strategising how to win. It's emotional for those affected but you have to take the emotion out of it. The best days are when you feel you have helped someone, made a difference.

PK: What if someone had sat you down when you were a kid at Villa, and shown you a photo of a sharp-suited lawyer: 'Here you are Gareth. This is what you will become?'

GF: I would have sat there thinking: 'No chance.'

PK: Mad, isn't it?

GF: Yeah.

PK: How did it start?

GF: I think all footballers and sportspeople are absorbed in what they are doing, and don't think beyond that at all, but when I was (manager) at Bohemians I had to deal with a lot of legal stuff that made me think, 'I don't really know anything.' You meet the lawyer and nod your head and feign understanding and you realise, 'I'm not worldly in the things I'm dealing with.' And I didn't like it.

PK: And that was the first realisation?

GF: To a degree, yeah. Then I was ill and came out of hospital, was really struggling; I'd lost 21 pounds and couldn't get out of bed. So I'm there and my wife is crying at the bottom of the stairs because we've just had a visit from HMRC (and been served) with a debt for £48,000.

PK: This was these film investment schemes?

GF: Yeah.

PK: And you're not the only player, or Irish player, to be caught with this?

GF: No, hundreds of footballers have been caught with it, and some are dealing with it still. They were called sale-and-leaseback schemes and were sold to us as investments. Basically, if you put £20 in, the scheme put £80 in, and you could claim relief based on your rate as a taxpayer. That tax was then given back to you to invest over a period of 15 years - so it was basically a deferred loan at a high hurdle rate.

PK: But at the time you don't realise this?

GF: No, no, no. They said there was a three-year exit strategy in place and that because we were helping the British film industry, I wouldn't have to pay anything back. Then we get the visit and my wife is upset and I'm lying there thinking: 'Hang on! This isn't all it was supposed to be.' I phoned my advisers and they tried to placate me, 'There's been a mistake'. So I went to see a lawyer who was happy to take a look at it but would charge me X on account. I thought: 'No, I need a better understanding of how this works.' And that was the start of my interest in law.

PK: You're 32 at this stage?

GF: Yeah.

PK: And playing at Cork?

GF: Yeah. The club doctor, Gerard Murphy, was incredibly helpful but a load of crap kicked off that was not of my making and ended up going legal as well. The club went into administration and I was classed as a 'contingent creditor' so they wouldn't have to pay me, despite the fact that I had nearly died. And then there was Mathews (the manager, Alan Mathews) who didn't want me back.

PK: You still wanted to play?

GF: I was desperate to play. There would be questions over the medical - 'What if he gets a kick in the stomach?' - but I thought I could get past that. I had a friend on the coaching staff at Preston, the closest club to our home in Southport, and I did my rehab and training there and got back to a good level of fitness. Then I went to see Sammy McIlroy at Morecambe.

PK: Where is Morecambe?

GF: It's above Blackpool.

PK: Where did they play?

GF: League Two.

PK: And Sammy was the manager?

GF: Yeah, we had a chat there, 'Let's see how it goes.' I trained and played a few games with the reserves and did an access course that summer, an introduction to law at Edge Hill University, when the lads were on holiday.

PK: How did that come about?

GF: An open day. I said I was interested in doing law and they were like: 'An ex-footballer? Really? It's going to take you six years.' But I was called to an interview with Franco Rizzuto, the head of the legal department, and was fortunate, because that first engagement when you're trying to make the transition can either be positive or turn you off.

PK: And he was positive?

GF: He was brilliant, because I'd gone to see somebody at the University of Liverpool and they'd looked at me as if I was dirt: 'You'll need to complete a two-year foundation course before you can contemplate doing a legal degree.' But the people at Edge Hill were amazing. 'There's a six-week access course here during the summer and if you pass I'll give you a place on the degree course,' Franco said. I had no academic skills. I'd left school at 16 and could barely write an email, but it was a soft introduction to law and (laughs) I was lucky to pass.

PK: Did you play at Morecambe?

GF: I did all of the pre-season, got the letter from Edge Hill: "Congratulations, you've been offered a place on the degree course. It starts the 26th of September." The team were playing at Exeter that weekend but in my head I was done, so I thanked Sammy for his help and told him: "I'm going to uni."

PK: So that was September 2009?

GF: Yeah, I did three years at Edge Hill and a year at Law School in Liverpool. Then I worked for a firm in Liverpool and went to another firm, Peters & Peters in London, so it took me about seven years to qualify.

PK: How long was it before you were interested or excited by it?

GF: I was interested but you'll laugh . . . I went in the first day and got the reading list and remember thinking: 'Well, it will take me at least three years to read this.' And they said, 'No Gareth, that's the first-year reading list.'

PK: What were the books?

GF: Constitutional Law . . . Tort . . . Legal Skills . . . Property . . . I thought, 'Oh God! I've no chance with this.' But the people there were very responsive and helpful, and I think, when you're older, you're more willing to say: 'I don't get this. Can you explain it again please?'

PK: You're not earning any money at this stage?

GF: No.

PK: What was your last pay cheque as a footballer?

GF: Oh, embarrassing . . .

PK: Go on.

GF: I never thought about money . . .

PK: What was it?

GF: At Bolton, with a win and an appearance bonus, I would have been on about 20k a week, gross.

PK: But you played after that?

GF: Yeah, my last official football wage was Cork.

PK: What were you paid there?

GF: I can't even remember.

PK: Ballpark?

GF: About a hundred grand a year.

PK: What was your first pay cheque as a lawyer?

GF: That was at Peters & Peters.

PK: So that's what . . . . four years later?

GF: Yeah. I managed to carry everything while I was studying.

PK: Are you checking your bank balance every week?

GF: Yeah, scrapping to survive, the objective was to keep my home. Okay, it's only bricks and mortar and we'd have sold if we had to, but it would have been devastating to me, not through vanity but because it was our home. But it wasn't easy. There were days when your motivation shifts and you think: 'I can't do it anymore.'

PK: That bad?

GF: Yeah, well, the liabilities are there. They don't go away. HMRC is the State.

PK: How is Susan during that period?

GF: She's been amazing. There's a statistic that 33 per cent of footballers are divorced within a year of retirement, and you can see why that happens when you've to deal with that sense of having lost your identity. Okay, so it depends on how much of your identity was invested in what you did, but when you get this financial tsunami coming at you as well it can be incredibly challenging.

PK: Sure.

GF: Because what's brought you together is that life and everything that comes with it, and there's an interdependency there, your relationship, and the dynamic of your relationship, is related to it. And then, all of a sudden - pssshhhh! We say 'for richer, for poorer' and you can joke about that, but the challenges you face are completely different in that world and just so far removed from normality. And even when you're normal within that world it's hard.

PK: When did you meet Susan?

GF: When we were kids.

PK: Really?

GF: Yeah, she's a Dublin girl. We met when we were 15.

PK: That's great.

GF: Yeah, but she's had to put up with more than most.

PK: I asked you about your first pay cheque as a lawyer.

GF: I think, as a trainee, it was about £36,000 a year.

PK: That's a big drop from 20 grand a week.

GF: Yeah, but that was the reality. I was at the bottom of the ladder and had to start again. I mean you're not going to walk in and go: 'Sorry, I'm used to earning more than this . . .'

PK: (Laughs)

GF: 'I feel my contribution of knowing nothing, having no skills and having a complete lack of ability in the law, warrants that you pay me a lot more money!'

PK: 'There was a time I wouldn't get out of bed for that!'

GF: (laughs) Yeah, but I wanted to do it, so there was a bigger picture. And I'm not there yet. I'm still only on the first step of the ladder, but it's completely different to professional sport because in sport you arrive and get paid: in law, it's as you gain more knowledge and skills.

PK: I'm sure that first cheque was still pretty satisfying?

GF: It was hugely satisfying.

PK: Was Peters & Peters a big firm?

GF: They are a litigation firm. They did business, crime and commercial litigation, and commercial litigation was important to me because of the case I wanted to bring. Everybody wants to be a sports lawyer these days because it's shiny and sexy and there's lots of money in it - and there are some sports lawyers who are excellent - but the litigation side was where I always wanted to sit.

PK: Because of what happened to you?

GF: Yeah. My initial thought was: 'I want to figure a way to get after these people,' without making me sound like . . .

PK: (laughs) Jason Bourne.

GF: Yeah, because it wasn't . . .

PK: Revenge?

GF: No, it was just to expose them for what they were, because even now there are agents and financial advisers exploiting people in the game.

2. Dark Places

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 no fucking 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 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.

David Conn,

The Guardian, December 2018

PK: Take me back to the start and growing up in Dublin. Where was home?

GF: Navan Road . . . Ashtown. I went to St John Bosco (primary) and Coláiste Mhuire - scoil an Gaolach - in Parnell Square, and played football for Kinvara Boys until the age of 13/14, when I joined Home Farm.

PK: Any brothers or sisters?

GF: Two younger sisters, Niamh and Aoife.

PK: And your parents?

GF: Eugene and Catherine . . . yeah, just normal. There's a different conversation to be had on another day in relation to that.

PK: Why?

GF: It was a different upbringing. My mum and dad lost a son at two . . .

PK: Your brother?

GF: Yeah, Conor.

PK: You didn't say 'my brother', you said 'a son'.

GF: Did I not?

PK: No.

GF: Well, he was my brother but I said son because he was their son, their loss at that time. I didn't know him. He died in my mam's arms through an asthma attack.

PK: That has to be part of this conversation.

GF: Yeah. It was horrific for my mum and dad, my dad was extremely troubled by it. I don't think he ever recovered.

PK: More so than your mum?

GF: No, my mum as well but I'd say he wasn't able to . . . he didn't deal with it very well. You talk about growing up . . . it was different.

PK: Give me an example?

GF: It was a very negative environment.

PK: He was depressed? Angry? Drinking?

GF: No, no, I think he just really struggled with it. As opposed to seeing the good in things there was always a negativity, a fear.

PK: How did that impact on you?

GF: It impacted in the sense that I could be the best at everything, but there would always be a negative. I'd come off the pitch having done brilliantly and he would be talking about the one thing I didn't do well. It was a very protected environment. I was probably one of the most ill-equipped kids to ever go away.

PK: How do you mean?

GF: My mother got cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, when I was 15. She had a battle and did incredibly well but it was: 'She's ill. You're not going to England.' And that changed to: 'She's okay, you can go away now.' So I went and scored twice for the Aston Villa reserves within four weeks of being there, and they were talking about me as 'the next big thing' but I wasn't equipped mentally for it. I struggled. I was homesick. I never fulfilled my potential.

PK: How do you explain that? I'm getting steered towards your upbringing and a connection I can't make.

GF: No, no, no . . . I think my parents listened to the wrong people. My dad would have listened to people who fostered and developed a fear of what could go wrong rather than what could go right to a point where it became an obsession for him. Someone would have said: 'Don't let him come home for the first four months or he won't settle.' I mean, what a pile of rubbish! But he would listen to that.

We had Brian Kidd in the house - I could have signed for Manchester United - but he was like: 'Well, he's not going to sign for Man United because they don't give kids a chance.' So that went well didn't it? The Class of '92! He was bang on the money with that one."

PK: Kidd came to your house?

GF: Yeah. It was like a Brendan O'Carroll sketch, all the hoovering and the cleaning and the dusting because Brian Kidd was coming. He was assistant to Fergie at the time.

PK: Jaysus!

GF: Yeah, but there was worse to come.

PK: Go on.

GF: There was about 20 clubs I could have signed for but I went to Villa because (my parents) thought: 'It will be easier. They'll look after him.' And to be fair, when I went there on trial, I thought it would be good. I really liked Dave Richardson (the former head of youth development) but within three months he was gone, and what followed was not like him.

PK: This is Kevin MacDonald?

GF: Yeah. There were a lot of kids in that dressing room - 'next big things' - who never developed at all, and it wasn't because they weren't good players, it was because of the environment they came into.

PK: You described it to Dave Conn as a dark shadow?

GF: Very, very, dark. It's in the piece that when I was 20 I considered . . .

PK: Killing yourself?

GF: Yeah.

PK: That bad?

GF: Yeah. I would sit on top of the stairs at half-two or three in the morning contemplating it all, but my conclusion at the time was two parts: one was 'DON'T LET THE FUCKERS SEE YOU BLEED', and the second part was how it would be interpreted. The story would always be: 'There must have been a problem. He had a row with a friend or some other issue.' It would not be about the toxic environment that existed at Villa.

PK: How did it impact on your love for the game?

GF: Listen, love for the game is a funny one. There are amazing parts to it but who's going to listen (to the unsavoury stuff)? Football is about escapism. People just see one thing. I was 21. I was in the Ireland squad. Everyone is looking at me thinking: 'He's living the fucking dream! But my reality was that every day was a battle.

PK: What does that do to you as a football player?

GF: There's a pattern. You become programmed. You need conflict to function. The worst thing that could have happened to me in football was for someone to say, 'You're great.' My head would fall off.

PK: Really?

GF: Yeah, I couldn't handle it. I remember my first loan spell was at Rotherham with John McGovern and Archie Gemmill: you're a young boy, it's your first loan and John McGovern comes up to you: "Fucking hell Gareth. The biggest disappointment is that I couldn't play with you. Go out and show people what a player you are." They were great, completely different, and then you go back to Villa and you're listening to . . .

PK: "You think you're a fucking player?"

GF: Yeah, and for him to go on and become the (Ireland) assistant manager!

PK: He obviously got on well with Steve (Staunton)?

GF: Yeah, him and Stan were close, and probably still are, and again, I wouldn't judge anybody for that it's just . . .

PK: There were a lot of Irish stars playing for Villa at that time.

GF: No, for sure, Stan, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend . . . Razor was great . . . Stan was great.

PK: What are they saying to you?

GF: Well, at different times they may have said different things but football is not as altruistic and honest as we'd like to think; the fundamental position is that everybody looks after themselves. You get all this about "we" and "team" but I don't buy any of it.

PK: (laughs) It's all about "I".

GF: Yeah.

PK: Who are your friends? Who can you talk to?

GF: It was difficult then. There wouldn't have been a lot of close, close people . . .

PK: Susan?

GF: Absolutely. Always.

PK: Your parents?

GF: No, they never understood football; they didn't understand that world, so it became a challenge for them, and in turn a challenge for me, to explain how it worked. I'd call home and it was: 'What are you doing? Such-and-such is playing every week and you can't get in the side! You're wasting your time over there.' And no matter what you said, or how you tried to present it, it was always going to be: 'Well, it must be you.'

PK: This is your father?

GF: Yeah. They (the club) were the establishment. They were to be believed. The problem had to be something I wasn't doing rather than something that was being done to me.

PK: That's tough.

GF: Yeah, you think: 'I can't get a break. There's nowhere I can get some calm.' But I've only started to understand all this since I was ill.

PK: How does that happen?

GF: It wasn't exactly an epiphany but you start to think about things: Who am I? What's formed me? One of my best friends, Alan Caffrey, gave me a book at the time, The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I read it and thought 'My God! This has been my whole life!' It was profound.

PK: It enabled you to put some pieces together?

GF: Yeah, I started to think: 'These voices in your head - everyone has them! That thing that's kicking your arse every day - you're not the only one.' People talk about, 'I'm depressed'. No, you might not be, you're just going through a bad patch. For me it was a career of bad decisions, based on bad programming and what my personality had become. That's why I never achieved my potential, but I'm actually okay with that now.

3. The Lesson

Matters back in Ireland have kept his attention. Farrelly is a trenchant opponent of the football hierarchy as it exists in Ireland, where his time at Bohemians is compared to the rude awakening John Giles endured when he dreamed big at Shamrock Rovers . . . Other movers and shakers such as Niall Quinn, who wants to raise €40m to provide the 20 League of Ireland clubs with academies, also gets a beady eye. "You can't just say give every academy team €2m. What is the business plan? How are you going to implement it on a national level?

Farrelly agrees with Quinn that private/public sector partnership is the way forward, but is clearly not keen on the League of Ireland being entrusted with such an important development role; rather he would like to see the right people being put in place who can hot-house talent from an early age. His ideas seem embryonic, but important as the debate widens on the way football is heading with the FAI facing increasing scrutiny from the legislature.

Paul Rowan,

The Sunday Times, January 2019

PK: You've popped up on my radar a couple of times this year. The first was an interview I did with Stephen Kenny in January when he reminded me that you had succeeded him as manager of Bohemians; the second was a piece you did with Paul Rowan in The Sunday Times; and the third was an old cutting I found last month from Mick McCarthy's first competitive game as manager of Ireland - a World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein in 1996. I'll read it for you:

Putting names to the new faces isn't easy; Tony O'Donoghue from RTE is recruited to fill in the blanks.

"Who's he?" I begin. "The tall one at the back?"

"That's Gary Breen."

"And the one this side of Staunton and the other side of McAteer?"

"Kenny Cunningham."

"Which one is Ian Harte?"

"There - the short, blocky guy on the left running past Andy Townsend."

'And Gareth Farrelly?"

"He's on the ball now, might easily pass for a student."

GF: (smiles) Yeah, it was a shift for Mick because he had brought in a load of the younger Irish boys. I remember I was rooming with Kenny Cunningham. I had massive respect for Mick - I think he's great - but also for (his assistant) Ian Evans at the time. It was a breath of fresh air to work with people who were good to you, and so far removed from what I was used to at Villa.

PK: You had made your debut a few months earlier?

GF: Yeah, against Portugal at home. We got beat 1-0, played Holland in Feyenoord and then flew to the US to play Bolivia in the US Cup.

PK: How did that first game against Portugal feel?

GF: Amazing, it was something I'd always dreamed of.

PK: Did you feel proud?

GF: Incredible pride, yeah.

PK: Did your father?

GF: He probably did . . . yeah.

PK: He didn't tell you?

GF: No, not at all.

PK: That's hard.

GF: Yeah, but I don't want to . . . I don't harbour any ill will about it.

PK: What's your relationship like now?

GF: He's dead.

PK: I'm sorry.

GF: He died of a heart attack at 53. I had just signed for Bolton on loan (November '99). Sam Allardyce had taken over, we played Sheffield United away, and I scored within eight minutes of my debut. That was the Sunday, and the following Thursday I got a call after training to say he had died.

PK: How did it feel?

GF: Devastating.

PK: What was the last conversation you had?

GF: Oh, not a positive one.

PK: It wasn't?

GF: Not at all. Listen, we've been talking about life and the challenges it brings; we didn't have a good relationship but I understand it now. He was never destined to live a long life and I trace that back to my brother dying. There's a book in it somewhere but there are parts that aren't easy.

PK: Sure.

GF: I don't look back on football with a lot of positive memories. I achieved every dream, and there are games and moments that stand out, but the overall experience was not what it should have been. But there's a counterpoint to that. A few years ago, a friend confided in me that he had been sexually abused by (a scout) Ted Langford at Villa. And when Andy Woodward came out (Woodward was abused by a coach at Crewe), it dredged up some awful memories for him. My experiences don't come close to what those guys went through.

PK: Sure.

GF: This is not 'woe is me'.

PK: What's your view on how the game has dealt with those stories?

GF: Well, I don't mean to sound cold but I have no expectation of football. I love the game, and I'm fortunate to do some work for the FA and Premier League but I'm not beholden to them, and that's important, because if you're beholden to them, your first thought whenever these cases arise is not what's right or wrong, it's 'I depend on this.'

PK: Absolutely.

GF: So you're not going to get justice from football, and I don't expect much, but I want to help. I don't want people going through what I went through.

PK: You did an important interview with David Conn before Christmas?

GF: Yeah, I'd met David at some sports law conferences. He had written a piece about a previous investigation at Villa and asked to have a chat. I drew him a map and he spoke to two guys with similar stories, but they've both done really well since leaving Villa and were reluctant to (go on the record), so he was back to square one. He said: "The best thing that could happen is if you did it." So I spent an afternoon with him.

PK: It's being investigated at the moment?

GF: Yeah, I think the evidence has been presented to him (MacDonald). It should be resolved soon.

PK: How's your other project going? What's the state of play with your former advisers and the investment schemes?

GF: We issued a case in 2015 and it's to go to trial later this year.

PK: And not just on your own behalf?

GF: Initially it was my own case but it's grown.

PK: You're defending other footballers?

GF: (smiles) You say defending . . . we're litigating against former football agents and financial advisers who were involved in the construction of these schemes. I've more or less reached an agreement with the Revenue and have a second career now that will hopefully give me the time to recover, but others have been less fortunate. The legislation changed here in 2015; it gave HMRC the power to issue accelerated payment notices which basically said, 'You did a tax scheme in 2003, I want all of that tax back, plus interest, plus penalties going all the way back.' It was an absolutely draconian provision that has decimated people, and that's as big an issue as the fact that they were mis-sold these things.

PK: Can you go after the HMRC?

GF: No.

PK: You can't contest the unfairness of it?

GF: No, people have challenged it by judicial review and lost. The thing you have to remember is how vastly the world has changed in the last 15 years. There's a degree of McCarthyism around now: 'I'm going to shoot you because you're a tax avoider. And then I'm going to ask later whether you're a tax avoider or not.'

PK: (Laughs)

GF: It's true, isn't it? And there's the perception: 'Footballers . . . well . . . serves them right . . . they earned all that money and blew it . . . or they were trying to dodge tax."

PK: Yes, that is the perception.

GF: And it's wholly inaccurate but it suits a narrative, but when you get into the detail you realise: 'Hang on. This is not as straight-forward as I've been told.'

PK: What about the FAI? You've been pretty vocal on that front as well?

GF: Well, I had a heated debate with Paul (Rowan) about the role played by journalists and their inability to scrutinise and challenge, despite a lot of people knowing what was going on. And I struggle with that. Sometimes you have to say: 'No, this isn't right.' What I'd say now is that I'm impressed with what's been done but I'm also fearful; it's not a time for awards dinners and lauding each other - you have to finish it off.

PK: Sure.

GF: There have been about five investigations but there are no answers yet. They're talking about giving the (CEO) job to other people but are they the right people? There shouldn't be an entitlement based on who you are or what you did.

PK: You're talking about Niall (Quinn)?

GF: No, generally, but Niall has been mentioned. He made a move before all this unravelled, a move based on a commercial plan, so I'd be cautious about that, and like to see him challenged. Put everyone in a room with six experts and take them apart, and if they stand up to that scrutiny . . .

PK: Would you like to be part of that panel?

GF: Yeah . . . someone said something to me recently about my relationship with football: "You're not intoxicated by it." And I'm not. I don't know all of it but I know this, there has to be institutional change.

PK: What about your own life? What's the lesson when you look back?

GF: The lesson?

PK: Yeah.

GF: Well, one of the things I've thought about a lot is how fortunate I've been to be given a second chance. I call the surgeon every year on the anniversary - the 30th of April - to thank him, and ask myself regularly: "Am I making the most of this?" Because I'm really conscious of that.

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