Sunday 17 December 2017

Dillon's Derby days shine light on reality facing young players

The former Ireland underage international wasn't surprised by bullying revelations - only that they got out

Aston Villa's U-23 coach Kevin MacDonald Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Aston Villa's U-23 coach Kevin MacDonald Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It wouldn't have taken long for anybody who has spent time in a football dressing room to read the findings against Aston Villa's U-23 coach Kevin MacDonald and recall a time it had happened to them, or they had seen it happen to others.

There was, according to the Premier League inquiry, "evidence of bullying, aggressive behaviour and unacceptable language", which, if every training session was recorded and every word transcribed from the majority of training sessions, would probably happen on a daily basis.

Paul Hayward's report in the Daily Telegraph added: "Among the accusations made against MacDonald are emotional bullying and shaming of players in front of team-mates, alienation from the group, which was interpreted as a form of punishment, personal insults and abusive language on a daily basis."

For Kealan Dillon, the surprising part of the story wasn't that it happened, but that it was reported.

Like hundreds of 16-year-olds before him, Dillon left Ireland hoping to make a career for himself in England back in 2010, having been part of a Belvedere team which contained the likes of Sean Kavanagh and Darragh Lenihan.

Seven years on, he "wouldn't say it was bullying" with regard to what he went through at Derby County, but like the findings against MacDonald, it makes you think about football's tough love.

"It got to the stage in training or a match that every time I gave the ball away I'd be expecting to get a bollocking. Even if I didn't give it away, I half expected a grilling because there was something else I did wrong and there's only so much of that you're able to take when you're going into a place every day and getting criticised.

"The coaches might not even realise they're doing it, but once that negativity is in your head, it's very difficult to get rid of it."

The method, in so many instances, is couched as toughening players up for the reality of playing in front of thousands of people who, having paid their money, aren't going to let a player's feelings get in the way of screaming abuse.

There's a certain logic to the approach, but whether it gets the best results out of the maximum number of players is debatable.

"I never had someone shouting or bawling in my face, but you'd hear about that at other clubs," adds Dillon. "It's more little things like being ignored where there's four of you there and the coach asks three of the players what they think about something, but doesn't ask you.

"They might say something about you to another player while you're sitting there, so you go home and you're thinking 'if that's what the coaches are saying, what are the other lads in the dressing room thinking?'

"The thing is, though, they think they're doing it in your interest."


With relentless criticism in his ear, Dillon went through the classic cycle of losing confidence, which meant he was trying too hard to impress, which meant he was failing more often, which meant more criticism and a greater loss of confidence.

The vicious cycle continued until he put on the brakes by demanding to leave with two years of his contract still to run and no club lined up to take him.

"I had to work out whether I could put up with it all until the next window opened up, but I knew I had to get out of there," adds the former Irish U-14, U-15 and U-17 international.

His next move took him to Hull, then to St Mirren, home to Athlone, on to Bohemians and he is now with Longford. It's quite the road for someone who only turned 23 last month.

To use the word attached to so many younger people, there's no element of snowflake to Dillon, who is realistic about the world in which footballer's live. However, to anyone listening to his story, it begs the question whether the rare few who 'make it' do so in spite of this approach rather than because of it.

"You have to be able to take criticism and listen and learn, but it's a different thing if you're getting grilled constantly," he says, recalling an incident early in his Derby career.

"There was a pre-season game for the first-team where a few youth team players might have got called up, but I wasn't available because I was injured. Straight away it was 'how can you be injured already, you've missed your chance now' and all this other stuff that there was just no need for.

"I probably wouldn't even have been picked anyway and it doesn't sound like much looking back, but it all adds up. You'd rather be ignored than be told something like that because you're being made to feel bad about something that's not your fault."

Dillon's story is far from unusual in a world where the trial at the club is the equivalent of somebody selling a house which, if the buyer doesn't beware, can lead to a nasty shock - and one which they feel they have little choice but to endure.

"The biggest thing when you go over is to look at how the players interact with each other and how the coaches treat the players," is Dillon's advice.

"All of the other stuff they do to make the club look good for your benefit probably isn't the reality because their job is to get you to sign.

"So they might have you staying somewhere nice when you're on trial, but you need to know things like where you'll be living when you go over, because it could be very different. It's the same in training because everyone's on their best behaviour. It doesn't mean that's how it's always going to be."

After last week's revelations, Villa said they "co-operated fully with the Premier League in respect of its investigation and is currently reviewing the Premier League's recommendations with a view to further improving its safeguarding".

As Dillon's experience, and that of probably hundreds of others has shown, what is recommended and what is reality is still likely to be two very different things.

Irish Independent

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