Former Ireland assistant Kevin MacDonald in hot water over bullying complaint
Aston Villa have been ordered to make "sweeping and vigorous" changes to welfare protection for academy players after a Premier League inquiry found "evidence of bullying, aggressive behaviour and unacceptable language" by Kevin MacDonald, currently Villa's under-23 coach.
The complaints against MacDonald by a youth player and his family, who have asked not to be named, led to a stern warning to the club, who were relegated to the Championship last season but were under the Premier League's jurisdiction when some of the alleged offences were committed.
In 2012, Villa were granted Category One status under the League's Elite Player Performance Plan. They have been placed on warning and details of MacDonald's alleged conduct passed to the English Football Association for consideration.
In the letter from the Premier League, the father of a Villa academy player is told: "League officials are expected to have a regular presence in the club over the coming months to assess the club's progress with implementing these actions. Failure to do so could have significant ramifications for the club."
Among the accusations made against MacDonald, a former interim first-team manager, 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, and players being told to "f*** off inside" to their faces when they asked to stay behind to do extra training. Poor leadership and coaching are also alleged. The player has received help and support from an organisation called the Players Trust.
In a statement, Villa said they had "co-operated fully" with the investigation, adding: "The club also welcomes the Premier League's comments that there has been a significant improvement since the change at the top level of the club." However, in its letter to the father of the complainant, the Premier League said: "After dissatisfaction at the club's response to our initial inquiry, we commissioned an independent review."
While not ruling on individual incidents, the Premier League's safeguarding department told the parent: "There was failure by several club personnel to take responsibility for dealing with the concerns raised by you and your son."
It also accused Villa of showing "a lack of focus on player welfare, [and] failure by the club to implement its procedures and poor communications" in their management of the complaints, and said the club "did not keep you informed during the investigation process and failed to provide you with an outcome despite repeated attempts by you over several months to get one".
In Villa's favour, the letter also pointed out: "The club has demonstrated improvement under new management with a renewed emphasis being placed on safeguarding and welfare."
The Premier League is highly protective of its EPPP academy system, created at vast cost, and has taken a robust approach to the complaints at Villa at a time when player welfare is under the spotlight. Concern about emotional and verbal abuse and poor safeguarding has also been expressed in other sports, such as cycling.
MacDonald, 56, turned to management in 1994 after 276 games as a player. He was a member of Liverpool's double-winning side in 1986. He has been reserve, caretaker and assistant manager at Villa, and has also worked at youth development level. A former Republic of Ireland assistant manager under Steve Staunton, he is now in charge of Villa's under-23s, according to the club, who would not say whether he has faced internal disciplinary action.
A spokesman for Villa said MacDonald would respond to the Premier League's verdict only through the club.
Villa also said in their statement: "The club considers the safeguarding and welfare of all players to be of paramount importance.
"To this end it has recently appointed a full-time safeguarding and welfare officer to ensure the safeguarding and welfare of all players and staff.
"Whilst it cannot comment on specific allegations the club can confirm that it has recently been the subject of a safeguarding review by the Premier League. The club has 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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)