Written by Colin Byiers
Stevie Farrell’s playing career might not be the most recognised in the footballing World, as he spent most of his days in the Junior’s with numerous sides, but for Farrell, this was not something he found to have been a negative, rather it was something to be embraced and enjoyed.
Recently, I spoke with Steve about his playing days, his transition into management and his hopes for his side Stranraer next season.
I’d like to start by asking about your move into the Juniors having played at Kilmarnock, Stoke City, St Mirren and Stranraer. Was that a massive change for you?
Over the piece, I was 8- or 9-years full time and I felt the time was right to go part time initially with Stranraer. I was an OK player, a decent player, but I lacked that something to play at the top level. I always believed that. When the opportunity to drop into the Juniors with Kilwinning Rangers, I took it and I really enjoyed it. I felt that was my level and I had a fantastic time in the Juniors.
I had a fantastic up bringing at Stoke City, 4 years, and I had a fantastic time at St Mirren, playing a lot of first team football, playing with so really good players. I probably think I enjoyed it more the time I had at Stenhousemuir because I played nearly every game there, but then I went back to the Juniors. My most successfully time and the time I played with a smile on my face the most was when I was in the Juniors.
Was moving away from the Juniors back up the ladder a difficult decision?
No, it wasn’t. I think there was fine lines between the lower leagues and the Junior super league. In the Junior Super League there was Auchinleck Talbot, Kilwinning Rangers, Pollock; it was mostly senior players that were there. One thing that attracted me to the Juniors was the crowds. I played in Auchinleck/Cumnock matches in front of 6 to 6-and-a-half thousand. Games were delayed by half an hour just to let the fans in. That’s how big the crowds were. I played in a game, a quarter final, Auchinleck against Cumnock and we had the second largest crowd in Scotland that day behind Hibs v Celtic. The crowds were phenomenal back then, and there wassome tremendous atmospheres in games.
What was the level like? Can you compare it to anything higher up?
In my opinion, at the time, I think the level was high League 2 or bottom end League 1. The majority of the players in the Super League had fallen out of those leagues fairly recently. The other thing was, there was quite a bit of money in the Super League so some of the teams were able to pay on a par with some of the SPFL clubs at the time. That was an attraction to a lot of the players. It was a fantastic grounding, whether you were starting out or on your way down at the end of your career, it was such a good place to be, and the games were so competitive. The teams were so evenly matched.
You moved into management. Was that something you had planned to do?
I was always interested in coaching, even as a youngster at Stoke City, I was always invested in coaching. I used to write down sessions I was involved in when I was 19/20, and I used to play it in my mind how I would adapt it and use it in my own coaching environment. I knew I would go into coaching because it was something that really intrigued me, and I’m still that to this day. Every day I’m learning about coaching. I’malways looking for new ideas in terms of how I can coach the players I’m coaching at the moment. The coaching side of management was always more important to me than the bureaucracy side of things but having been a manager as long as I have, you have to learn to deal with both aspects of it and get the balance right.
How did you transition from playing to then managing the players you were playing with?
I did that at Cumnock, and it was a mistake. I should never have become a player/manager. I spoke to Derek McInnes when he done it at St Johnstone, and he shared my view on that as well. I found it really difficultto manage and play and sit coach. There are three different aspects to it; a player, a manager and a coach. You are trying to bring all these aspects together, while still trying to be the best at all three and that’s very difficult. Personally, I would advise nobody to do that. You have to be either a player or a manager in my opinion.
You moved to Stranraer to be assistant manager, tell me how that came about?
I didn’t really know Stephen Aiken. We played against each other, and he was a bit younger than me, but I didn’t really know him. Unbeknownst to me, he had been asking about me, and thankfully heard only good things about my coaching. He got a couple of friendlies and I was thinking it was just to keep his team ticking over, but he was watching and listening to what I was doing and after those friendlies, he asked to speak with me and asked me to become his assistant manager. I found moving into an assistant manager role easier because I knew what Stephen was looking for. I knew what he was looking for in terms of my role and what he wanted out of me, because I was a manager it was easier for me to know exactly what Steve wanted.
You first task was to try and keep Stranraer in League 1. Did you feel any pressure?
They were languishing at the time when Stephen took over. We had to work hard to keep the team in the division and we did that, then we built a squad with experienced players that we felt that could stand us in good stead in League 1 for the next two or three years and thankfully we did that and competed well, and it was a really enjoyable time. We didn’t have the best budget in the league, but we had a good core. We managed to bring in good players like Steven Bell, Stephen Stirling and we already had Craig Malcolm, but we brought in Jamie Longworth, Martin Grehan, Michael Moore, who was finishing his career. If you have goal scorers in your team at any level, you’ll have a chance. The profile of the squad and the balance of the squad that we put together was good and it stood us in good stead for the couple of years.
Was moving to Dumbarton a difficult decision for you?
It was, because when Stephen was offered the job at Dumbarton, he wanted to take me, but Stranraer wanted me to stay and become the manager. I felt there was a loyalty to Steve at the time and there was an opportunity to manage in the Championship against better sides, like Rangers, Hibs etc, so it was a fantastic opportunity for a young manager and a young assistant manager to test ourselves, particularly with the lowest budget in the league. So, to turn down the managers job at Stranraer the first time was difficult, by I went with my gut. I always follow my gut in football, and I would rather follow my gut than my head and if my gut is telling me something, like it was to go with Stephen to Dumbarton, then that’swhat I did. We went there and did well on such limited resources. We were the underdog’s every week. Some of the teams in that league had over £1 million budgets, then the budget that Dumbarton had, it was always going to be difficult, but in the two and a half years I was there with Stephen, we survived in the Championship. The credit for that goes to the manager. Yes, I helped and assisted, but it was his project. He drove the club; he took the club in the direction he wanted to and it’s all credit to Stephen Aiken. I can’t speak highly enough of him. I think he’s one of the most under rated managers in Scotland.
So, when Stranraer made the call again, were you faced with split loyalties for the second time?
It really tested me! I was working well with Stephen Aiken. We had a great relationship, still do, to this day. I still think that Stevie Farrell and Stephen Aiken will work together again at some point because the relationship is still that close. Stranraer did things right. They contacted the club to get permission to speak to me, and they spoke with Stephen who then told me. I was honest and I said I wanted to speak to Stranraer. I did, it was a Thursday night, and I met with some of the committee who I already knew. After that meeting, Stephen was the first person I spoke to. I met him in person and as difficult as it was, I told him I was going to take the post. I felt it was the right time and it was the right club. When I went in there, we had a good set of players and we just needed to get them going again and get them believing again. We did that and we turned the season round and we stayed up. With the experiences I had at Dumbarton, going in at the bottom of the league, it was something I was used to. I just think, when you have a good group of players like we did, like Wullie Gibson, Craig Pettigrew, Craig Malcolm, Ryan Thomson, I just had to give them confidence and start believing. We worked them hard on the training pitch, probably in a different way to how they were before, and we started picking up results and when you do that, you pick a bit of momentum and ultimately, we got ourselves out of it.
After keeping Stranraer in League 1 for so long, you were relegated last season, but was the way you were relegated still hurt?
It hurts only because we didn’t get the opportunity to see if we would have caught 9th placed Forfar. The gap was only 8 points, we had a game in hand and Forfar still had to come to Stair Park. So, if we had won the game in hand and won the game against Forfar, suddenly the gap is down to 2 points with 7 games to play. At Stranraer, we were always the underdogs, and we knew about the battle. It was something we were used to. That last quarter, we were used to battling and scraping for results that we needed to survive, so it would have been good to get that opportunity but that was taken away from us with the decision that was made.
How has the club adapted through the last 18 months?
The club has been excellent. I say this to players; the club don’t have a lot but what they do have, they will give you. Fantastic people, who work tirelessly to give you everything they can, but in the last 18 months, they have policed themselves well financially, by being responsible financially and we came through the pandemic strongly. We were lucky, just before the pandemic, we had Rangers in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox and that helped the club. Luckily, this season, we’ve had a few TV games etc, so financially, we are ok. Probably still sitting 5th or 6th in League 2 in terms of resources wise, but we certainly have been competitive this year.
Through the pandemic, we were doing things we hadn’tdone before because we found ourselves in a position as managers that we didn’t really know because there were no answers. We didn’t know from one day to the next what was happening. For me, that uncertainty was difficult and trying to keep the player motivated through engagement was difficult. There are only so much Zoom quizzes you can have, but everyone in the footballing world was experiencing the same thing. I’m not saying that we should have had any special treatment, but we are all competitors and when that competitiveness is taken away from these players, it’s very hard for everyone.
You missed out on promotion this season, after losing to Dumbarton in the play off semi-final. How disappointing was it to end the season like that?
We finished joint 2nd with Edinburgh City on 38 points with Elgin City also, and we missed out by just one goal to finish in 2nd place. Even in the BetFred Cup we lost out on a penalty to get into the last 16 at Ayr United, then missing 2nd place by one goal, then losing out to Dumbarton by one goal, even missing a penalty in the 2nd leg and missing two great chances. Good luck to Dumbarton, they deserved to go through, but we’ve had a good season, and we were nearly there. It’s something that will stimulate us. We know we are good enough. It’sour first season back in League 2, and we’ve been really competitive, and we look forward to the new season ahead. I think we should be up there again. We’ll keep the nucleus of the squad and I’d be disappointed if we aren’t at the top end again. It’s over a 36 game season, so I’m not one of those people who gets carried away when you go on a run, because you need to stay balanced, and believe and trust in your squad over 36 games and not just 10 games of 15 games. If we apply ourselves in the way I know we can, keep the ones I want to keep and add one or two that I want to add then I’m confident that we can finish in the top half and compete in those play-offs again.
Are you excited by the prospect of getting a full 36 game season and having fans back into Stair Park?
I think everybody is. It’s a clique, but it’s just not the same. The atmosphere is so flat. Credit to the players, the games have been good, but they lack something. Whether it’s 200 fans or 20,000 fans, it’s relevant to what you are used to, and the fans have been sorely missed. Simple things like having a pint before the game or having a chat with other people about your week, we’ve missed that, football has missed that. Fingers crossed that that gets back to some normality for the new season.