When it was announced last week that Aston Villa had sacked Kevin MacDonald, the club’s head of football development, following an investigation into claims of bullying, it was news that one of the Scot’s former youth players had been anticipating for almost 20 years.
“There was a time he shouted over at me in training and told me I wasn’t a player, and I thought to myself ‘well, your day will come, that kind of behaviour is going to come back to bite you one day’,” Alan Brazil, the son of Hibs cult hero Ally Brazil, told Scotland on Sunday yesterday.
That day came for MacDonald on Tuesday when Villa parted company with the 58-year-old former Liverpool player. MacDonald had been under investigation by the West Midlands club after Gareth Farrelly, a Villa trainee during the early 1990s, had accused the Scot of “incredibly aggressive bullying” in a newspaper interview last year.
Brazil took to social media after Villa announced the coach’s departure. “Don’t like seeing people lose their jobs,” he tweeted, “but this should have happened years ago. Having worked with him, I saw first hand what this person was like.”
Following impressive spells at Whitburn, Hutchison Vale, Salvesen and Hearts as a schoolboy, Edinburgh-born Brazil was scouted by Aston Villa and signed a four-year contract with the Premier League club on 5 July 2001 – the day of his 16th birthday.
He stayed for three of the four years, playing alongside players such as Gary Cahill, Steven Davis and Gabriel Agbonlahor, but returned north of the Border in 2004 after failing to make it into the first-team plans of managers John Gregory, Graham Taylor and David O’Leary. While the managers at Villa changed almost on an annual basis back then, one constant on the training pitch was MacDonald. But that stability in the academy wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Kevin MacDonald was a good coach, I don’t think anyone will disagree with that, but I can see why he has lost his job. He was a bully,” says Brazil, now 34 and working as a landscape gardener at Heriot-Watt University’s Riccarton campus.
“I tried to nip it in the bud quite early. I don’t like bullies, I think you’ve got to stand up to them. Other players perhaps let it go and were frightened to stand up to him, and that’s understandable because he played such a big part in how far you got along the football ladder, especially at Villa. So I can see why people didn’t speak up there and then.”
Brazil was immersed in football from a very young age, having followed his dad’s post-Hibs career at Forfar and then into the junior leagues. But leaving high school in Edinburgh to become a full-time footballer in Birmingham would have been tough for any teenager and he found it difficult to settle. Far from being sympathetic, MacDonald mocked Brazil’s homesickness.
“There were some players at Villa who didn’t want to go to training because of him,” adds Brazil. “I was homesick for the first year and a half and there were times when I was allowed to go back to Edinburgh because that’s what I needed. He would make stupid little comments about that, like ‘is that you going home again, Brazil?’
“That annoyed me because I left to go to Aston Villa on my 16th birthday, I was a kid and I was homesick. Some people don’t suffer from homesickness but I did and those comments didn’t help. The coaches should be looking after the young boys – they might be the future of your football club.
“Kevin was the sort of person who had to make his presence felt. You could be on the injury table and he’d come in and he would just make little comments, not your normal banter. He would say and do whatever he wanted.
“If you were walking in the corridor then you had to get out of his way. If you said hello to him, sometimes he wouldn’t even look at you, he’d just walk right past you. He had a way of dealing with players he didn’t like.
“I’m not surprised that a number of ex-players got in touch with Villa to help with their investigation. He would try to belittle you in front of everyone, with little comments when you were off-guard and also when you were on your own. Just little things that bullies tend to do.”
MacDonald, a fine midfielder during a playing career that peaked when he helped Liverpool win the league and cup double in 1986, was a coach at Villa for two spells spanning more than two decades. He was also appointed caretaker manager on a couple of occasions, including as recently as last season when Steve Bruce was sacked. How did someone with such apparent disregard for his players’ feelings manage to keep his job for so long? “Because he was clever,” says Brazil.
“He was clever at how he did it. People saw him as a hard coach, and criticism is fine if it’s constructive. People who were on his good side – the really talented players – will say he was a great coach and I’ve not got a problem with that because he was a good coach, but there was another side to him that a lot of people didn’t see.”
If there is any good to have come out of the MacDonald mess at Villa, it is that former players such as Farrelly have found the courage to speak about their battle with mental health issues. The former Republic of Ireland international admitted that he considered suicide as he struggled to deal with the coach’s negative approach.
Villa’s statement on Tuesday included an apology to anyone who had been on the receiving end of MacDonald’s conduct during their time at the club. “Aston Villa wishes to apologise to all former players who were affected by behaviour which would not be tolerated by the club today,” it said. “Our approach to safeguarding is now unrecognisable from the past.”
Unlike Farrelly, Brazil does not believe that MacDonald’s constant verbal digs on the training ground have had any lasting impact on his mindset – “I always tried to stand up to Kevin” – but he revealed that he, too, has struggled with his mental health for several years. The former striker traces it back to a leg break he suffered in 2006 while playing for Arbroath, the club he joined after leaving Villa Park.
With ten goals in 20 appearances at the start of the 2005-6 campaign, including a hat-trick in a 7-2 victory over Third Division rivals East Stirlingshire, Brazil was playing some of the best football of his career before the injury. However, trying to rediscover that sharpness and form is something that has tortured him ever since, even to this day.
“I’ve struggled with mental health issues over the years,” adds Brazil. “I’d maybe had little glimpses of it at Villa but it first really took hold of me when I broke my leg at Arbroath. Up to that point I was playing reasonably well and when I came back after the injury, I noticed that I was a yard off the pace. I expected that initially, having been out for so long, but as time went on, I still wasn’t as quick.
“So I started trying too hard to get back to the same standard as before the leg break. It kept niggling away at me. I struggled with my weight too. I went through a stage of not eating, I was never out of the gym trying to get that extra yard back, doing two runs a day, skipping meals, not sleeping at night – just generally worrying about the player I was before and the player I had become. I was taking that out on everyone else, I was always grumpy and moody and I felt that I had nowhere else to turn. I thought I was on my own.”
Brazil, deciding he needed a fresh start, signed for Stenhousemuir in 2008 and then moved to Berwick Rangers the following year. But the goals had pretty much dried up and a spate of new injuries meant his career became stop-start.
“Leaving Gayfield was the biggest mistake I ever made,” he adds. “I found out the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. I loved that club.
“I got injured at Stenhousemuir and then, at Berwick Rangers, just as I was rediscovering my best form, I tore my hamstring three times.
“It was like hitting my head against a brick wall.”
When Brazil eventually called it a day, he found it especially difficult to shake off the feeling that he had disappointed his dad, “Benny”, the big defender who made more than 200 league appearances for Hibs across the 1970s and 80s. “My dad is my best friend. He’s been there and done it,” adds Brazil. “I could always talk to him and he advised me on a lot of things throughout my football career. But when I decided to stop playing, I probably felt that I’d let him down more than anyone else.”
Brazil still stresses most days about getting match-fit even though he no longer plays football, but he’s in a better place now. After an enlightening conversation with his grandmother he decided to seek medical help for his mental health worries, while the reassuring words of his girlfriend, Gillian, and the arrival of their first child – a son, Mason – nine months ago have given him a different perspective on life.
“For the first time in years I’m starting to feel better about myself,” he adds. “Now I go into my work with a smile on my face.”