Break a leg

Could there ever be a more ridiculous way to bring someone luck than by wishing them harm? Surely only the most perverse chain of thought would believe that wishing some good luck, is in fact bad luck and, as a result, decide that the only way forward is to double bluff the leprechaun.

Try telling that to Luke Shaw as he lies in a hospital bed, recuperating from that horrific double leg break, that we all seen so visually during TV coverage last week. Forget the fact that he is a very wealthy, ‘lucky’ young man. It’s the sort of injury that is more common than it seems, as up and down the country over the course of a season, many players suffer the dreaded ‘tib and fib.’ Snapping both the tibia and fibula shin bones is a career threatening injury, and even though he will be afforded the best medical help which the biggest club in the world can offer, his recovery will still be long, with huge mental and physical barriers along the way.

Mental strength and physical hard work during rehabilitation are the only way to get back to fitness from such an injury and to that extent, all the oxygen chambers and advanced medical science will help him no more than they would help the part-time player from the Conference suffering from the same, devastating blow.

The recovery position

High profile cases such as those of Luke Shaw and Henrik Larsson, only serve to highlight the vagaries and downsides of modern football. Injuries are the most difficult and frustrating side of the game for a player. Torn hamstrings, torn groin, torn calves and a torn quadricep (thigh) muscle. Torn ankle ligaments, a detached medial ligament, a dislocated kneecap, a fractured rib, a calcaneal heel spur and a ruptured plantar fascia (that’s the bit that holds the front and the back of the sole of your foot together), may sound like a chapter from the British Medical Sports Injury journal, but it is in fact a list of the serious injuries which I suffered throughout my career.

To say I was an expert would be stretching the definition to its limits. I was a walking episode of Casualty. You know that bit at the start when the innocent bystander crosses the road, and manages to get to the other side without mishap, and yet, you just know, something much more sinister is about to happen to him 10 minutes later, I was that man. I’m certain there were times they were filming me coming out of the tunnel and Charlie Fairhead was in the dug-out with the First Aid Kit and a magic sponge.

A lot of my career was spent recovering from injury, playing whilst struggling with injury or going through rehab until I got to the point where I was able to play again, ‘til the next injury.

Treatment rooms became my nemesis. They are lonely, difficult, mentally draining places where the daily double dose of shortwave and electro-magnetic pulses, become a ritual akin to that of a car battery being jump-started back to life, gradually regaining more power before finally managing to find the energy to motor into action. Albeit this was no 16-valve, twin cam, fuel injected, piece of athletic engineering. This was more like an old banger, desperately in need of repair and patching up, just so it could get through another pain-filled 90 minutes. It was a vicious, unforgiving cycle.

On track

The rehab has already started the minute the physio strides onto the pitch and straps the affected limb. Immobilising the break and encasing it in an inflatable splint to prevent further damage, is the first step on the road to recovery, providing of course, the relevant first aid men are capable of carrying the stretcher without as has often been witnessed, comical unforeseen mishap.

At that point the hard work really begins. Injured players are always first to arrive in the morning for their short spell of electro-magnetic energy, coursing through ruptured vials in order to aid the healing process. For a short while you feel normal again, a part of it all as the rest of the squad arrives for training and you can get in on the jokes and the banter for 30, glorious minutes and then it’s over as they head off to training and leave you to your very own solitary confinement. Months of it, gym work, strengthening, recuperation and double sessions without the hint of a ball. All so that on your belated return, the physical condition is there to allow you to get to performing at your best.

But the self-doubt creeps in and the inevitable two questions pop-up; Will I ever play again? Will I ever be the same player again? That’s when the mental side becomes a tougher test than the physical one. Watching your team mates, week in, week out, whilst sitting with a leg brace or whatever contraption the medical team have decided is the best way to protect your particular, damaged part of the body is difficult. Results may be good, but when you’re not contributing and playing, football clubs can be very isolated places.

Because that’s it you see; there is ALWAYS a doubt that you’ll play again. Even the strongest of players will have doubted themselves during the arduous months of rehab, pounding gym sessions and cycling contests against a bloody computer screen. Don’t believe all those players who say they never had any doubts that they would play again after a long term injury, because EVERYONE has doubts. It’s a human facet, whether it be Luke Shaw with the power of Manchester United’s medical department behind him, or the left back at FC United of Manchester, the brain doesn’t distinguish between the haves and the have nots.

It will be a long difficult road back to fitness, but the months of not seeing a ball, never mind kicking one are always worth it when you get to pull on that strip again, whether it be at the Allianz Arena, or Moss Lane, Altrincham.

Unlucky break

Through all those injury-laden seasons, I was ‘lucky’ to never have broken a leg. My ‘tib and fib’ were one of the few things that remained intact throughout my career, although there was one occasion when I was close enough to a player to hear the injury, rather than me having to feel it.

Edinburgh derby reserve games weren’t for the faint hearted. Young players scrapping to make a name for themselves, and senior pro’s revelling in the mini rivalry, determined to show they still had ‘it.’ On this occasion, Hearts had Sandison, Crabbe, Kidd, Neil ‘Chuck’ Berry and wee John Robertson among their ranks.

Robbo was a brilliant striker, a predator in the box and an absolute nuisance but one thing that was always overlooked about this wee man was that he was as tough as they came. He knew how to look after himself and was no shrinking maroon.

The game itself was a typical tight, tough affair and midway through the first half, Danny Lennon received a pass, only to turn and lose control of it, only slightly. At this point, as I’ve said on previous occasions, the player losing possession and now stretching for the ball, is the one under threat and at breaking point as he now has to reach, with no momentum, leaving himself open to the full force of a head on collision.

This was not so long ago remember, when you could throw the kitchen sink at a tackle, without the worry, like now, of being yellow carded just for turning on the tap.

Robbo, threw himself into the tackle, playing ball first and then catching Danny high on the shin in the follow through. It sounded as though wee Danny’s shin pad had snapped, but quickly became clear that it had been something less obvious. The ball broke to the side, and being only five yards away, I ran to help him. Most of the team could see it was serious and made their way over, and my first instinct was lift his leg and take some of the weight off it, protecting him and trying to ease some of the pain. The bottom half of his shin stayed on the ground and the top half, moved independently. It was clear at that point, his ‘tib and fib’ had gone.

Incredibly though, but not surprisingly, the only person in the ground not to have noticed was the referee. Waving play on, the ball was played to Tosh McKinlay who took one look up and smashed an unstoppable chip from the halfway line, into the empty net. Almost every player in our team was making our way to the stricken Danny, and that included big Stevie Woods, who by now was on the 18-yard line and running away from goal, without a thought for anything other than his team mate.

The harshest ever lesson in playing to the whistle!

Thankfully Danny, like many others before him and Henrik Larsson after, was able to show the mental strength and physical desire to overcome such adversity and have a good career, both in a playing sense and latterly, in a coaching one. I’m sure Luke Shaw, will recover in time and go on to have a great career, both in England and in Europe. It will be a long road and he has tough times ahead, he will have every possible machine, and medical expert available to help him, but nothing will help him recover more than the power of his mind and the strength of his character. One thing is for certain, it will be highly unlikely that you hear that immortal, good luck wish, ‘break a leg’ anywhere near Old Trafford, any time soon.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from All pre-orders before the November 1st release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

Some stories and video previews of the book are available to view online at:

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell


This weekend, Aberdeen and Celtic will battle it out, like warriors in a north east coliseum, to see if either can gain an early advantage in the SPFL title race. Locking horns at Pittodrie in a sea of red, and an islet, tucked away in a far flung corner of the ground, of green. It’s a raw, intimidating ground where the fans are on top of you and their ire often spills over to become twisted and vengeful. They don’t like Celtic and Rangers up there, but why should they on the back of west coast bias and a system that in their eyes favours the ‘big guns?’

Most of us, fans, players and coaches, the real soldiers of the game, wouldn’t have it any other way. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere and a day trip that away fans all over the country relish and look forward to, and yet, there’s always that niggling bit of doubt as the buses, crammed to the brim, head north, with all the trepidation of a sheep heading to the abattoir. It’s always been a tough place to win alright.

On Saturday morning, the Celtic fans, like many others this season, will make the trip; a trip I made many times myself during the early ’70’s and ’80’s and they’ll be hoping for better luck than I had on many, many occasions.


Back then, the motorways were in their infancy and it really was a day trip. Our bus would leave at 8:30 and arrive at 1pm for a 3pm Saturday afternoon kick off. This was pre-Sky, where kick-off times never needed ‘consideration’ and weekends all over the country were planned in advance to accommodate where your team was playing that particular day. No last minute changes, no cancelled ferry bookings and no Sunday evening kick-offs.

You could pre-book the traditional stop at Forfar on the way home with confidence and never need to worry about missing out on a bridie because of a last minute switch to a Friday night.

Four and a half hours of Heaven, sitting with my Dad and Uncle John, listening to the songs and lifting my feet occasionally to dodge the remnants of the open can of Tennent’s, now dribbling its way down from the back of the bus. My Dad and Uncle weren’t heavy drinkers; they’d enjoy a pre-match pint (Bacardi and Coke for Uncle John) and probably manage two cans for the game. We’d make our way to The Wellie Boot, where the bouncer would always allow my Dad to sneak me into the corner, on the promise of a half bottle next time we were up, and then make our way to the ground.

In those days, hostilities were no less friendly than now and the away fans were ‘housed’ in the smallest end behind the goals, known as the Paddock, before later, in the mid-80’s being shunted to the Beach End. Crammed in, hunched on numbered benches that barely allowed the stadium to preserve itself as ‘all-seater.’

This Aberdeen team were good, they were very good. McLeish and Miller, Strachan, Archibald, Rougvie and Harper, McMaster and McGhee. Leighton in goal, who incredibly along with Archibald would go on to become a team mate of mine. I could never have foreseen that as I watched battering after battering from the confines of my illustrious Paddock bench.

In six years, I hardly saw Celtic score a goal, never mind take a point. There were 2-0’s, 3-0’s, 3-1’s, and a 4-1, a Frank MacDougall masterclass and games where Miller and McLeish played keep-uppy with John Doyle. Doing after doing and then, after a few years of suffering at the hands of Fergie’s mobilised Red Army, it happened…

Your T’s oot

September ’81 and we had followed all our usual routines and made our way, as always, warily and with just a little bit of fear, to The Paddock. Two cans of Tennent’s down the jacket sleeve and a can of Coke for the boy, through the turnstiles and we were in.

The game followed a familiar pattern at Pittodrie as Aberdeen took an early lead from the penalty spot and Gordon Strachan, after scoring at The Paddock end and wheeling away in obvious joy, was accosted by a Celtic fan who had managed to clamber past the police and onto the pitch. What the police were doing, that it was taking up so much of their time and allowing him to get past them so easily, I didn’t know. However, I was about to find out.

Amid dual disgust at losing yet another early goal at Pittodrie and the first can of Tennent’s being almost finished, the old man thought nothing of it as he received a tap on the shoulder. This was the year after the 1980 ‘Hampden Riot’ and alcohol, was now banned from Scottish football stadia, which meant this was no friendly “word in your shell-like” and, as Tommy Burns scored the equaliser at the Beach End just minutes later, we were escorted outside to join around 100 or so other fans who either didn’t have a ticket, or were suffering the same fate as us and had been unceremoniously asked to vacate the premises.

The decision was made to stand outside and wait for the gates to open at half time in order that we could sneak back in, or at least give the turnstile operator, the opportunity to accept the same half bottle as was proffered The Wellie Boot bouncer. It was all to no avail and it would be five minutes to go before we managed to slink our way back in, as the gates opened to allow the Glasgow masses to leave.

A huge cheer midway through the first half and another that shook the ramshackle Paddock roof, early in the second, coincided with various hand signals from the fans leaning over the wall, making sure we knew that we were heading home on the back of a 3-1 victory.
After around a dozen visits to Aberdeen, and a few heavy defeats, I had at last experienced a win at Pittodrie. I had seen 13 minutes of it and the fact I had only HEARD most of it, meant very little and ultimately became just another part of my Scottish football adventure.


As fate would have it, nine years later I would make my debut, at of all places, Pittodrie. They were not the team of the early ’80’s but still had a formidable squad – Snelders, McLeish, Robertson and Robert Connor forming the backbone and Jess, Ten Caat and Gilhaus the undoubted flair, but the best of all was to be my direct opponent Jim Bett. He had technique in abundance and used to glide across the ground as if he was playing in slippers. His, was the type of player I could only dream of being like, and on this occasion, all I could do was admire as he strode purposely all over the pitch, directing the team like a composer conducting his orchestra.

Aberdeen won 2-0, but if it hadn’t been for Goram, it would have been six or seven. I lasted 70 minutes before I was spared the anguish of having my 20-year-old nose rubbed in it, which would have been as much as I deserved, had I been able to get near enough to him.

It was a valuable lesson that making the transition from being a supporter to being a professional footballer would be a difficult one. I had a long way to go, but I now knew how far it was and what I had to do and at least on this occasion, I managed to walk out the front door at the end of the game, rather than being ejected out of the back door during it.

On my next visit to Aberdeen, I was ordered off in a reserve game, to preserve my unique record of failing to see out a match on three different platforms, so whilst I have fantastic memories of those early day trips north, it’s fair to say that it was far from a happy hunting ground for me and yet I still loved the place.

It was Scottish football at its raucous, intimidating best and whilst Pittodrie is no longer the cauldron Fergie and his all-conquering side of the early ’80’s had made it, the Celtic support will be making their way up the A90, with that same excitement and trepidation as I used to.

And due to the ridiculous 12:30 kick off time, they’ll have to leave even earlier than our bus did to negotiate the long and winding road, to their isolated corner of the ground. All they need to do after that, is leave their cans at the front door and make sure they don’t miss as much of the game as I did.

To read more about my debut and many, many other stories and insights, my first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from All pre-orders before the November 1st release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell


Gordon Strachan’s Scotland are positioned on both sides of the camp when it comes to imposing this particular part of the game on their opponents, and it will remain to be seen whether or not the same tactic is used in both games against the average, Georgia, and the very good, Germany this weekend. There’s a certain way of doing it and rarely is it dependant on opposition. It takes time to hone and perfect and then you stick with it, seemingly through thick and thin. You protect it and fiercely defend it, even in the face of the harshest of criticism and occasional failure. Celtic are very staunchly in one camp, deciding to do it their way to their recent cost, while others are dead against that particular philosophy and would never dream of doing it, preferring to employ their own variation of it.

Rarely has a system divided opinion so widely between fans, players and coaches alike. No-one can decide what’s best, particularly now with the high profile analysis on Sky and the never ending dissection of autopsy proportions.

Zonal marking has never been more to the fore than in recent times as clubs, driven by the desire to succeed and the occasional warped sense of trying to be clever or different, implement their own brand of hari kari on players already muddled by formations of play that now, more than ever, resemble morse code, rather than basic instruction.

Whatever happened to ‘dot, dot, dash?’ That’s the good old 4-4-2 to you and I.


I have to say at this point that when I played, I enjoyed being a man marker at corners. I was good in the air and would relish the physical challenges and using every part of me and every trick in the book to stop the opposition centre back from scoring. I enjoyed, as most defenders do, the responsibility of pitting my wits against hairy arsed, 6ft plus centre forwards and making sure by fighting, jostling and being verbally intimidating, that the very most they got was a header that was at least interrupted by some part of my head or body, crashing into them. Most defenders, in my opinion, enjoy the responsibility of picking someone up. They enjoy defending.

Strikers in their own box on the other hand, now that’s a whole different ball game. Keith Wright was brilliant in the air and won many, many headers for us. Plonk big ‘Ted’ on the middle of the six-yard line and he’d attack the ball with the grace and power of the best, growling, centre back; but ask him to man mark? Like most strikers, he’d rather have gone in goal than pick up and that’s the key, finding the system of marking at set pieces that suits your personnel and circumstances and allows you to delegate equal responsibility throughout your team.

The Myth

Let’s examine the myth that zonal marking takes away that responsibility from the individual, because in truth, it doesn’t.

As a defensive unit, there are only three things that can ever be a threat to your goal at any particular time; the man, the ball and the space. As a defender, you must decide which of these is the biggest threat to you losing a goal. For example, if the ball is in a wide area about to be crossed and the striker is standing on his own at the far post, clearly HE is the biggest danger to your goal. If a striker is running through on goal with the ball at his feet, at that point the ball is the biggest threat and you must make a tackle. Conversely, if the ball is in the wide area about to be put into the box and the striker is outside it, waiting to run in, at that point the space he is about to run into is the biggest threat of all.

Accordingly, you adjust your position to try and cut the ball out and stop the striker from being first to reach the more dangerous area. Corner kicks are no different and the idea is, that when the ball is kicked, you must decide, which of the three is the biggest threat to your goal.

The principle behind zonal marking at corners is simple. You are responsible for the space in front of you. Players face the ball, with an open stance in order that they can see both opponent and ball. Celtic will generally line up, with Charlie Mulgrew in the front post area (to clear out that dreaded cross hitting the first man,) Van Dijk, Lustig and Boyata on the six-yard line covering front middle and back, Brown and Armstrong on the posts, Johansen, and Bitton 8-yards out, either side of the penalty spot, Forrest on the edge of the box and Griffiths threatening the short corner on the side the kick is being taken.

If the ball goes over the head of the player in front of you then it automatically becomes your responsibility. If it goes over your head, then it’s down to the player behind you, and so on.

Crucially though, it also means that if someone comes into the space in front of you and he becomes the main threat, you now have to deal with that. Zonal marking does not absolve you of that responsibility. Where Celtic came unstuck, was by being out-thought by the Swedes, as they cleverly deployed a player to either block, or jostle with their best header of the ball (Van Dijk) meaning he could not deal properly with his space, or anyone who came into it.

Where it becomes more complicated, and ultimately more difficult to keep a clean sheet, is when teams start to suss out that you are marking zonally, and deploy players to run from deeper positions to gain momentum and beat the standing jump. In this instance, players MUST have a good open starting position in order to see both man and ball. As the attacker gathers momentum, positions must be adjusted in order to block, jostle or derail the oncoming train as he passes through YOUR tunnel. Failure to do so will result in at the very least, a clear header, and at worst, the ultimate sanction of a goal against.

The answer?

Like Scotland, at Dundee we also used a combination of both man marking and zonal play at corners, whereby we would have two men on the posts, one in the front post area, one on the six yard box centrally (who’s responsibility was also for the opponent who was being a nuisance to the goalkeeper,) four main markers who would pick up their four biggest threats, one on the edge of the box and our quickest attacking player up the pitch. It was very successful for us, but that still does not mean that it was the right way to do it.

There is no right way, only the way that suits YOUR group of players.

When either zonal marking or man marking fails, it is almost always down to the individual, rather than the system. A player who cannot, effectively protect a zone, is just as likely to drop his man in a marking system, resulting in the inevitable post mortem. Whichever formation is employed, if it results in failure, the answer is not to say “well it’s worked for us before” but to say “how can we make it work for us again?” However, as a coach, if it continues to fail and you never look to change, then there comes a point when it is no longer the players who are most culpable, but YOU.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell