Thursday 12th August 2021
THERE’S a comedian on stage somewhere. Most likely in Ayrshire, very possibly in Auchinleck.
“The three most hated things in Auchinleck are Stevie Farrell, Stevie Farrell and Stevie Farrell.”
The punchline of that joke laughs as he recounts it. It’s a reference to a fixture where he has a rich history on one side of Scottish football’s biggest divides.
It’s nearly 10 years since the aforementioned Stevie Farrell was last involved in THE fixture as far as Cumnock FC is concerned.
The meeting of two teams separated by 2.3 miles, and a deep, well-documented rivalry. Cumnock v Auchinleck Talbot is a fixture Stevie played and managed in dozens of times, each and every one of them in the former camp.
“I’d like to think there’s a mutual respect,” he says despite being the butt of the joke, as he recounts being involved in that fixture.
“I worked against them as player and manager – but once the rivalry between them is there, it never leaves you.
“It was a special game to be involved in. There was a Scottish Junior Cup quarter final where the kick-off was delayed, they had police on the pitch, and it was the second highest attendance in Scotland that day, only behind Celtic’s game. It just tells you the fanbase they have.”
It is roughly 100 minutes until Dumbarton play Airdrieonians, a fixture which is rich in rivalry itself. We are sitting at the back of the stand at the Rock – due to ground regulations at the time, we have to be outdoors.
Stevie has been in charge of Sons more than two months, but prior to that, has had 30 almost uninterrupted years in football, as player and manager, in the senior ranks each side of the border, and in Scottish junior football.
A career where on his first-ever start in Scotland, a goalkeeper scored. Campbell Money, his future manager, did so for St Mirren, from the penalty spot.
So our conversation starts at the beginning. Barely 17, Stevie was playing at what is now a Premier League stadium, sent on by a World Cup winner.
Alan Ball was the manager who pitched him in for part of Stoke City’s match away to Watford. The time arrived to come home eventually, but it’s an experience Stevie harbours to this day.
He said: “I was at a number of clubs when I was young, including Rangers and Kilmarnock, and I had a few options.
“But I felt that at the time, at 16, getting away from Scotland, away from the goldfish bowl for something completely new, was the best thing.
“Stoke were a big club in what is now the Championship, and I went there and had a fantastic time. I believe that I remain one of the youngest players to make their debut; certainly one of the youngest 10.
“I did that just after my 17th birthday, against Watford at Vicarage Road, when I came on for Mickey Thomas, the former Wales international.
“I played another couple of games for them. They had a fantastic ground and football life, but also life in general, and it taught me some lessons I carry with me to this day.
“I came back home and I loved it at St Mirren. I played a lot of first team games and Jimmy Bone trusted me, playing me in a midfield three with Paul Lambert and Chic Charnley. We all complemented each other very well.”
There’s a stand-out name among that recollection. One of Stevie’s team-mates went on to win one European trophy, finish runner-up in another continental final, and win many Scotland caps and domestic titles.
Within a few years of lining up alongside Stevie in St Mirren’s midfield, Paul Lambert was turning out for Motherwell, then Borussia Dortmund in Germany, and then Celtic.
Stevie said: “Paul was a different type of player then – he was a box-to-box player. Germany changed him; he’s said that many times.
“Even when he signed for Motherwell, he remained a box-to-box midfielder. When he came back from Germany he was so different, so disciplined. He learned that in his year with Borussia Dortmund.
“I always knew he had fantastic ability, and the other thing he had was an unbelievable desire to play football.
“Myself, he and Norrie McWhirter were friendly and we’d go to sports shops to look at boots and balls; simple things like that. You could see he had a real love of the game.”
Copyright Andy Scott Photos 2021.
Bone was one of three managers Stevie played under at senior level in Scotland – all of them stalwarts of lower league football in the 1990s.
A stint under Alex McAnespie, at his future employers Stranraer, was next after Love Street, and after going junior with Glenafton, it was Stenhousemuir under Terry Christie.
Stevie said: “Jimmy got me into bother because I got sent off against Clydebank one week and had to miss the derby at Cappielow the next.
“I was standing in the dressing room before that game and it was rocking. He just said to me ‘You silly boy’.
“Jimmy was probably the biggest influence on me out of the managers I played senior for in Scotland. I keep in touch with him even now and when I went into management I used to phone him for a chat to bounce things off him.
“I didn’t play a lot for Alex. I wasn’t his type of player, which was fine – I just didn’t fit into the style of football he wanted to play.
“I had a brilliant season under Terry and had it not been for the travelling I would have stayed at Stenny longer.
“Travelling there three or four times a week was difficult, but it was an enjoyable time and I played most games that season.
“But I’d say the biggest influence on my career was Tony Lacey, my first team coach at Stoke. He was a phenomenal coach, way beyond his time.”
After one season at Ochilview, it was back to the junior ranks, never to return to senior as a player. It proved a shrewd move, but any regrets about the time in senior football?
“The fact I wasn’t good enough,” the gaffer said candidly.
“I could play and pass a ball, but I probably lacked a couple of yards when it came to pace, and that was always going to go against me.
“I worked with different coaches and they all felt that if I had a couple of extra yards I would have played senior football a lot longer.
“I went and played at a level where I was a big fish for a long time. I won 28 trophies in six years at Kilwinning. In one season they won six of the seven trophies available and I don’t think it’s ever been done again.
“It just worked. You get that sometimes, for no reason other than players who make a close unit.”
Copyright Andy Scott Photos 2021.
After the Auchinleck/Cumnock gag, we fast forward to March 2009. Money, who scored on Stevie’s first Scottish senior start over 16 years earlier, has just resigned as Cumnock manager.
The board at Townhead Park know who they want as manager. After so long in the junior game as a player, is Stevie ready to be a manager?
Yes is the answer – but there’s one hindsight-aided regret.
Stevie said: “I thought I was ready for it. I was 36 and had enjoyed my career, but I was always interested in coaching from a young age and always saw myself going into it.
“When a club at that level comes and asks you the question, and you know them and have a good feeling being there, it’s an easy decision.
“Derek McInnes once said to me that when he went to St Johnstone, he regretted being player/manager. I also regret it, because it was difficult. It’s something I wouldn’t advise anybody to do.”
Three years later, a return to the seniors beckoned, at a ground where he once played his trade.
It wasn’t as player or manager, but as an experienced assistant to an apprentice in the managerial game
. One Stephen Aitken.
After the duo had served Stranraer and Dumbarton for two years each, Stair Park was calling Stevie again, this time for the chance to be his own boss for the second time.
“I’m not a precious person,” said the gaffer, with time moving on towards the Airdrie match. “I follow my gut and I got the feeling it was the right move to go and work with Stevie at Stair Park.
“Having been a manager for a couple of years, I knew what Stevie would expect of me. I didn’t know him that well before I became his assistant, but when I met with him we shared a lot of philosophies in the way we wanted to treat and coach players.
“Obviously that gave me the affinity with Stranraer. Stevie and I had had four successful years together when I got the call to go back there.
“I felt the challenge of going back there, when they were struggling with not many games left, was one I wanted to take on.
“I wondered if I could turn the ship around, but thankfully I managed it, and when I left I think I was the fourth longest-serving manager in the SPFL.”
It’s almost time, but one last question. Away from the game, Stevie has a big skillset as a trade union professional.
He’s an accredited mediator, helping parties to settle arguments. So does that come in handy as a manager when team-mates don’t see eye to eye?
He said: “A mediator is somebody with common sense and who will ask the two parties to respect each other’s views.
“Players won’t always agree with all of my decisions as manager but the way I put it across hopefully means they respect it.
“These are people. They are sons, partners, husbands, dads – you have to treat them with absolute respect and think about them.”
And with that, it’s off to play Airdrie in a fixture where there are arguments.
But it’s unlikely to feature in any comedians’ routines anytime soon.