In February this year, the Premier League made a rare intervention into one of its clubs’ exalted youth academies, finding evidence of bullying and aggressive behaviour by the Aston Villa coach Kevin MacDonald and a failure by the club to respond when concerns were raised.
The father of a youth-team player had complained about MacDonald, telling the head of the academy, Sean Kimberley, and other staff, that his son had begun to show signs of depression after months of being bullied and emotionally abused by MacDonald, from April 2015 to September 2016. The father was entirely dissatisfied with the club’s desultory response, so he complained to the Premier League. It commissioned an independent review, whose conclusions were communicated to the father by letter. It said: “There is evidence of bullying, aggressive behavior, and unacceptable language by Mr MacDonald.”
The league told the father it had insisted on “sweeping and rigorous measures to improve practice and procedure to ensure that academy player welfare is prioritised” at Aston Villa. MacDonald was referred to the Football Association for further investigation into whether he should continue to work with young footballers or be sanctioned.
Ten months later the father has heard nothing meaningful from the FA. A number of respected staff, including coaches and people in the club’s medical and training departments, left Villa during the period of the alleged bullying, and have had confidentiality clauses incorporated into their settlements. It is understood the FA has been told there was a “toxic culture” at the Villa academy.
Yet MacDonald, the former Leicester City and Liverpool midfield player, a coach at Villa in two stints totalling almost 20 years, is still in place, coach of the club’s under-23 team. Kimberley still occupies his senior role, despite the finding of the Premier League review that staff at the club failed to take responsibility for dealing with the father’s concerns and to focus on players’ welfare. The club says it has made a “significant improvement” since February and rejects the view that there is a toxic culture at the academy.
The father, who wishes to remain anonymous because he believes football’s culture victimises people who speak out so his son could suffer further, is deeply unhappy with the lack of evident accountability.
“It has been 10 months since the Premier League determined there was bullying, but they have given me very little information about what has changed at Aston Villa,” he told the Guardian. “The FA has been extremely slow with its investigation, it is difficult to see what is happening at all, and it has left Kevin MacDonald in place throughout. This sends a signal to me that the English football authorities still believe that bullying and players’ welfare are not serious concerns.”
Many parents of boys in the football academy system are wary of raising concerns, for fear that it will damage their sons’ football career prospects. In that climate, this father has been markedly persistent. He first complained to Kimberley in March last year, that MacDonald’s conduct involved humiliation of players and verbal abuse. The father and his son felt nothing changed as a result, so in May 2016 the father wrote to the club’s human resources department, complaining of verbal and psychological abuse of his son, saying the season had been “hell” for him. His son had suffered from shingles, which he was advised could have been stress-related, and he feared the abuse was “changing his [son’s] character and his mood about the job he has always been so passionate about [football]”.
The club did not keep him informed, then the HR department replied five months later with a brief email, saying: “Following careful consideration of the evidence collected the club has taken the actions it deems are appropriate and the investigation is now closed.”
The father was incensed that Villa had not taken the issue seriously enough, leaving the bullying and culture in place. He then complained to the Premier League, which had jurisdiction because Villa were still mostly in the top flight when the alleged abuse happened, before the club was relegated in May 2016.
In February this year the Premier League wrote to the father with its conclusions. It said it had asked Villa to provide an account of what had happened and “details of what steps had been taken to address your concerns”, but that it had been dissatisfied with the club’s response. So the league commissioned an independent review, and found evidence of bullying by MacDonald. It also found: “There was a failure by several club personnel [who were not named] to take responsibility for dealing with the concerns raised by you and your son.
“The club’s management of your complaint and the concerns raised by you and your son was characterised throughout by a lack of focus on player welfare, failure by the club to implement its procedures and poor communication.”
The Premier League told the father that it had given Villa advice, then said: “The club has demonstrated improvement under new management [the Chinese businessman Tony Xia took over in May 2016] with a renewed emphasis being placed on safeguarding and welfare.”
The Premier League said it had “made representations regarding Mr MacDonald’s conduct” to the FA, and “any investigation or sanction in relation to Mr MacDonald” was an issue for the FA.
Ten months later Kevin MacDonald is still the under-23 coach at Aston Villa, Kimberley the head of the academy, and there has been no discernible sanction or accountability from them or anybody else at the club. The process since February illuminates how football works.
The FA investigators are understood to have spoken to several people and been told that there was a toxic culture around the Villa academy, not restricted to allegations about MacDonald. Staff who left with confidentiality agreements have been assured by Aston Villa, on the Premier League’s insistence, that an exception is made for safeguarding concerns, which they must report.
The father hoped the FA would conduct a wider investigation, but in fact the Premier League is responsible for licensing its clubs’ academies; the FA’s role is limited to the defined issue of safeguarding.
The FA declined to comment, as it says it is still conducting an investigation, but it is clear the FA has assessed MacDonald not to be a safeguarding risk, so left him free to continue his role.
The Premier League says it has representatives inspecting Villa’s academy to make sure the required improvements have been made: “Following a complaint and a subsequent investigation, the Premier League insisted that Aston Villa make a number of significant changes to the club’s safeguarding policies and practices,” the league said in a statement. “The club agreed to these changes and the league has sent independent monitors to their academy on several occasions, including unannounced visits this season, to ensure they are now in place.”
Aston Villa said it is clear that the FA has found “no concerns over the welfare of children” within its academy and rejected allegations of a toxic culture. The club said it cooperated fully with the Premier League’s investigation, had made changes to the structure and people at the academy, and “believe there has been a significant improvement under a new management structure at the top level of the club.
“Unannounced visits from the Premier League have highlighted and confirmed improvements have been made.”
Villa said they prided themselves on the number of young players they have produced in recent times, citing Gary Cahill, Gareth Barry and Marc Albrighton, then Jack Grealish and Andre Green, and more recent graduates Keinan Davis, Callum O’Hare and Jake Doyle-Hayes. The Villa hierarchy clearly appear to value MacDonald and believe that his methods have played a key role in such players coming through.
Pete Lowe of the Players Trust, an independent not-for-profit organisation which helped the young player’s father pursue his case, said the results remain unsatisfactory: “If this concerned parent had not persisted and the Premier League’s independent review had not happened, the culture it found would still be in place,” Lowe said. “There is no indication given in this case that enough has really changed, and a signal is being sent that this issue of players’ welfare, which should have the highest priority, is not being taken seriously enough.”
Which, combined with the general air of secrecy, adds fuel to the growing calls for an independent body to be responsible for the welfare of young people making their way in the fiercely competitive and ruthless world of sport.