GARETH Farrelly, once regarded as one of Aston Villa's brightest young stars, knows he is probably going to Wembley tomorrow just for the ride.

A place on the subs' bench is the best he can hope for but he isn't grumbling. He's in the squad, knows he could have some part to play and...well, people are talking to him again.

"It sounds crazy but that's how it is," says the likeable Dubliner. "People ask me how are things different here than they were at Everton and one of the biggest changes is that people say 'Hello' to me in the morning. That in itself is a bonus!"

Farrelly has not had a lot to smile about since he left Villa for Everton in what was seen at the time as a £900,000 dream transfer. He was, as he explains, an Evertonian and he hoped to be playing a part in Howard Kendall's Blue revolution.

But after winning a tense relegation fight - his goal in the 1-1 draw with Coventry on the last day of the 1997-98 season actually sent Wanderers' down - Kendall was sacked, Walter Smith took over and he never played a first team game again. Not only that, he was effectively shunned, trained with the kids and had to make special arrangements of his own to keep himself fit.

He describes those Goodison days as 'purgatory'.

No wonder he's enjoying life again - even after a traumatic start to his Bolton career.

"I wondered what was going on," he admits, looking back on his sensational debut when he scored with his first kick to help Wanderers to a morale boosting 2-1 win at Sheffield United.

"I scored the goal on Sunday and on Monday sat down at home thinking things were finally starting to look up. Then my dad dropped dead on the Thursday!

"Christmas I picked up a little injury, then I came back, got sent off in the reserves, served my suspension, came back again...but I'm feeling settled again now and looking forward to being an integral part of things here. And I'm enjoying myself."

Farrelly may not have realised it at the time but he has a lot to thank Villa for. He worked under John Gregory, who was a coach in those days before he left to manage Wycombe Wanderers, and won six international caps for the Republic of Ireland as his career blossomed alongside the likes of Ian Taylor and Alan Wright who will be in the Villa side tomorrow. But even those formative years were not without their problems.

"I was young and I fought with the coach, Kevin McDonald, every day," he recalls, "but at least now I can turn round and say he made me a better player because of the things he taught me and the principles he was trying to get across. With hindsight at least he made me a better footballer."

He is not alone in acknowledging that Wanderers will be the underdogs but that doesn't worry him.

"Villa are expected to win hands down but there are a few other teams who have played us this season and thought they were going to do that as well!

"We have some good players here, don't forget that, and on the day we can give them as good a run as they are going to get. They've got a system, players who are well suited to that system and world class players who can produce something special. But Wembley is a great stage and we have people who can cause them any number of problems and, hopefully, they will."

Farrelly has high hopes that, having been made to feel wanted by Sam Allardyce, he has a bright future at the Reebok and, regardless of tomorrow's events, believes there is still plenty to play for this season.

"The six point gap is there and that's a fact we can't get away from," he acknowledges, assessing the magnitude of the task, "but, with a bit of luck, we can still sneak into the last spot in the play-offs. Then anything can happen."

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.