'Jack’s in a wheelchair, he can’t talk, he can’t eat, but lives every day to its fullest' - The tragic ex-Portsmouth and Southampton triallist who defies doctors and inspires his home city

Jack Farrugia toasted the 30th birthday he wasn’t expected to see with a bottle of Birra Moretti he physically shouldn’t have been able to consume.

Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 6:00 pm
Jack Farrugia continues to battle after suffering severe brain damage in a car accident in 2008. Pictured with mother Lorraine, brother Joe and father Laurence. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Further defiance was demonstrated by an energetic turn on the dance floor, particularly upon the introduction of the Kaiser Chiefs to the celebrations.

The belligerent Farrugia has spent more than a decade defying medical opinion, a stubbornness which truly inspires.

Once a highly-promising footballer invited for trials at Pompey, Southampton and Bournemouth, he has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering severe brain damage in November 2008.

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A car accident left him in an induced coma for more than a month, with doctors warning the 17-year-old may never pull through.

It would be three years of hospitalisation before Farrugia was allowed to return to his Baffins home, albeit rendered unable to speak, drink, eat or swallow.

Yet in October 2018, the former Havant & Waterlooville defender participated in the Great South Run.

And last month, 70 friends and family gathered in Roko’s function room to raise a glass to a landmark birthday – and laud a remarkable man who refuses to be beaten.

Jack Farrugia featured for the Hawks' first-team after emerging through non-league club's Academy. Picture: Dave Haines

‘If you had seen Jack in hospital after the crash, you wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong with him,’ Jack’s dad, Laurence, told The News.

‘His face was fine, albeit a little cut here and there, yet in order to relieve the brain and reduce the swelling, he was sedated and put into a self-induced coma.

‘They asked if Jack should die, would we want him to be resuscitated? That was one of the worst moments.

‘He was aged 17 at the time, that’s all. There was no way we could sanction a crash team not administering life-saving techniques to our son, not at that age.

Pompey season-ticket holder Jack Farrugia captured at Fratton Park on Saturday, a match the Blues lost 2-1 to Cambridge United. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘With science, we felt there could be advances in modern medicine to help him, you just don’t know what’s around the corner.

‘I am pretty sure on quite a few occasions it was touch and go with Jack. The worst-case scenario was mentioned by doctors.

‘It must have been 3-4 weeks into his coma before a consultant took us into a room at Queen Alexandra Hospital to tell us Jack would have severe brain damage for the rest of his life. It was the first time somebody could confidently tell us the prognosis.

‘They couldn’t be certain, he was so heavily sedated that they needed to wait for the effects of the drugs to wear off on the brain before they could be sure of the extent of damage.

Jack Farrugia (before the accident) attending Pompey's 2008 FA Cup final win over Cardiff City at Wembley.

‘The consultant said he hoped he was wrong about the severity, but was pretty sure he wasn’t. They were right.

‘Jack was told this would be a new life now and he must adapt accordingly. To tell the truth, I think he has done a lot better than they thought he would.

‘When we went to the High Court over his insurance payment, it was said Jack’s life expectancy would be another 10 years. It has been 13 years already – and he’s doing all right.’

Towering at 6ft 3in and powerfully built, Farrugia possessed strong attributes for a central defender, dovetailed with a natural talent which had brought him to the attention of youth set-ups at Pompey, Southampton and Bournemouth.

Yet it was as skipper of Havant & Waterlooville’s Academy where his career began to flourish, bursting into the Blue Square South club’s first-team during the early part of the 2008-09 campaign.

Aged just 17 years and 51 days, he was granted a debut against Vosper Thornycroft in the Hampshire Senior Cup, lining-up alongside former Spurs and Pompey man Guy Butters in the centre of defence.

Jack Farrugia with Pompey players Paul Downing and John Marquis at Stoney Beach Barbershop, Marmion Road, Southsea, which is owned by his brother, Joe

He was also an unused substitute as the Hawks pulled off an eye-catching 3-0 triumph at Steve Evans’ Crawley in the FA Cup to qualify for the First Round proper.

Their reward was hosting League Two Brentford at Westleigh Park, with the fixture switched to a Sunday to accommodate live broadcast by the BBC.

A delighted Farrugia had been informed by manager Shaun Gale that he would be on the bench for the grand occasion.

The following day, he was wearing a seat belt as a front passenger when the car in which he was travelling collided with a stationary van on Tangier Road, Baffins.

The driver and backseat passenger walked away. Farrugia’s injuries were life-changing.

Dad Laurence added: ‘As a footballer, we felt Jack was just beginning to come into his own.

‘I suppose most mums and dads would say that, but he was definitely quite promising.

‘There were a few trials at Pompey, while he spent eight weeks training with Southampton one summer. We turned down a Bournemouth trial because of the distance, while they were League Two at the time.

‘Yet Jack was starting to be noticed at Havant. The captain of the youth team, a respected player and valuable person within the dressing room, he was a well-considered lad.

‘That Thursday night at training, I was outside in the car waiting. Everybody else had left the changing room, but he was taking his time for some reason.

‘I soon learnt the manager had taken him to one side to tell him about being involved against Brentford. Jack was so excited.

‘Although it was a home match, Havant wanted to prepare like a professional side, which meant getting on a coach, training elsewhere on the Saturday and staying overnight at a hotel.

‘Unfortunately, Jack couldn’t take part.’

In October 2018, Farrugia’s refusal to be defined by his condition saw him enter the Great South Run.

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The former Milton Cross School pupil’s participation involved navigating the Saturday event’s 5k distance in his electric wheelchair – yet not for the entirety.

Almost 10 years after told he would be unable to walk again, Jack left his wheelchair to negotiate the final 100 metres on foot, using a frame and assistance from his support crew.

A Facebook video of the feat has, to date, attracted more than 54,000 views, while the JustGiving campaign he launched raised £899 for the Wessex Neurological Centre, based at the University Hospital Southampton.

It’s an emotive recollection for Joe Farrugia, who lives with his older brother in a specially-converted Drayton bungalow.

And the owner of Stoney Beach Barbershop, in Southsea, is immensely proud of his sibling's indefatigable joy for life.

‘Thinking about my brother completing the Great South Run still gives me shivers,’ said Joe.

‘During the time Jack has been disabled, that is probably the moment which made me say “Wow”. To have the fight and courage to do that was unbelievable.

‘He trained 2-3 months to complete the last 50m by foot, but ended up walking 100m.

‘Afterwards, I have never seen him so happy. It almost gave him a new lease of life, he’s now so enthusiastic about doing things like that.

‘I took part in the Great South Run the following day and was struggling, I don’t mind admitting it. Then I thought of Jack – that got me over the finish line.

‘I live with him, I see him every day, and each one of those days he is smiling. Always.

‘Jack may have a bad day where he’s a bit angry and upset, but the majority of the time he is smiling and he is happy. I find that incredible for a guy who has been through so much and is still going through it now.

‘Should I ever have a bad day, I tell myself “Look, it could be a lot worse”. If Jack can get up and have a smile on his face, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t.

‘That’s always my little pick me up, my motivation. I’ve struggled in the past with things, such as coming to terms with Jack and his situation, then I see that smile.

‘The other week, his carers took him on a five-day holiday, involving stadium tours of Liverpool and Manchester United football clubs. He came back super happy.

‘Jack’s in a wheelchair, he can’t talk and he can’t eat, but he really does live every day to its fullest.’

Farrugia, who also suffers from epileptic seizures, requires 24-hour care, with duties shared between a group of 10 carers.

It took a five-year battle to be able to fund the lifetime of care necessary for the former South Downs College student.

The 18-year-old driver involved in Jack’s accident admitted at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court to careless driving, prompting magistrates to issue a £200 fine and 12-month driving ban.

The car driver’s insurer, Quinn Insurance Ltd, would admit liability, although argued against the value of the claim, ensuring the dispute ended up at London’s High Court.

In April 2014, the Farrugias won £10m damages following a four-day hearing, with the judge praising the family’s tireless devotion to their disabled son.

‘Even with his injury, there is a chink of his personality which comes out. The old Jack is still there,’ dad Laurence added.

‘With a head injury, the mental age goes down, you become a bit like a child, but he remains the old Jack in a funny sort of way.

‘He possesses such incredible fighting spirit and determination. Jack hasn’t given up, he will still persevere with things. That’s why the Great South Run was so important to him.

‘You explain things to him, you introduce an exercise to make him better at certain things – and he always tries his hardest to carry them out.

‘At the moment, the only thing he’s got are hopes and dreams, but he’s pushing hard and we are making advances. It will only be very, very small improvements, but we’ll just keep on putting achievable goals in front of him.

‘For instance, he is unable to eat or drink through his mouth, but now he’s starting to swallow a lot better, which is encouraging.

‘When you and I swallow, we almost do it involuntarily, and, with it occurring at the back of your throat, it allows your food to go down. Jack doesn’t have a lot of control over that, so consequently food would go down into his lungs, making him choke.

‘Through swallowing exercises since lockdown, he can now have mashed-up Christmas dinner or a roast, while also have a beer occasionally.

‘Don’t get me wrong, the carers are very watchful, a little is poured into his mouth onto the tongue. It gives Jack a real sense of normality, just bringing him back into normal life.

‘He also had a bottle of lager for his 30th birthday, which was fitting. The whole evening showed the progress he has made.

‘Unfortunately, we have never identified the right communication aid to truly benefit Jack. We have to rely on thumbs up and thumbs down.

‘We’ve tried quite a few things, but haven’t hit upon it just yet. I’m sure there are advances out there we just don’t know about.

‘But the good thing about Jack is he has time on the side, you never know what is around the corner. He still has plenty of living to do.’

Last weekend’s visit of Cambridge United marked Jack’s maiden return to his beloved Fratton Park following the coronavirus outbreak.

A Pompey season-ticket holder since the age of seven, he was present with his dad at Wembley for the 2008 FA Cup final triumph.

On Saturday, brother Joe accompanied him in the Fratton end’s disabled section, where they witnessed Danny Cowley’s men slump to a dismal 2-1 loss, an outcome greeted by a crescendo of boos across the ground.

Jack shared the agony, then that smile returned.

Joe added: ‘Jack’s my big brother, growing up I looked up to him, I always wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a footballer because I knew Jack was a footballer. I wanted to be just like him.

‘When this happened, it made me look at things a little differently. At first it became hard to visualise how he is, but now I’m completely at peace with it.

‘I speak to Jack and, even though he can’t talk and tell me how he is feeling, I can still understand. A nod of his head, putting his thumb up, or a facial expression – he is telling me things.

‘He’s my big brother, he will always be my big brother. He’s my inspiration.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Jack Farrugia aged 17 after breaking into the Hawks' first-team squad in October 2008
Jack Farrugia pictured at his Drayton home with dad Laurence and brother Joe. Picture: Habibur Rahman