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'I promised her it wasn’t the end for me. Even if the surgery didn’t work and my career was over'

In this extract from his memoir, Lisburn native and former Newcastle footballer Paul Ferris recalls one of the darkest periods in his life.

Paul Ferris, Newcastle United.
Paul Ferris, Newcastle United.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Boy on the Shed by Paul Ferris.

‘What’s happening with the football?’

That was the question I dreaded most and the one I was asked the most. I dreaded it because I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know what was happening with the football because nothing was happening with the football. Not until I’d had my surgery at least.

That was due for the end of January 1987 and provided me with some hope at least that I could begin to rebuild my shattered career. But my mother’s rapidly deteriorating health took my mind fully off my minor problems.

She was standing by the hearth when I walked into the living room. Her hair was almost white. She was bent over and this made her look even smaller than her 4 foot 11 inch frame. She wore no make-up and her smile was replaced by the haunted hollow look of someone who was in chronic pain.

Her new teeth, the ones she’d told me about on the phone, looked too big for her mouth and her thin lips were losing their battle to keep them hidden. I felt a knot in my stomach and suppressed an urge to gasp when I entered the living room. I couldn’t wait for everyone else to leave so that I could speak with her.

I made her some tea after everyone had gone to bed and sat beside her on the settee. ‘I’m really worried about you. Please don’t tell me lies about the situation. I know it’s bad – I only have to look at you to know that. You don’t look like yourself. You’re in pain. I feel helpless. I love you more than anything else in this world. You’re special to me and you always have been and always will be. I need you to know that and never forget it. My heart is breaking to see you like this, son.’

I sat my cup on the floor. She was worried about me? I was more terrified than ever that I was going to lose her and I couldn’t bear the thought of that. Especially not now. Not when everything was such a mess. It was typical of her. She looked like a walking corpse and 20 years older than she was. We talked long into the night and ignored the birds signalling the beginning of a new day.

I told her the truth about my predicament and my hopes that my surgery would be a fresh start. All wasn’t lost for me. It wasn’t until we were getting ready to go to bed that I noticed.

‘You haven’t had a cigarette all night?’ She smiled and exposed her enormous teeth then put her hand over her mouth to hide them.

‘I haven’t smoked for a month. I’m seeing a new doctor. She’s changed my tablets and says if I lose two stone I can have a bypass. She says I’ll be much better than I am now. My heart is badly damaged but she’ll clear my vessels and I should be able to walk better and I’ll feel better. So it looks like surgery is going to sort us both out.’

It was like the clamp that’d been around my chest all night and for most of my life had been released. She was getting surgery after all these years.

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All my childhood sleepless nights and frantic prayers to her God begging him not to take her when deep down I was devoid of hope. And now He’d listened. Now He was going to let her stay. She was looking worse than I’d ever seen her and yet there was finally some hope. I enjoyed my Christmas at home in spite of the uncertainty about my career. It seemed insignificant now that I knew that she had a chance of a longer and better life.

That she might still be here to see my children born and grow was the best Christmas present I could ever wish for. I spoilt the moment by asking her to put her old teeth in while I was at home. She was annoyed but she did it anyway. When the holidays were over I hugged her in the tiny hall.

It was the middle of the night and I held on in the darkness until Geraldine’s father came to the door for the second time to say we were going to be late. I promised her it wasn’t the end for me. Even if the surgery didn’t work and my career was over. I promised I would fight. I would make her proud of me. She promised to never smoke again. To hang on. To be here and see my children grow.

I had my surgery at the end of January. I hadn’t been mad after all. My medial ligament had been avulsed from the bone at the upper attachment on the first occasion and had been repeatedly doing so on all the other occasions.

The surgeon drilled holes in my bone and reattached it as best he could. It would always be ‘lax’ but might be good enough for me to play at a high level. My cruciate ligament had also been fully or partially ruptured. He couldn’t tell because scar tissue was now keeping it in place and would do the job of supporting my knee when twisting and turning.

My mother called me every night after the surgery. I was recuperating with my leg in plaster at Mrs Bell’s. She called at six o’ clock every night but tonight was different. She called late. After seven. She was upset. Really upset. She was crying and she never cried. Not to me anyway. My brother Tony was having problems in his marriage. It looked like it was over. I tried to calm her down but it was pointless.

Catholic mothers are conditioned to believe they’ve failed their children if their children fail at marriage. She was adamant it was her fault. Something she’d done wrong. I told her to go and make a cup of tea and call me later when she’d calmed down. I hung up and walked my crutches through to the kitchen to make some tea of my own. My mother hung up and made herself a cup of tea too. And then she died.

The Boy on the Shed by Paul Ferris (Hodder & Stoughton) was shortlisted for the 2018 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. The paperback is published on 10 January 2019… More info here.

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