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'My career finished with injury and the thing I feared most, my mother dying, happened at that moment... I was 21'

Paul Ferris on adapting to life as a former footballer.

Paul Ferris became Newcastle United's youngest-ever player in 1982.
Paul Ferris became Newcastle United's youngest-ever player in 1982.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IT IS OFTEN true of sports autobiographies that the bigger the star, the more unreadable the book tends to be.

When a sporting legend looks back on his career, he has plenty to lose by telling his story, with various sensitive subjects likely to go unexplored and often, he or she has received so much media exposure already that the public is overly familiar with the athlete in question.

Consequently, some of the most memorable books of recent years have been published by less high-profile sporting figures — people who do not feel the need to keep aspects of their life concealed and are less guarded as a result.

It is true of Eamonn Magee, who while talented, was never a megastar, and yet has just released one of the most acclaimed sports books of the year. And it is also the case with Paul Ferris, the former Newcastle footballer, whose superbly written ‘The Boy on the Shed’ autobiography was shortlisted for the prestigious William Hill prize and also recently was named The Sunday Times’ Sports Book of the Year.

And like so many of Ferris’ achievements in life, it was a moment of darkness which inspired the former winger to undertake and ultimately succeed in this arduous challenge.

At 48, Ferris suffered a near-fatal heart attack that put his life into perspective.

“It was almost a lost voice in my head, this childhood that I had forgotten and had buried,” he tells The42.

“I thought I needed to start thinking about those things and letting my children know who their dad and mum were.

“The title and the germ of the idea came from my mum having her own heart attack when I was five. I just left it aside and didn’t want to know. When she came back from the hospital, she was a bit less than she was before.

“So I used to climb up on my shed behind the house. I’d tell myself I’d look after her and look over her and that God wouldn’t kill her, so that’s how I got the title ‘The Boy on the Shed.’

“Then the rest of the story just flew from there, about my childhood and the Troubles. Growing up in Ireland, things you had forgotten and maybe things you don’t want to remember. The easiest thing in the world would be just to write about my time at Newcastle United, but what I wanted to write about was my family, my life, my mum, leaving home and those things that shaped me.

I found it very simple once I sat down to write. I could kind of lose myself. Hours and hours would pass. I’d think: ‘I have to stop and take a breath here.’

“The bits that flowed the best were the bits about family and home and the bits that I am deeply passionate about. The harder bits to write were around the football side of things. Part of me thought ‘if the book is going to get a publisher, it might need more football in it,’ but every other bit of me wanted to say, ‘don’t do that, just write what you want to write’.

“Some bits were incredibly painful to write and you’re very emotional when you’re writing it. It wasn’t difficult in terms of finding the words, it’s just difficult to put the words on the page, because you bring up old emotions and old feelings.

“I surprised myself in terms of how much of myself I wanted to put in it. I thought I might be a bit more guarded, but when you’re sitting down to write it, I think you have a duty to put your heart and soul onto the page and see if people feel it.”

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Born in Lisburn in 1965, the twin traumas of the Troubles and the possibility of his mother dying haunted Ferris’ childhood. At the time, he did not regard it as an especially difficult upbringing. It is only when reflecting on events now that he sees the damage inflicted on him as a youngster.

“When you look back and start to write it, undoubtedly there are difficulties in terms of the society that you’re in and the circumstances that you find yourself in. As much as there were difficulties around the Troubles, the biggest difficulty was my mother’s illness. When you’re a young child and you’re five years of age, you’re frightened that the person you love most in the world could be gone at any moment. I think that’s a pretty traumatic thing for any child to experience and I’ve carried it with me sadly.

“That fear she would go and then eventually she did. That black hole you find yourself in that anyone who has experienced grief, the loss of a mother or a partner, understands. That was difficult, and the Troubles all around it too that weren’t in our home until it came into our home and our house was petrol bombed and that manifested itself in bed wetting and that sort of thing, which can be an indication of a child in distress.

It’s hard to get over [these traumas], because my family were good people, my mother and father were good people. Like any mum and dad, they were interested in giving us the best life they could. To think that someone would throw something into your home that would potentially kill some of those people who are pure innocent, that someone could take that, it does trouble you.

“I still have vivid memories of coming down the stairs in my underpants and watching, as I call it, our good room on fire and watching my mum and dad and my heavily pregnant sister with buckets of water, standing in a chain trying to pass the water along to get the flames out of the house. A lot of other harrowing things happened with my brothers and my parents. We’re not the only people that suffered. It unfortunately happened to lots of innocent people who just didn’t deserve it.

“My biggest fear now when I look at what’s happening in the world — we’ve moved on and 20 years seems a long time — perhaps people from this generation of politicians forget how brutal and horrific it was for people on all sides of the community. Because they forget, they allow politics to get in the way again, and become entrenched in their views.

“We’ve moved so far away from it, but the underlying thing is still there, and if people don’t take care, then it could slip back. I sincerely hope it doesn’t, because I wouldn’t want future generations to live through what my generation lived through.”

Soccer - Today League Division One - Newcastle United Photocall The Newcastle 1986 team photo. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

The spectre of his late parents and in particular, Ferris’ mother, looms large over the book. An immensely gifted footballer, at just 16 years old, he joined Newcastle from Lisburn Youth. Despite making swift progress over in England, the teenager struggled badly with homesickness. His mother’s ill-health and the constant concern for her well-being exacerbated this sense of alienation.

“My father was a hard worker and a bright man, but never had the opportunity of an education,” he recalls. “He was always someone who seemed to know an awful lot about everything, but he was proud of his family. I was the youngest of seven children and my mother had her first heart attack when I was five, and her second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh before I was 12, including a cardiac arrest.

“I think there was a bond that developed there through fear. Fear on her part that she wasn’t going to be there for me, and fear on my part that I was going to lose the biggest guiding hand that was in my life. She was just tiny in stature, small in body, but an incredible spirit.

Sometimes when I’m telling my kid something now or trying to guide him in a certain way, I can hear her voice in my head still. To have that still is a comfort for me, even though she left me such a long time ago, her influence is still there.

“And in terms of being a footballer, my father was never someone who went around shouting at the side of the pitch, but he took quiet pride in it. If anything, when the opportunity came to go away from home, certainly in my mother’s case, she would have loved to have kept me with her I’m sure. But she said, you need to go, you need to take the opportunity and you need to get out of here. I’m sure it broke her heart as it did mine when I left.” 

Ferris continues: “I was very young when I went over. I was starting my O Levels, so I went over in November, played with the first team in May, and came home and sat my O Levels in June.

“I was very timid and very shy, but I think when my football career finished with injury and the thing I feared most was my mother dying, happened at that moment, those two things happening at the same time, at 21 years of age, I think shaped my life. You think this is going to go one of two ways. I’ve been dealt a horrific hand here.

“I think the strength of my then-girlfriend, she would be have been encouraging me to get into college and try to find another way. People say to me you’ve tried this and you’ve tried that. Those events happened at the same time and I’ve never feared anything else in my life after that. Anything else I can cope with.”

Soccer - Barclay's League Division One - Derby County Photocall Arthur Cox handed Ferris his Newcastle debut. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

A teenage prodigy, Ferris was Newcastle’s youngest-ever player when he made his debut in 1982.

“I was very homesick, but every time I played for the youth team or the reserves, the manager Arthur Cox came along and was very encouraging. And I knew that I was doing very well. Towards the end of the season, he just came to me and said: ‘You’re going to play some part tomorrow.’

“I was very young. On the day itself, we were playing Blackburn Rovers away from home. I rocked into the stadium and there must have been 15 telegrams and they were all for me.

“My family couldn’t make it because of the short notice and probably because they couldn’t afford it. But I remember sitting on the bench thinking: ‘Is it going to happen?’ Maybe 15 minutes before the end of the game, he said ‘go and get warmed up’.

“There’s genuine excitement when there’s something on the line for you. I replaced a guy who turned out to be a great name, Chris Waddle. We didn’t win the game and I don’t remember much about the game apart from trying to take on everybody on the pitch when I came on.”

There were some very talented players in the Newcastle team at the time. Ferris describes Peter Beardsley as the best footballer he ever played with, while a young Paul Gascoigne was also coming through the ranks.

When I first met him, [Gazza] was a little chubby lad with great ability. But when he got to 16-18, he got himself in really good shape and started to develop and you could see quite clearly that there was something incredibly special about him.

“Personality wise, he was kind, very funny, always a practical joker, always wanting to entertain. I wouldn’t say a bad word about him. I think he’s an incredible character.

“But he did have those traits of obsessive behaviour, maybe a little tick here and there. You think: ‘Oh, what’s happened there?’ That maybe has manifested itself in other ways for him.” 

While Arthur Cox handed him a first-team debut, it was under Jack Charlton that Ferris would score his only goal for the club amid a handful of appearances. Having enjoyed some success in previous stints in charge of Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday, the England World Cup winner seemed like a solid choice as manager, though he would depart after just one season and a 14th-place finish in the First Division, beginning his much-vaunted stint as Ireland manager a year later.

“He followed on from the previous manager Arthur Cox, who was a certain type of manager,” Ferris remembers. “Very sergeant major, but very detailed in everything. Jack was a very different character. He had very strong ideas. He would pop on the training field with a pair of corduroy trousers and loafers and a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigar in the other, and would stand coaching that way, which is unusual to see when you’re 17 or 18.

“He tried to impart a different philosophy on the football team and I don’t think the team responded to it very well. It was actually the philosophy that he then took on to the Irish team, who did respond to it very well.

“That style of play he tried to take on with Newcastle and I just didn’t think it worked. You hear the expression ‘larger-than-life character,’ there’s no question he was that.

“Maybe he was ahead of his time in that he knew the system he wanted to play and if you didn’t do it, you weren’t going to be around the place.”

Soccer - Canon League Division One - West Ham United v Newcastle United - Upton Park Charlton spent just a season as manager of Newcastle. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Not long after Charlton left, Ferris also departed the club. A medial ligament injury curtailed his meteoric rise and he was never the same player again, with a brief and ultimately fruitless attempt to resurrect his career in non-league football thereafter. The disappointment with this awful misfortune remains palpable in his voice.

“I was always around the first team and was going to go the right way, but then the injury happened — you didn’t realise at the time, you’re in the room, but you’re disappearing. You’re no longer central to it, because you’re not any use to the coach anymore and you’re not part of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis, so you’re actually turning up in the building, but you’re slipping away. I knew I wasn’t right and I knew I couldn’t stop it and I knew it was slipping away.

“It’s what you’ve done since you’re six or seven years old, and you’ve played in the first team since you were 16, and you’re still in the first team at 19, and you know that’s going to go.

You’re almost grieving for what was before. Who cares about a footballer who is injured? You can’t contribute. The supporters don’t see you on the pitch, they don’t know what you’re doing. The coach will see you at the training ground but he doesn’t really think about you. And the players just come in and say ‘hello’ to you, because you’re someone who’s always in the treatment room.

“You’re still in the room but you’re no longer doing the job and it is painful for it to slip away like that, because you don’t want to be looking back on your life going: ‘Oh, look what I could have been. I could have could have been a contender.’ I knew the opportunity was there for me and sadly, it slipped through my fingers.

“The difficulty in my case was I injured my knee. I knew it was a very severe injury. I knew at the time, because you listen to your body. When I went to see a surgeon, he said it was only a minor six-week injury and it didn’t feel that way at the time to me. Three years later, I was still experiencing problems with it and it was only two and a half years later that I had surgery on my knee — it was two and a half years too late.

“By that stage, you’re out of the game and even then, when I had the surgery, it never really sorted itself out, my ligaments.

“But in modern times, you probably would have surgery within six weeks and be back within six months as good as new, no question.” 

SOCCER Ferris describes Peter Beardsley as the best footballer he ever played with. Source: EMPICS Sport

In that era in particular, the support services for players who retired, prematurely or otherwise, were virtually non-existent. With his career over, Ferris faced a major battle to forge a new life outside of football.

“Every single thing I had to do, I had to do myself,” he says. “If I had chosen to sit and wallow, then I would have sat and wallowed for the rest of my life. No one would have picked you up by the scruff of the neck and given you help or guidance.

“It could have gone horribly wrong, because you’re so disappointed and so dejected by what’s happened, and you have so few tools and so little experience to do anything. After I left the football club, I sent off an application to get a job at a sports shop and I got rejected because I had no O levels. I couldn’t get a job.

“It was only after going back and doing some O levels [that I fared better], but that takes a lot of sacrifice and hard work, and not everybody’s able to do that. I’d like to think there are better support systems in place [for ex-footballers now], I can’t believe it would be as bad as that.”

While many people in his position have struggled to turn their lives around and suffered unduly, Ferris was resilient enough to thrive from unpromising circumstances.

Education transformed my life,” he says. “I walked in the door of a further education college and said: ‘Look, I want to do some A levels.’ They asked: ‘Do you have any O levels?’ I said: ‘No.’ ‘Well you can’t do any A levels.’ I asked: ‘What have you now?’ ‘You’ve got to do this foundation course to show you can read and write basically.’ So I did this foundation course, and then I did my A levels. And then I had to wait to do my degree.

“So it was a long slog. But once I got into the education system, I got the bug for it and even when I was at Newcastle as a physio later on, I got a bit disillusioned, it was education I turned to, to try to find another way in my life.”

Improbably, Ferris found himself back at St James’ Park, working as a club physio, just seven years after he left. The year was 1993 and Kevin Keegan was the manager, with the club on the verge of one of the most memorable periods in their history, most notably narrowly missing out on the Premier League title amid a breathtaking finish to the 1995-96 season.

“I’d never thought there would be an opportunity to come back,” he says. “When I went to do my physio degree, it was to go and work in hospitals, it wasn’t to work in Newcastle United.”

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Liverpool v Newcastle United Ferris helped Alan Shearer recover from a serious injury. Source: EMPICS Sport

During his second stint at Newcastle, Ferris struck up a bond with one of the best and most famous players in the club’s history, Alan Shearer. The England international joined his boyhood club for a world-record transfer fee of £15 million in July 1996, and after a successful first season, suffered a serious injury that halted his progress.

“He was maybe the greatest centre forward in the world, or very close to it, at that particular point,” Ferris remembers. “He was at the top of his game and all of a sudden, he’s got a serious problem, where [it looked as if] he may well not come back the same as he was before, or he may never come back.

“You’re dealing with someone who the fans and I watch all the time as being a very strong character. His biggest attribute is his mental strength, no question about it. But when he’s injured, that’s not who that person is anymore.

“And in my case, half the battle was keeping him engaged and keeping him motivated and enjoying training. He would almost think we were having fun together, but that’s while making sure we know what we’re doing and what he needs to get from it. And that’s the same for the whole six or seven months you’re with him.

He comes out the other end of it and you get to watch him walk on the pitch and score a goal in his first game back, the pleasure you get from that is hard to describe.

“By far, rehabilitating him, getting to know him, him getting to know me is probably the highlight of my whole time, both as a physio and a player, in 18 years in football. I regard it as a great privilege.”

Ferris adds that maintaining a positive public outlook, notwithstanding private doubts, is key to being successful as a physio.

“When this person’s looking at you and asking: ‘Am I going to be okay?’ The only answer is: ‘Of course you are. Don’t be so silly. It’s all a process and it will take care of itself. And we’ll get there, and at some point, this doubt you had won’t be there anymore.’

“At the time, he’s asking the question, you know he’s got a long journey ahead of him and it can go right, and it can go wrong. But in any walk of life, if someone asks: ‘Will I be okay?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to give them encouragement even when you don’t know the answer. There’s no point in them having doubts at that point. You’ve got to just be as positive as you can. If something isn’t right at that particular point, later on, then you can deal with it.”

SOCCER /Gullit Ruud Gullit famously fell out with Alan Shearer during his time as manager of Newcastle. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Excluding caretakers, Ferris worked under five managers at Newcastle and there is one who comes across particularly badly — former Chelsea, Milan and Netherlands player Ruud Gullit, whose year-long stint with the Magpies was blighted by abject results and off-the-field controversy.

Gullit had an infamous falling out with Shearer, and as a result of his friendship with the latter, Ferris got caught in the crossfire. 

“I’d love to know his views of when he walked in the door and what he was really trying to achieve,” Ferris says of Gullit. “For me, it was quite obvious that some of the things he was saying were never going to endear him to players at Newcastle United. You come from Milan and London, and you give the impression that you’re coming from Milan and London, and that Newcastle is some backwater place. You’re not going to endear yourself to people. And for whatever reason, it almost felt like he wanted to take on the senior players.

You’re looking at it and thinking: ‘Why would you do that?’ They’re your assets and the people you’re going to fight for. It felt like he was the wrong manager at the wrong football club. There was stuff about him and Alan Shearer falling out, but it wasn’t just that, it was kind of with lots of senior players. Maybe there was an element of him being a great player [looking down on lesser footballers] and he was one of the greatest players in the world.

“I think he was young. I’ve never been a manager, so I don’t know how difficult it is, but it felt to me, [upsetting] the very players that could help him achieve, I couldn’t understand it.

“I had rehabilitated Alan Shearer — I did it because I was an employee of the football club trying to look after the club’s best asset. I was perceived as being Alan Shearer’s friend — being his friend is a by-product of spending some time with him. You’re doing the best work you could for an asset of the football club. That’s not something to be challenged on or ashamed of — that’s something the club should take pride in.” 

The perilous nature of a career in football is a recurring theme in ‘The Boy on the Shed’. Having becoming disillusioned with life at Newcastle, Ferris left the club in 2006. He returned to his studies and ultimately qualified as a barrister. Just as he was starting up this new adventure, however, he received a call from Alan Shearer.

By now retired as a player, the England legend had been offered a job as Southampton boss and wanted Ferris to manage the sports medicine side of the club. After informing colleagues that he was giving up his only route to having a career at the bar, Ferris accepted Shearer’s offer, only for the deal to fall through, when it emerged that a rival consortium to the one that was planning to install the ex-Newcastle star as manager had taken over the club.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Liverpool v Newcastle United - Anfield Newcastle United manager Alan Shearer (centre), watches on from behind the touchline during the match. Source: EMPICS Sport

After a couple of months inactivity where “my settee became my prison” and Ferris ultimately decided against the option of taking the pills he was offered to help with his “low mood,” the former footballer found a degree of salvation in jogging, running up to seven miles a day on occasion.

Eventually, Ferris received another call from Shearer, again requesting that his friend join him at a club he was about to take charge of: Newcastle United. Inevitably, the offer was accepted, but the experience proved a major disappointment. Shearer failed to help turn the club’s fortunes around, winning one of just eight games in charge as they suffered the heartache of relegation. He consequently was not appointed on a permanent basis, and so Ferris was left without a job once more.

“On reflection, [the initial Southampton move] was probably the biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” he says. “Had I been a boy who was educated at Oxford or Cambridge and became a barrister, that opportunity to come and do something in football, you just would have said ‘no’.

“But in my case, I was flattered that Alan had come along and of all the people he met in football thought I might be the person who could help him. Secondly, the chance to go back into football and be at the head of a position, with real influence at a football club, was very appealing.

“And the final thing was I felt like there was no way he was not going to be a manager at that time. You would have thought he’d be Southampton manager, Newcastle manager, England manager. Looking back, it didn’t feel like a gamble, but clearly it was. 

“It sent me into a bit of a tailspin again, until I finally got out through another route. I wouldn’t say I regret it, because if the same thing happened again, and he asked me the same question, I’d probably do the same thing, because I knew what the deal was and the opportunities were at Southampton.

I knew what would follow with success at Southampton. 10 years with Alan Shearer at that level would probably set my family and I up for life. It was clearly a mistake, but hindsight’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Ferris still sees Shearer on occasion these days and feels the BBC football pundit is unlikely to go back into management as “he looks like someone who’s very happy with his lot to me”.

And indeed, the same could be said of Ferris. After the Newcastle relegation debacle, he initially felt despondent and out of options in life. “I simply let go,” he writes in the book. “I was sinking and I didn’t care anymore.” 

Yet ultimately, an opportunity presented itself. In tandem with North-East-based businessman Graham Wylie, he began work on a project that ultimately became Speedflex, a machine that according to its official website, “enables everyone to exercise at high intensities, but at levels set by each individual”.

It is the latest impressive endeavour from a man who has seemingly reinvented himself several times over, yet remains determined to stay true to that once-lost childhood voice, that faraway place he used to call home and the mother he loved so deeply.  

“Even in your darkest moments, when you think there is nothing there, in the world of living, there is always something there,” he concludes. “If you look hard enough, there’s always a way. It might not be the way you want it to be, but if you look up and you move forward, there’s always a way. I have made some dreadful mistakes that have impacted heavily on my family’s financial situation, security and different things.

“I think as long as you keep punching, something happens. Maybe that’s not the same for everybody else, but that’s what’s happened for me. Something always comes up and I find another way.”

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.

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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