From NI football prodigy to barrister... Paul Ferris on his remarkable journey
In The Boy on the Shed, set to be one of the most talked-about football books of the year, Paul Ferris charts a playing career that brought him into contact with stars like Kevin Keegan, Ruud Gullit and Alan Shearer — and tries to make sense of his upbringing in Troubles-torn Northern Ireland. He talks to Laurence White.
Paul Ferris has a dark sense of humour. “It is a bit embarrassing for the managing director of a health and fitness company to say that they have cancer and had a heart attack which nearly killed them.”
But then the 52-year-old former footballer from Northern Ireland is well used to life dealing him a difficult hand.
Once hailed as the next George Best, he was the youngest player, at 16 years and 294 days old, to play for the Newcastle United’s first team, but then a freak training ground injury ended what everyone believed would be a glittering career as a professional footballer.
As a youngster living in Lisburn, he saw his home petrol-bombed by loyalists and his mum and dad beaten up in the street and lived constantly with the fear that his mother’s heart condition would kill her.
It was that fear which gave him the title of his autobiography, The Boy on the Shed. He used to climb onto the roof of a shed in his back garden from where he would watch his mother, Bernadette, working in the kitchen. He believed that God would not take her while he was watching.
But this is no misery memoir. There are dark days, but also times when life soared to heights he could never imagine. It is also not a run-of-the-mill book about football, but a well-rounded, exceedingly candid account of his life on and off the pitch and of his family, warts and all.
I had only been talking to him a couple of minutes when he revealed he had prostate cancer. There was a clue in the final paragraph of his book — “I’ve felt the first chill of winter. I fear that it’s just around the corner for me.”
Paul had just finished the manuscript of the book and sent it off to the publishers when he received his cancer diagnosis two days later. “I suspected that outcome before it was confirmed and that is why I wrote what I did in the book,” he says.
“It was on this day last year (the interview was a short time ago) when I had my prostate removed.
“I hoped that would remove all the cancer, but that was not the case. I am now undergoing radiotherapy and I hope that will deal with the problem.”
He is equally candid about his heart attack, which occurred when he was driving another former Newcastle United player, Rob Lee — who was also a work colleague — to a meeting.
They initially tried to make it to a local hospital, but had to call out paramedics.
Even then, Paul’s sense of humour could not be contained. Asked to sign a form authorising a medical procedure, he noted a line that read, “This procedure can lead to dizziness, headaches, stroke and death”, and could not resist quipping, “Could I have one that stops at dizziness and headaches?”. The paramedics were not impressed.
Cardiac problems run in his family, with his mum, dad Patrick, and eldest brother Patsy, dying from heart attacks. All of his remaining siblings, like himself, have had stents inserted in coronary arteries.
“My problem is dealing with cholesterol,” he says. “For some reason, I have a condition which acts like glue. What you would regard as normal levels of cholesterol stick to my arteries and clog them up. Therefore I have to keep my cholesterol levels as low as possible.
“This was the same condition my mum suffered from, but she would not have known that back in those days.
“After my heart attack, which happened in my 40s, I continued to exercise regularly, and that has enabled me to come off some of my medication, like beta blockers and tablets for high blood pressure”.
He is also very candid about his early family life — how his dad loved a pint and how he feared elder brother Patsy’s mood swings when he was drunk, which on occasion led to domestic violence.
Why so open? He explains: “I’ve always been open. There’s a freedom in being honest. I didn’t want this to be a book about my life in football, both as a player and as a physiotherapist. Writing about the people I had played and worked with, such as Kevin Keegan or Alan Shearer or Ruud Gullit, would have been the easiest way to get published, but I wanted to give an account of who I am for my kids and their kids.
“I want to explain to them why we are the only part of my family — or my wife Geraldine’s family — to live in Newcastle and what my upbringing was compared to theirs.
“My mother and father were very kind and were trying to make the best of family life in those days. I was nervous about writing about Patsy because I did not want to offend other members of my family. He was okay much of the time, but on occasion he would scare me.
“I suppose I also want to convey to readers the person I am and hope that they believe in me whether they like me or not.”
As one of the few Catholic families living in a Protestant estate in Lisburn when the Troubles broke out, life was difficult.
Although they got on well with their neighbours, that did not stop loyalists petrol-bombing their home one night after the IRA had bombed property in nearby Lambeg.
What really hurt his mother was that not one neighbour came to their aid as they fled the property and the incident was never mentioned again.
Two of his brothers were confronted by masked gunmen one night, forced to do press-ups on the road and ordered out of Lisburn because they had Protestant girlfriends. They fled, but with their girlfriends.
On another occasion, his diminutive mother and father were beaten up by a gang when they were seen coming out of the only Catholic club in the town.
The local UDA commander came to their home to say his men were not involved and pledged to find out who was, before Bernadette literally pushed him out the front door with her uninjured arm.
Paul recalls: “Until those incidents happened, you just saw the Troubles as being part of your life, just the world you lived in. But when you are ushered downstairs and see your living room on fire and have to spend the night in another family’s home, that makes it different.
“I look at my kids’ upbringing (he has three sons) and they have no sense of fear. I think of the kids like me brought up on all sides of the community at that time in Northern Ireland and what they went through.
“I also think of my brother-in-law’s brother, who was shot dead by loyalists. Like my mother and father, he was non-political. All of them just wanted to bring up their children as best they could. A lot of people like them suffered at the hands of the IRA as well.”
Paul believes the trauma resulting from the various incidents in his childhood resulted in him failing his 11-plus. Indeed, it was an academic rather than a footballing career that he envisaged.
His best friend, Martin Crossey, had gone on to study law, and that was a goal Paul also aimed for. “I was at St Patrick’s school in Lisburn but saw myself transferring to Rathmore Grammar school at A-level and then going on to Queen’s University and maybe playing in the Irish League,” he explains.
“But when the offer to join Newcastle United came, even my teachers said it was too good an opportunity to turn down. Strangely, no one even suggested that I might have an academic career.”
Leaving home, he recalls, was a wrench: “My youngest son is 16 and I cannot imagine him going away to another country on his own. In those days we did not have mobile phones. We were put in digs and the people there were very good, but they were not my family. There was a phone in the hall and that was my only way of contacting home. There was no guarantee when I would get back home again or for how long because football was a full-time occupation during the season.”
The move gave him the opportunity to mix with some of the icons of the sport, such as Keegan, Shearer, Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and a young Paul Gascoigne. And they recognised him as a real talent.
But that career ended when he suffered a severe knee injury attempting an overhead kick in training.
Frustrating seasons trying to get back to fitness passed before he realised he would never be the same player again, although he did win a non-league trophy playing at Wembley.
He trained as a physio, returned to work at Newcastle and later left to fulfil his boyhood dream — becoming a barrister — although he never practised law.
“The one person I wanted to phone to tell them I had become a barrister was Martin Crossey, but I couldn’t — he had died while exercising on a treadmill, apparently from an unknown heart condition,” he says.
Today, thanks to a chance meeting with multi-millionaire businessman Graham Wylie, Paul is the managing director of a health and fitness company that recently opened five new outlets and plans to open several more in the coming months.
He has no plans to ever return to Northern Ireland permanently. “I come back often to visit family, and we are having a big reunion this summer when my brother, Tony, comes over from New Zealand with 12 extended family members we have never met,” Paul says.
“When I left during the Troubles as a youngster, I only ever came back on holidays. I never got to see the peace in Northern Ireland or to live it. No doubt Lisburn is a very different place today from the town I remember. I am glad my family members got to see that different place.
“I was away for more than 20 years when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and I always feel like an outsider when I return. I wonder what the future holds for Northern Ireland and what will happen when Brexit happens. That will change the whole dynamic of life in Northern Ireland. I don’t believe those who fought so hard for Brexit ever gave Northern Ireland any thought at all.”
Paul’s focus is now on getting back to full health and seeing another book, a novel called An Irish Heartbeat, come to the screen. A London company has bought the film rights to it and scripts have been written.
But it is his own story which reads more like a novel than any work of imagination.
The Boy on the Shed by Paul Ferris, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20