'That book changed my life': How Paul McVeigh went from Klinsmann intimidation to Norwich star and keynote speaking at Microsoft

 

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Paul McVeigh found himself standing next to Jurgen Klinsmann on his first day at training in England but would soon turn his feeling of inferiority into successful careers on and off the pitch.

Paul McVeigh found himself standing next to Jurgen Klinsmann on his first day at training in England but would soon turn his feeling of inferiority into successful careers on and off the pitch.

Paul McVeigh found himself standing next to Jurgen Klinsmann on his first day at training in England but would soon turn his feeling of inferiority into successful careers on and off the pitch.

West Belfast and West Germany had never felt so far apart.

It was the end of the summer in 1994 when the World Cup-winning striker Jurgen Klinsmann arrived for his first day of pre-season at Tottenham Hotspur, the audacious nature of the transfer coup ensuring hundreds of fans had gathered to welcome him, and his VW Beetle, to the team's training ground.

But while there was plenty of outside interest, what there wasn't was too much more of the first team squad.

As such this superstar of world football found himself training with the youth team, standing next to another forward on his first day's duty with the Premier League side.

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Jurgen Klinsmann arrives for training at Tottenham in his VW Beetle.

Jurgen Klinsmann arrives for training at Tottenham in his VW Beetle.

Bongarts/Getty Images

Jurgen Klinsmann arrives for training at Tottenham in his VW Beetle.

Paul McVeigh looked across at his new club's latest hero and came to a quick conclusion - he'd never make it as a professional footballer.

Growing up on Finaghy Road North, this hadn't just been his dream, it had been everyone's. He and his neighbours would spend every available minute playing in the street morning, noon and night. He'd been the only one to get this far.

At Lisburn Youth, despite being the smallest there, he'd stood out on his very first night. The story goes that he ended up at Spurs rather than Liverpool only because the scout Rob Walker attached to the north London club beat his Merseyside counterpart in the footrace to McVeigh's father on the opposing touchline.

To that point, his life and his dreams had been merrily following along the same trajectory. Despite bringing his mother to tears a she bade her third-born child farewell, his departure for England had felt a triumphant one. He was leaving to make a living from football, just as he'd always wanted.

And yet, before a ball had even been kicked, already he felt he'd come as far as he'd go.

"A World Cup winner and a 16-year-old kid, through just this strange set of circumstances ended up standing beside each other at training both on their first days at the club," he remembers now at the age of 42.

"I looked at him, looked at myself, and right there and then thought there was no way in the world that I'd ever make it as a professional.

"That's what a professional footballer looked like. He was like a film star, the nicest superstar you could ever meet, but like from a different planet.

"What I should have been doing was looking at him and thinking 'he's where I want to be, playing in the Premier League and an international footballer. What is it he does?'

"But instead, for years I held onto that belief that I wouldn't match up without ever realising just how much doing that was holding me back.

"It was sabotage."

And yet by the time of his retirement ten years ago, he'd scored for Spurs at White Hart Lane, became a fan favourite at Norwich over the course of two promotion-winning spells, and won 20 caps for Northern Ireland. To fast-forward further still, today he has written a book on the mental performance required by the modern footballer and makes a living speaking to employees of some of the biggest companies in the world.

It was only then that I realised you can't look at other people, look outside of yourself, look for something to come along and give you this life you always dreamed about.

The event that changed the course of his career - changed, in many ways, the course of his life -  came somewhat by chance.

While growing up in west Belfast during the 1980s and 90s had its own unique cadence, McVeigh recalls an idyllic childhood. Indeed, it was the desire to recreate a little bit of home in his new surroundings that would, inadvertently, expose him to inspiration.

"You can't not be influenced by growing up in west Belfast at that time," he says. "Having that as a starting point, is hugely influential. But you have to put that into context, all that was the normal way for us. It was only when I went across to Tottenham at the age of 16 that I realised that growing up in Belfast wasn't all that normal. When I went to Spurs, I was living in a place called Enfield that's really a sort of leafy suburbia of middle class England. Obviously, it was very, very different to what I was used to.

"One of my best friends from school - I'd played gaelic football with him too - his sister and her husband lived just outside London. Wanting that little taste of home, that little bit of Irishness in England and that family setting, I'd go up and see them practically every Sunday.

"Her husband Tim he'd played semi-pro football and he took me under his wing really. He knew much more about the world of football and just the world in general than I did at that stage.

"He gave me the book 'Awaken the Giant Within' by Anthony Robbins and that book changed my life, opened my eyes. It was like having the blinkers taken off.

"It was only then that I realised you can't look at other people, look outside of yourself, look for something to come along and give you this life you always dreamed about. You have to start making it happen for yourself."

The last of the talented group of Spurs youngsters who reached the FA Youth Cup final in 1995 to be offered a pro deal - a one-year contract at the princely sum of £200 a week - his new mental approach reaped quick rewards. When his close friend Rory Allen made a first-team breakthrough - scoring at White Hart Lane against the Man United of Ferguson, Beckham, Scholes and Keane in front of the Sky Sports cameras - instead of looking at his fellow striker like he once had Klinsmann, he used it as motivation that he could do the same. Within a matter of months he had, making his debut up front alongside Teddy Sheringham when Spurs travelled to Villa Park then scoring on his home debut against Coventry.

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Paul McVeigh won 20 caps for Northern Ireland

Paul McVeigh won 20 caps for Northern Ireland

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Paul McVeigh won 20 caps for Northern Ireland

Life, especially life in football, is not often linear and while there were setbacks along the way - being deemed too small for Spurs by new boss George Graham was one, getting told he wasn't good enough to be a professional by then Norwich manager Nigel Worthington another - his newfound mental resilience remained. So too did the fiercely independent streak.

If an appetite for reading weighty, 500-page motivational tomes or the weekly four-hour round trip to see a sports psychologist in his early days would have been considered an oddity in the now anachronistic environment of 1990s English football, it was nothing compared to the reaction of his Norwich team-mates when he would arrive at training with his yoga mat in hand. But for every one that was to end up stolen, torn to pieces, burned to a cinder or driven over by teasing team-mates, McVeigh would arrive the next day with a replacement ready to go again.

Not a stereotypical footballer then and the contrast is even more stark now. For as much as he loved the game, and continues to do so, he balks at the oft-repeated cliche that every athlete dies twice, the first of which is signaled by retirement.

The breadth of my life, the quality of the experiences I've had in the ten years since, are so far beyond what football has given me.

Hanging up his boots injury-free at the relatively tender age of 32 after helping the Canaries back into the Championship, he takes greater satisfaction from his second act as a keynote speaker. Only last week he was handpicked to deliver a speech to Microsoft, only the lockdown meaning it was delivered via video rather than in person at the company's offices in Singapore.

"What I understood maybe a little earlier than some, is that ultimately, a football career is an extrinsic experience," he says. "There's so much you don't have power over. If it was intrinsic, I'd have gone to Old Trafford as a kid and said I was signing for Man United.

"For me, I can do the best I can, and give myself the best opportunity, but at some stage someone else is going decide things for you and decide you're not getting that contract.

"But if I have 20 things in my life and one of them is football, when that time comes, you've still got 19 things in your life. It's about identity really and how you see yourself. I played football every day of my life from before I remember until I was 32 but I never saw myself as just a footballer.

"I remember you'd be walking into the Spurs physio room and seeing the old pros, the likes of Gary Mabbutt, the great captain, a footballer who had been around and seen everything you can see and done everything you can do in professional football.

"At that stage, he'd be 35 or 36 and it would take 45 minutes to an hour for the physio to strap him up and crack him and manipulate him into a position where he could even go out and train. You'd be seeing this but in that same room you'd still hear things like 'play as long as you can', 'you'll be a long time retired', 'these are the best days of your life.'

"I remember sitting there thinking I don't think that's true, or I hoped it wasn't true anyway. The inference is that once you stop playing it's all downhill, nothing will be as enjoyable again. But knowing what I know about the nature of beliefs, I chose to think about it differently and ultimately when I decided to stop playing, it was the best decision I ever made. The breadth of my life, the quality of the experiences I've had in the ten years since, are so far beyond what football has given me."

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McVeigh taking on Cristiano Ronaldo in the Premier League

McVeigh taking on Cristiano Ronaldo in the Premier League

McVeigh taking on Cristiano Ronaldo in the Premier League

 

For McVeigh, those opportunities have brought him right across the globe, speaking for companies like Cisco, PWC, Investec, Barclays and Grant Thornton in Asia, America and closer to home.

Having went to work alongside Gavin Drake, a sports psychologist he knew from his time at Norwich, in his immediate post-playing days, it was a week-long course in Florida that set him on this path to keynote speaking.

When a Norwich newspaper picked up his story in the midst of his old side's run to Premier League promotion in 2011, it led to him giving a speech to Aviva on the subject of leadership. Back when he'd made his Spurs debut in front of almost 40,000 all those years ago, he could remember sprinting through the warm-up as others jogged such was the adrenaline coursing through his veins. Stood alone in front of 150 of the insurance company's employees, he felt more nervous than he ever had on a football pitch.

"It was terrifying," he says. "Playing football, you've been doing it for so long, it's a challenge but it's not new. With keynote speaking, I was a novice. But it's like anything, everything is learnt whether that's playing football, being a concert pianist or speaking in front of multi-billion pound companies. Learning a new skill, any skill, it comes in stages. I've started keynote speaking with the same approach I had to football. I work hard, I learn, I analyse my performance, I learn from others.

"To be where I am, speaking to Microsoft last week, it was a proud moment because I knew how much work had gone into me getting to that point in my career, my second career. I was blessed to have a first career doing something I love and now to be able to share these experiences, these learnings and these insights, doing something I'm passionate about, it doesn't get any better."

He hasn't fully left football behind and is still enjoying the game at all levels whether it be five-a-side with friends or turning out for Spurs Legends sides.

Indeed, not so long ago he had the chance to pull on Norwich colours once again too, playing against an Inter Milan old boys team to mark 25 years since the Carrow Road side's one unforgettable UEFA campaign.

Up front for the visitors, none other than Jurgen Klinsmann. Plenty had changed since that first day together at Tottenham. No longer the doubt-filled teen, McVeigh had long since proven he had what it takes to make it as a professional footballer. And much more besides.

Belfast Telegraph