Part one of a conversation with author & former Newcastle United footballer, Paul Ferris.
Football is all about sticking the ball in the back of the net.
My first and only goal for Newcastle was at the Gallowgate end against Bradford in the League Cup. There was a deafening noise as the crowd banged on the metal advertising boards.
As we celebrated Neil McDonald came over to me and asked ‘are you alright’? I swear I couldn’t breathe. The sound of the ball hitting the back of the net is beautiful.
Paul Ferris was born in 1965 in Lisburn near Belfast, Northern Ireland. Living with his Catholic family on mostly a Protestant housing estate, he survived a childhood that was framed by Irelands dark but recent past.
It was my mum who said you need to go across the water, there’s nothing here for you. She just wanted the best for me. I left in October 1981 right in the middle of the IRA hunger strike, it was a very toxic time.
As a professional footballer and physiotherapist Paul had an 18- year career at Newcastle United. Between 1981 and 1985 he was the youngest ever first team player and in 1993 he joined the medical staff where he stayed until 2006. He was also part of the management team in 2009.
As physio I was there under Cox, Keegan, Robson, Dalglish, Gullit, Souness but left when Roeder came in as I was committed to do my Law work – but that’s another story for another time.
In 2018 his best-selling memoir The Boy on the Shed was published to critical acclaim, and the follow up The Magic in the Tin, about his fight with prostate cancer, was released in 2022. (links below).
Both my books have been non-fiction memoirs and have done well, but now I’m currently writing a fictional book.
We’ll find out more of Paul’s writing career in part two, but here he talks candidly about his time as a professional footballer.
When I was a kid in Northern Ireland in the 70s, I only knew one Newcastle fan and that was Kieran my brother-in-law, he told me all about players like Malcolm McDonald, David Craig and Liam McFaul.
It was mostly Liverpool or Manchester United supporters – that was the George Best connection as he was a Belfast boy. I was a Liverpool fan so Kevin Keegan was without doubt the first football hero that I had.
I used to go and watch the Home Championship games cos that’s when you got to see the big players. At Windsor Park in Belfast, I couldn’t see much being small so I would take a stool to stand on to see players like Kevin Keegan.
You see lists of greatest ever players and some of them he’s not even in, when I think he most definitely was one of the best.
My very first team I signed for was Bolton at 14, that was the team of Peter Reid and Sam Allardyce. It was for two years with a guaranteed apprenticeship but the management got sacked and I ended with nowhere to go.
I was playing for the Irish under 18 youth team and they mentioned two teams I should try out for – Everton and Newcastle. But didn’t enjoy my time in Liverpool so came to Newcastle where it was more friendly. At least they said hello to you in the street.
It was still a wrench leaving. There were flights only two days a week and a pay phone in the hall of my digs – it felt a long way from home.
In 1982 I was 16 and made my Newcastle debut away from home, my home debut was against QPR in the second division. 14,000 people at a run-down stadium with a city in the doldrums and a lot of economic hardship and unemployment.
Then manager Arthur Cox signed Kevin Keegan who was twice European footballer of the year. I remember the assistant coach telling the team who we’d signed, we all said ‘f*** off, no chance!’ But then he arrived, as a shy lad it was quite daunting to see your boyhood hero.
He was not only a great footballer and charismatic, but he transformed the whole outlook of the city. He also gave it a boost when he came back as manager and won promotion in 1993.
Newcastle manager Arthur Cox was great, he was honest and straight with you, just no nonsense really. But he had the sensitivity as well and asked me how my parents were doing because he knew I was a young boy away from home.
Even now in his 80s he contacts me to ask how I’m doing as he knows I’ve had some health issues. He’s also read both my books which he enjoyed.
Some great footballers came to St James’ Park. I remember watching a European cup night and Newcastle were playing French side Bastia who included Johnny Rep.
The Dutch team of ’74 was a big part of my awakening to great footballers. On TV you would see Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep and Neeskins. Football was better to watch in those days there was more chances created, more jeopardy in the game.
When I was young, I was told to hug the touchline, get the ball, take the full back on and take him on again, then get the ball in the box. You might lose the ball few times but it was exciting to watch.
On my debut as a 16 year old we were playing Blackburn away and I replaced Chris Waddle. As I ran onto the pitch the crowd were singing my name. I got so excited taking on the full back he took the ball off me and a few passes later it ended in a goal for them. We got beat 4-1.
Coaching has changed now, players are told not to take people on because losing the ball is a risky business, better to pass and move keeping possession.
During the 1980s football entered its dark days with hooliganism on the rise. One time Newcastle where at Leeds. Today you have a coaching staff and kit men, but back then I was 13th man and responsible for carrying the kit in to the ground.
We were walking into Elland Road and the police officers were holding back the baying Leeds fans. The noise was deafening. We nearly got inside when a fist came out of the crowd and smacked me in the mouth. I got in the changing room with blood all over. I was told it was pointless reporting it to the police as I couldn’t identify who threw the punch.
During the game Kevin Keegan was taking a corner when he got hit on the head with a coin. Both teams were taken off, in the end the police told us to get out there and finish the game or there’ll be hell on.
So at the end of the 90 minutes we quickly got in the changing room, showered and left. As the coach was leaving we took the first corner and a brick comes through the window.
Read part two of Football Bloody Football where Paul talks about his writing career, Bobby Robson, nights out with Alan Shearer and what he thinks of Newcastle United now.
Alikivi February 2023
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