Paul Ferris: ‘I felt abject loneliness in Newcastle’

Former footballer and author Paul Ferris, who hails from Lisburn
Former footballer and author Paul Ferris, who hails from Lisburn

Lisburn-born Paul Ferris was a teenage prodigy, becoming Newcastle United’s youngest ever player in 1982, only for injury to cut short his footballing career. He talks to HELEN MCGURK about his memoir

When Paul Ferris decided to write a book he was lying in a hospital bed wired up to various medical contraptions. There were three elderly men in the room with him. It was absurd. He had just had a heart attack. He was only 48.

The scare of the heart attack jolted him into to-do mode, it made him acutely aware of the fragility of life and his fear of ‘‘just fading away’’; to put it bluntly, he thought if he was going to die, he wanted his three English born and bred sons to know more about their father’s childhood and early years.

The book, which he wrote in a swift six months, typing clunkily with two fingers, is a poignant portrayal of his childhood in Troubles-stricken Northern Ireland; it is about his deep, deep love for his mother Bernadette, whose life was cut short, also by a heart attack; it is about his enduring love for his wife Geraldine, a nursery school teacher, and it is about his rise to fame as Newcastle United’s youngest ever player and the heart-crushing loneliness of the journey to get there.

Ironically, four years after making that decision in hospital to write The Boy on the Shed, the Lisburn-born man was once again back in a hospital when he learned he had secured a publishing deal.

This time he was being treated for anaemia and sepsis after having had prostate cancer.

‘‘I think I’m trying to find different ways to die, ‘‘ he says, with typical dark humour.

Paul Ferris, 52, whose home has been Newcastle Upon Tyne since he moved there as a 16-year-old footballing protégé, is in Belfast to promote the book.

He looks well, despite having just recently finished a six-week course of radiotherapy for the cancer, and can’t quite comprehend how well The Boy on the Shed is doing; in fact, he is too modest to say, but the book is flying off the shelves.

‘‘It’s amazing to think that there are people walking around with the contents of your head and your heart on a page,’’ he says without pretension.

The Boy on the Shed is much more than a sporting memoir - it is an exploration of love, grief, belonging, not belonging, and what makes us who we are.

The impish-looking little boy on the cover is a photograph of the six-year-old Paul, whose young life was blighted by fear that his beloved mother might die. Bernadette Ferris had a serious heart condition and had her first heart attack at just 38.

It was the young Paul’s routine to climb onto a coal bunker in the garden - a good vantage point to watch, hawk-like, as his mother bustled about in the kitchen,

‘‘After my mother came out of hospital all I ever did was climb onto the coal bunker; I was sleeping while she had a heart attack - I thought if I was watching her then God wouldn’t take her,’’ he says.

The book is a tender and moving portrait of the profound love he had for her, a diminutive woman at 4ft 11in, but a tower of strength and love.

A Catholic, Bernadette Ferris, brought up seven children during the Troubles on a Protestant housing estate in Lisburn. She was formidable and fearless too, standing up to the local UDA commander after their home was firebombed.

And she was a woman who encouraged her exceptionally talented son to get the hell out of troubled Northern Ireland and go to Newcastle to follow his footballing dreams.

Ferris admits writing the book was cathartic, but also, at times, profoundly heartbreaking.

‘‘The stuff about my mother was upsetting - when I was writing it I remember thinking, this still feels so raw. I hope there are moments in there that will resonate with people’s lives because we all have a mother, we all have love and loss. I had some tears when I was writing it,’’ he confesses.

There is a picture of his mother on the back sleeve of the book, in which she bears an uncanny resemblance to Hollywood star Judy Garland (see below left). There’s also a picture of Paul with a dodgy 1980s perm.

‘‘When you were a young footballer in Newcastle that haircut was called a beans on toast - everybody had it - there’s worse photos inside,” he jokes.

At the precocious age of 16, Paul Ferris became Newcastle United’s youngest ever first-teamer, and was hailed as ‘‘‘the new George Best’.

But his career was also dogged by injury, insecurity and disappointment. Yet this autobiography is much more than a tale of the vagaries of sporting fortune.

It is about a multi-faceted, highly intelligent man who went from playing football to become a physio, then a barrister, then into football management, then writing and business - he currently runs a successful health and fitness company.

The little boy who spent his days standing on a coal shed fretting his mother would die, has crammed a lot of accomplishments into his life, but he never thought his book would be published.

‘‘When my mum died my football career was finished. I had an injury that I couldn’t get over, I had no job, no home, and no qualifications. I would be talking to her on the phone and she would say ‘what are you going to do?’ She died during that period of my life.

‘‘I think going on to university to study Law and then doing a Masters degree and then writing the book, I think it’s all for her.

‘‘If I am being honest - I think it’s all so I can say ‘I’m alright’.’’

Football and enduring friendships

As a player and later a phyiso and member of the Magpies’ managerial team, Paul’s career acquainted him with iconic footballers such as Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and Bobby Robson, Ruud Gullit, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer, who became a close friend and writes the forward to the book.

When he was playing football in Lisburn park he would pretend to be the poodle-permed legend Kevin Keegan.

Then Keegan arrived at Newcastle United, first as a player, and then as manager, and his hero didn’t disappoint.

‘‘He was a really humble man,’’ says Paul.

‘‘These people you thought were gods were just the same as you and me.’’

From the very first day they met, Paul has enjoyed a prevailing friendship with Alan Shearer.

‘‘I was a physio and did his medical and we sat and had a cup of tea and within about 20 minutes I thought, you are the world’s most expensive footballer but you are a solid lad.’’

*The Boy on the Shed by Paul Ferris, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20