There are plenty of footballers’ autobiographies out there, many of which tell a very similar story. Tales of fame and fortune can grow weary after a while, and a lot of the football-specific stories are targeted predominantly at supporters of that club. Occasionally, former players such as Stan Collymore and Craig Bellamy have lifted the lid on the darker side of the game, speaking of the side effects of a life in the spotlight. For what might seem like obvious reasons, you don’t see too many autobiographies of players who never quite reached the big time. Though Paul Ferris only managed a handful of first team appearances for Newcastle United, his memoir is one of the most gripping I’ve read.
The story of Ferris’s early years has parallels to George Best. Both were precocious talents, tricky players with an ability to dominate the schoolboy games they played. Ferris, born in Northern Ireland in 1965 as Best was becoming a Manchester United regular, even trialled at Old Trafford after being spotted by the same man that brought Best there. It was against a backdrop of homesickness that Ferris eventually did make the journey across the Irish Sea, joining Newcastle United and becoming their youngest ever player to play for the first team shortly afterwards. Coming on as a sub against Charlton, Ferris almost scored on the big occasion too, only for his second-half header to bounce off the post with the keeper beaten. A League Cup goal against Bradford aside, his football career never quite reached the level his potential promised.
In the second half of the book, Ferris recounts the challenges he’s faced in his life from that point onwards. Two of them are themes I explore in Match Fit. Persistent or particularly serious injuries can be a nightmare for footballers, and before he was even out of his teenage years, Ferris faced both. A recurring hamstring injury prevented him ever becoming a first team regular, before a more serious cruciate ligament injury effectively stopped him from ever reaching his early potential. Ferris recounts long, lonely days in the treatment room and expresses gratitude for the support of Newcastle’s physio at the time, Derek Wright. These injury problems led to another significant challenge for Ferris – early retirement, at the age of 25. An initial blocker for him was the fact that in moving to Newcastle at 16 he hadn’t had the chance to take any O-Levels. The importance of education for young footballers is something I focus on further in the retirement chapter of Match Fit. Thankfully, the game has come a long way since Ferris was a teenager, and academy players now have to study for a qualification alongside their football, though the system is certainly far from perfect.
Through several career changes, Ferris’s persistent fear is that he isn’t good enough for anything he tries – a repetitive form of imposter syndrome. What soon becomes apparent is that Ferris, in fact, excels at almost anything he tries, having a set of soft skills that stand him in good stead for whatever he does. His resilience is notable throughout his adult life through several events that would be tough for anyone, never mind someone who has already had their dreams crushed when barely out of their teens. It is interesting what Ferris says about his physiotherapy work, noting that the fact he has been an injured player himself allows him to better empathise with the players he has worked with.
The Boy on the Shed won the Telegraph Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the Year prize in 2019. This is no small achievement as the award is often won by someone you might consider more of a household name – Tyson Fury was the 2020 winner, for example. In my opinion, what makes Ferris’s story so special is that it could represent the untold tales of thousands of young footballers who don’t quite reach the top of the game. The ability of the author to rise up and overcome each challenge with which he is confronted can an act as an inspiration for many, both inside and outside of the game.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first football book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.