There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Paul Ferris the former footballer.
Why would you have? A quick Google search sees him dwarfed by the controversial Scottish writer and reformed criminal of the same name. His 50-odd appearances for Newcastle United in the early 1980s would rightfully warrant a shrug of the shoulders, a ‘so what?’
But, like us all, Ferris has a story. And although it may seem like his is one told a thousand times — a tale of sporting disappointment at the cruel hands of injury — the truth is that The Boy on the Shed goes far beyond your average sporting autobiography. Rather, it is an altogether beautiful account of shattered dreams and shattered limbs, of love and death, of harboured fears and inner turmoil.
You see, a good story is in the telling of it, and Ferris writes with such unique flow and metre that his tale pulls you in until you live it yourself. You are there in his Lisburn home as the Troubles rage through Northern Ireland, you are there aboard the plane to Newcastle to realise his footballing potential, and there when that potential disintegrates once and for all, there for the life-altering death of his mother and his discontented voyage through a plethora of careers from sports physiotherapy to law to writing.
Some lines are short, sharp, intentionally stunted, while others pour out over the pages like foaming waterfalls. Ferris’ experience in writing means The Boy on the Shed comes from his own pen, from a place inside himself that bleeds out by way of prose. There is not the emotional sieve that comes inevitably with employing a ghost writer; instead his thoughts and fears emerge in full weighty clumps, laden with feeling and above all searing candour and unexpected humour.
His Lisburn youth is a glimpse into the trials and struggles of a disadvantaged, Catholic family living in a primarily Protestant area of Northern Ireland. The raw horrors of the Troubles are relayed by a boy who lived through it all, who saw his living room set ablaze in an unprovoked act of hatred, along with the countless sectarian beatings and murders which defined Ferris’ hometown during his youth and early adulthood.
The brutal affects of the Troubles on Ferris are laid bare across the book’s 300-plus pages, but in his own words such traumas were mere ‘punctuations’ to his childhood. Instead, Ferris’ family and upbringing is the glowing centre-point of the book, particularly his relationship with his mother, whose heart condition leaves him in a constant state of fear over her impending death.
It is in his descriptions of her that Ferris writes with the most poise and elegance, beautifully encapsulating the unique bond between mother and son, not least in the account of her death and its aftermath — the journey from utter despondency to realigned hope once more. Her impact on his outlook in life marinades Ferris’ story from start to finish, along with his pride in his own children who bear her eyes and smile.
Such is Ferris’ emphasis on the commonalities of our collective lives — on home, family, relationships, life and death — that football often seems like an undertone in his tale.
Indeed, despite being heralded as the next George Best, dominating school football across Lisburn and Northern Ireland, Ferris treats the sport with a degree of caution — the beast that will rend him from his home and his mother. Far from most boys of 15 or 16, his dream is to go to university, to marry his girlfriend and live a homely life.
It is Ferris’ fears and apprehensions that form the empathetic backbone to The Boy on the Shed. It is not merely a case of sporting dreams being dreamt and then coming true, as is the case with so many professional footballers, but an account of indecision and lack of surety, a child caught between the career all young men aspire to and the warm embrace of home comforts and a simple life. And indeed, by the time Ferris realises that professional football is indeed his dream, his calling, he is robbed of it by the frailty of his own body.
Throughout the book, football weaves in and out of the narrative as the driving force. The sport seems to have a gravitational pull on Ferris, thrusting him back into its clutches when he least expects it. As a physiotherapist at Newcastle for many years, Ferris was there for both hellish and heady days on Tyneside, witnessing the disastrous reigns of Gullit and Souness, but also experiencing the warmth of some of the sport’s genuine heroes, like the late Sir Bobby Robson.
“The Boy on the Shed triumphs in its at times indifferent, at times obsessive view on football”
Ferris’ interactions with and opinions of such characters, and indeed of Alan Shearer — whom he worked with in vain to try to save Newcastle from relegation in 2009, and who pens the foreword to the book — offer a great deal of insight. In many ways, Newcastle United’s recent history is one of shrouded vagaries, but Ferris shines a light on these from the unique perspective of the physio’s room.
Ultimately, The Boy on the Shed triumphs in its at times indifferent, at times obsessive view on football, because sport in one moment can seem the most important thing in the world, and in the next utterly inconsequential. One Amazon reviewer awarded it only two stars with the complaint that this ‘is not a sports book.’ That person has sadly missed the point.
The joy of Ferris’ work is that it offsets professional football against the things in life we can all relate to. When considered in the grand scheme of life, death and despair, sport often seems so trivial, and yet it defines its followers and exponents, ensnares them, and is often their downfall. For those like Ferris, football can be nothing and everything all at once.
Legend status can be claimed or crushed in a split second — one goal at the Gallowgate End on a cold rainy afternoon, or one snap of a medial ligament. As Ferris himself puts it in the closing stages of his story, “who would think that entire lives can be shaped on such small things?”