Tag Archives: Alan Shearer

The Boy on the Shed: Paul Ferris’ memoir is more than a sports book

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?”

Rating: 10/10

Review – Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me

The cross comes in and, of course, Alan Shearer is there yet again, greeting the ball with his forehead to send the back of the net bulging. 

However, this time he won’t be adding to his record tally of 260 Premier League goals, nor will he be wheeling away in jubilation with his right arm aloft at St James’s Park.

Instead he’s at Stirling University in Scotland, in a laboratory, taking part in research into the impact on the brain of repeatedly heading a football.

The links between this intrinsic part of Shearer’s sport and conditions such as dementia are explored in his BBC2 documentary Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me.

The tests that the former Southampton, Blackburn and Newcastle striker undergoes are cognitive as well as physiological, from testing memory and reaction times to monitoring muscle contractions and balance.

Insight

Famous for his scoring prowess with his head – he notched 46 headed goals – it’s clear that the former England international has a vested interest in the outcome of the study.

The results show a decline in memory while signs of neuro-signal stimulus disruption of brain chemistry also becomes apparent. However, the tests are unable to identify what the long-lasting effects of repeatedly heading a football could be.

Shearer undergoes tests on his brain
Shearer undergoes tests on his brain

Still, it’s a brief insight which suggests that heading just 20 balls in succession does have an impact on the brain, never mind years of practicing the same repetitive skill in training.

The documentary builds towards Shearer’s moment of truth, where he agrees to an MRI scan as well as other neurological tests, to see if any brain damage has occurred following his 20+ years as a professional.

With his anxiety there for all to see, the cameras zoom in, paying close attention to the Geordie’s clammy palms. It makes for tense viewing.

Thankfully, he receives the all-clear and is told the results showed evidence of a normal, unharmed brain and for now, the 47-year-old can breathe a sigh of relief.

Emotional

Shearer also conducts several interviews, including one with Dawn Astle, the daughter of West Brom legend Jeff, known as ‘The King’ by many in the Black Country.

‘The most devastating and brutal thing I have ever seen in my life’ – Dawn Astle on her father’s decline

It was Astle’s death in 2002 which produced the first piece of official documentation linking the risks of repeatedly heading footballs with an increased possibility of dementia.

It was stated in the coroner’s report that “the cause of death was down to the repeat of minor trauma which was probably caused by heading something like a heavy football”. A verdict of death by industrial injury was recorded.

In an emotional encounter, in which Shearer comes across as awkward, but succeeds in showing empathy nonetheless, Dawn reveals that watching the decline in her father’s health “was the most devastating and brutal thing I have ever seen in my life”.

Other interviewees included John Stiles, the son of England World Cup-winning midfielder Nobby – just one of several of players from the 1966 squad who are struggling with dementia. Stiles in particular is in a bad way, currently suffering from the disease in a care home.

Degeneration

His son passionately argues his concerns, suggesting that if we do not have conclusive evidence then we should stop children from heading the ball.

This follows research in America, where a similar protocol was announced in 2015, banning children under the age of 11 from heading balls to prevent the risk of concussion and brain degeneration.

“Coaches shouldn’t be throwing missiles at kids’ heads until we know for definite [that heading does not cause damage to the brain],” Stiles argued. “If problems could have been prevented, then it’s a disgrace.”

The most heart-breaking story of all came from Shearer’s visit to Chris Nicholl, the former Southampton manager who gave him the first big break in his career.

What began as an endearing catch-up soon became an uncomfortable watch, as the ex-Northern Ireland international revealed his struggles with severe memory loss.

It was plain to see that Shearer’s concern for his old boss’s health was sincere, and on several occasions he challenges Nicholl to seek medical advice, although sadly to no avail.

Naïve

When Shearer speaks to the Football Association and Professional Football Association, it becomes clear there is a lack of funding and resources being made available to research the issue in its necessary depth.

Interviews with former England captain John Terry and Shearer’s former Newcastle United team-mate Les Ferdinand seem to suggest that the current crop of players and coaches are a far cry from being well informed on the matter.

At one point, Terry mentions that his daughter, aged 11, is now playing at his old club Chelsea, and Shearer tells him that girls are at a greater risk of concussion and brain damage than boys when heading the ball.

Terry’s rather naive response is: “In girl’s football, they don’t really head the ball, everyone shies away from it. So, I try to encourage my girl to meet and attack the ball so the contact’s better, rather than allowing it to hit you.”

Engaging

Shearer shows that, away from the pundit’s chair, he is capable of tackling sensitive issues in the world of sport and comes across well, throwing in some humour and not taking himself too seriously, which creates a nice counter-point to the seriousness of the topic.

He asks good, engaging questions and challenges interviewees with relevant research findings. Although with no conclusive evidence to suggest what the implications of repeatedly heading a ball are, I felt his assessment of overlooking the banning of heading a little disappointing.

He may also be some way from possessing the charm, authority and wit of award-winning television presenters Ross Kemp or Louis Theroux.

However, Shearer was able to use his head in another way to produce a well-researched, thought-provoking and eye-opening piece, creating awareness on a taboo subject with another winning performance.

Alan Shearer: Football, Football and Me is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.