BY FERGUS DOWD
Lisburn – which lies eight miles from Belfast – is the birthplace of the linen Industry in Ireland. There, Paul Ferris grew up on the town’s streets, playing football from dawn to dusk.
As a youngster he imagined himself to be the permed Kevin Keegan, inspired by Bill Shankly and the red of Liverpool.
Soon, the tricky winger who weaved magic on the pitch attracted the attention of Bob Bishop – the man who typed the famous eight word telegram to Matt Busby about a young lad from Cregagh. He decided Ferris had the potential to make it big on the fields of English football.
Bishop wasn’t the only one. Keegan, during his swansong playing years he spent at Newcastle United, described Paul – or Ferra as he became known – as ‘the best I’ve seen for his age’.
In 1982, aged just 16 years and 294 days, he became Newcastle’s youngest debutant, a boy in a man’s world.
Paul Ferris’ story is one of survival. He grew up in the midst of carnage, pain and bloodied footprints at the height of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’.
As a youngster he stood in his front room transfixed as the dancing flames engulfed the family’s ‘good room’. He also bore witness to his parents – Paddy and Bernadette – being assaulted in the middle of the estate after a night out.
Paul’s family were Catholic living in a largely Loyalist estate; the firebombing of the family house and assault prompted a remorseful visit from the local commander of the Loyalist UDA who outlined his organisation had played no role in either action.
Paddy accepted the apologies, Bernadette did not, but they remained in the estate even though numerous agencies offered them sanctuary in Nationalist Belfast.
Listed under 1976 in the chronology of the conflict are details of an atrocity that took place on Sunday 25th January.
‘Two Catholic civilians were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries who had left a bomb at the Hibernian Social Club, Conway Street, Lisburn, County Antrim’.
The victims were John Tennyson aged 25 and Raymond Mayes aged 33; the previous Sunday, Paddy had skipped the ritual of Mass for a pint in the Hibernian Social Club taking young Paul – then aged 10 – with him. He had spoken to both men that Sunday as they enquired about his footballing endeavours.
Ferris’ book ‘The Boy on The Shed’ draws on the insecurities he had about his mother’s health; a lady who survived numerous heart attacks. As a kid, Paul would spend large parts of his day sitting on the back shed, football in hand, watching over his mother’s daily routine in the kitchen.
A bright lad, he had his sights set on Queen’s University, but football seemed always to get in the way of his education as he made progress playing for the Lisburn Youth team, a cross community club where enjoyment and friendship were the order of the day.
Manchester United acted swiftly and asked him over for trails. Accompanying him was a gangly kid from the Shankill; Norman Whiteside would go on to be a star for the Red Devils, Paul returned home.
A few years later Bishop penned a letter to Newcastle United detailing the talents of the young lad from Lisburn. When they made an offer, doubts crept into Paul’s head; at one stage he asked the local school guidance councillor if he should go: ‘Son, are you mad?’ was the reply.
By then Paul had fallen head over heels for a local girl called Geraldine who would eventually go on to be his wife. The separation wasn’t easy when he waved goodbye to Paddy, Bernadette and Geraldine at Belfast airport heading for a supposed life less ordinary on Tyneside.
Ferris freely admits the tears flowed for days but a young John Carver immediately took him under his wing and he was soon accepted by Gascoigne, Beardsley, Waddle and co. at St. James’ Park. Happily, then Newcastle manager Arthur Cox also recognised the talent first witnessed by Bob Bishop and that the football folk of Lisburn.
In 1984, two years after becoming Newcastle’s youngest debutant, he scored his first goal in front of the famous Gallowgate End in a League Cup tie against Bradford City and by nineteen had the world at his feet, but disaster was about to strike. A freak training ground incident as he tried an overhead kick ended up with his world crashing down around him.
By twenty-one the injury had forced him to retire; practically homeless, penniless and with no qualifications, he and Geraldine moved back into digs with the lady who looked after him when he first arrived in Newcastle.
Ferris had to walk past St. James’ Park on his way to the benefits office to seek help and try and find accommodation. In the flat he and Geraldine settled in he heard a radio advert for a physiotherapy course at Newcastle College. It changed his life.
He duly enrolled and later, whilst training in a Newcastle hospital, Ferris received a call from Derek Wright, then head physio at Newcastle. It was an offer to join the club’s medical staff under his one-time hero and team-mate Kevin Keegan.
And so there was redemption for Ferris with the opportunity to look after the limbs of those who thrived and those who did not on Tyneside for eighteen years.
In football just 2% of the 16 year olds who sign contracts at English Premier League clubs are professionals by the age of 21. Despite having enough ability to convince the man who discovered George Best that he could make it right to the top, Ferris could not beat those odds. Yet, the harsh realities of the football business did not get the better of him. Today, he is a qualified barrister and author.
John Lennon wrote ‘A Working Class Hero is Something To Be’. If anyone embodies that, it’s Paul Ferris.