Weller: Joining Burnley was so scary
LYING in his hospital bed Paul Weller wondered if this was going to be a new beginning, or the beginning of the end.
His football career had only just got going.
But there he was, at the age of just 23, facing three lots of major surgery to not only help him to play again but improve his general quality of life.
Weller had been crippled by colitis for months.
It was to later develop into Crohn’s disease – a condition that causes the digestive system to become inflamed and affects digestion.
Steroids had eased the symptoms for a short time.
But then the condition worsened to the extent the versatile midfielder had required a blood transfusion to top up his levels.
For half a season he had managed to continue playing regular first team football.
But early into Stan Ternent’s reign at Turf Moor he knew he could not carry on.
He was written off with a ‘cruciate ligament injury’ at Ternent’s behest so that he could take the time he needed without interrogation about the reason for his lengthy absence.
Fate had brought him to Burnley. He hoped and prayed it was not dealing him a cruel hand now having worked hard to get to this point and already coped with more than his fair share of rejection as a boy.
Football was all he knew.
Not able to afford the luxuries of computer games – the Nintendos and Commodore 64s that were the in thing in the 1980s – instead Weller went to a patch of grass in between his high rise flat in Hove and the sea.
“There were no goalposts or anything, but I’d just used to go there with my ball, out there every day after school with my friends, weekends,” he said.
“I loved my football.”
At the age of seven Weller joined his local under eights team, playing up a year from the rest of his peers because he had shown such aptitude.
He learned the rough and tumble of boys’ football quickly, and how to handle it.
He rolled with the knock-backs he got from Brighton and kept going back for more.
“I went back quite a few times,” he said.
“Eventually when I got to 16 and apprenticeships I went for the final trial, but I got a ‘No’ again. Obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”
He was promoted to Worthing Dynamos’ first team instead, after five years moving through the club’s ranks when his family relocated to the town.
“I was getting paid £15 a week. At 16 that was brilliant!” he smiled.
“I left school and in the September went to Chichester College to do something sport related – I wasn’t very academic – and at the same time I was playing at the weekend for Worthing.
“It got to October time and the manager, John Murray, who used to play for Burnley, said ‘Paul, I’m leaving, but I’m a scout for Burnley and I’d like to take you up there for a trial’.
“I was meant to have a trial at Gillingham a few weeks beforehand but it got rained off, so I jumped at this chance.
“As a young lad I always played central midfield and I played there for Worthing, and when I came up to Burnley that’s where I played in a B team game against Bury.
“I was having a really good game and scored a goal.
“With 10 minutes to go I got a bad dead leg so I had to go off and Bury equalised, so it looked really good from my point of view.”
He was offered a two-year scholarship by Harry Wilson, but the big move was daunting.
“I was petrified at first because I’d never been anywhere north of Watford so it was a big, big thing moving home and going to live with a landlady. It was a scary thing,” recalled Weller, 39.
“My mum was on the phone every night crying. It was a nightmare at first.
“She wanted me to go and do my thing. But I found it difficult.
“The club allowed you to go home six times during the season and paid for your expenses. You were allowed home on a Saturday after a game, and you had to come back on Wednesday night ready for college on the Thursday.
“I used about three of my passes by Christmas, so Harry rang my mum and dad and said ‘I’m just letting you know he’s not coming home now for a couple of months, we’re banning him. We need him to man-up a little bit’.
“It was probably the best thing he did really.”
It wasn’t the only case of tough love that Weller experienced.
“We used an old gym, one where you went in and flick the light switch and hope that they came on,” he said.
“Because I was quite small and soft, Harry used to tell the second years to get me in the corner of the gym when the ball gets stuck in there steam in and kick hell out of him.
“I got mad. Harry used to see the anger come out of me and he learned how to deal with me.
“I remember being at the Cliff one day playing Manchester United in a B team game.
“I always used to be one of the last to walk out and as I did he came up behind me and volleyed me up the backside.
“I turned round and he knew that I was fuming.
“He told me to take it out on the midfielder.
“I went out there and had a really good game.
“But I said ‘Don’t do that every week’.
“But it was him getting the best out of me and it toughened me up quite a bit.”
He thought getting his professional break would be the hardest part.
Little did he know at that point that his biggest battle was to come.
Part two in tomorrow's Telegraph: Mullen’s moments, Heath hero worship, Waddle’s ways, Ternent’s temper and battling back to full fitness.