UTD Unscripted: Grit your teeth

Saturday 26 March 2022 08:00

My hip has decided that time is up for me as a footballer. That’s not the end of my story, though – far from it. This is just the start of a new chapter.

Retirement is a difficult thing for anybody to process. 

I’ve seen and heard of players struggling to cope after they’ve called time on their football career, just because of the change in lifestyle. It’s massive and it can hit people hard. For the vast majority of them, though, at least they can look back on all the years they’ve spent doing what they love. 

As a goalkeeper especially, I thought that 40 was a realistic target for my retirement. You tend to get those extra years because you’re not doing as much running as the outfield lads. Instead, I’ve had to call it a day at 23. Not much past halfway to 40. For me, retiring from football is a strange feeling, as you’d expect. It certainly hasn’t been easy to go through.

When you know that your playing career is coming to an end, you lie there in bed with questions racing through your head. Believe me, they go through your head on a loop.

It's hard to process but, now that I’ve had a bit of time since taking the decision just before Christmas, I feel a lot more positive now and ready for the next stage of the career.
Paul Woolston says

"Retiring from football is a strange feeling. It certainly hasn’t been easy to go through."

Firstly, it’s not like I don’t have any memories to look back on. 

Mam and Dad driving us everywhere to training and matches, playing for my boyhood team Sunderland as a kid, playing at Wembley aged nine for my primary school, joining Newcastle, playing for England at Under-17s and Under-18s, travelling around the country as a 17-year-old with the Newcastle first team squad, winning the league on loan at Blyth Spartans, then a trial at Phoenix Rising in the United States. After that, well... I won’t forget the day I came back from Phoenix.

I was in bed trying to get ahead of the jetlag when my dad came into my room and told me he’d got me a new club sorted. 

“Oh aye, who’s that?”

“Manchester United.”
I said something you probably can't publish and went back to sleep. It was only after I’d woken up that I started to digest what he’d said, so I went and talked to him. Sure enough, United wanted me at Carrington the next day.

That was the start of an unbelievable chapter of my life. 

I’d been down the lane at Carrington on coaches many times before to come and play against United, as a youngster with Sunderland and Newcastle, but driving down it to be a part of the club was a totally different feeling. I saw Fetts – Alan Fettis – and Wolfie – Kevin Wolfe – early on and that really settled my nerves because I already knew them both from Sunderland.

Once I settled into things at United, coming into the Under-23s squad, I had the privilege of training with some unbelievable players. The goalkeeper group here is incredible. For me, David De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world – there aren’t words for some of the things he does in training – but behind him you’ve got Deano pushing him hard, Tom Heaton, Lee Grant… the club has some of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. As a young lad coming through you learn just from watching them, but they’re always full of advice to help you as well. The club really has built a great group of lads there.

When I first joined, I hadn’t been training properly for a little while, so I was miles off the pace required. Once I got up to speed, though, I loved playing in the Under-23s.
Paul Woolston says

"Once I settled at United, I had the privilege of training with some unbelievable players."

As a footballer you get injuries, that’s just part of the game, and as a goalkeeper I’ve always put my body on the line without a second thought. Each time I’ve had a niggle, an ache or a pain, I’ve slept it off and gone again the following day. Whatever the problem was, it would settle down sooner rather than later.

Just over a year ago, though, I felt a problem in my hip which just wouldn’t settle. I knew something wasn’t right. Eventually I explained it all to the physios and I was referred to a specialist so that I could have minor surgery on it. Going into theatre, everybody was expecting it to be a case of tidying up the joint and the socket and then I could get back to playing. 

I was still coming around in the recovery room when the surgeon told me that I’d have to come back because what he’d found inside was much worse than anyone had anticipated. There was a lot more work still to do. So I had the second surgery, which was a lot more complicated.

The hardest part of everything I’ve done, which I’ll never forget, was leaving the hospital after the second operation and trying to get in the car to go home. The pain was just unbelievable. After that, I initially spent time using a wheelchair so I could get out and about in the fresh air. I had to learn to trust my hip again and slowly get back to walking. Literally every step was hard work but I was prepared for that, so I’d just get on with it. I was working towards coming back until I had a flare up which was expected to last a week. 

It lasted for six weeks.
Paul Woolston says

"I don’t want to be in excruciating pain as I get older. Playing on just wasn’t an option."

I didn’t want to acknowledge it and I was prepared to work as hard as I could, but ultimately we arrived at that position after that flare-up and the fallout from it. I don’t want to be in excruciating pain as I get older; I want to be able to enjoy my life. If I have kids then I want to be able to kick a ball around with them. All of that was under threat. Playing on just wasn’t an option. 

Over the festive period I had some time away from the club. For a while now, I’ve been rehabbing and training with the aim of getting fit for the rest of my life, rather than earmarking a return to getting out on the pitch. The staff at United have been incredible, so flexible in how they’ve been with me, and they’ve let me work through things in my own way at my own pace.

Apart from the medical staff, Granty has been one of the main support mechanisms for me and my family. He’s been absolutely brilliant, just checking in on me to make sure I’ve been alright. We’ve had some great long chats and it’s been so helpful to have him with me through it all and lean on all of his experience. He didn’t need to do it and I’m sure he has no idea how helpful he’s been. The same goes for my family. Every single member of the family has been there for me every step of the way, understanding what I’ve needed at different stages – even if it was just some space – and I can’t spell out how grateful I am to them.

Of course, that means that the next step I take will be a big one. Using the negative as a positive, it’s an exciting time in the sense that I’ve now got another career to come. It’s a move into the unknown, but I’ve got a few options and I’m determined to succeed on whichever path I take. I’m backing myself all the way. I’ve done a range of courses down the years, I’m currently working towards my UEFA B licence and I’m taking an open-minded approach to every possibility.

I’m not going to lie to you: of course I’m sad that this part of my story has come to an end already, but I’ve got a lot of possibilities and options for what happens next. That’s something that I find very exciting. Football has really been my life so far, but even if I end up looking in another industry, I can take the lessons I’ve learnt from my career and apply them going forward. Football has shaped my mindset and right now I’m telling myself one thing: grit your teeth and take the next step.

Previously in this series: