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One of the many virtues of the decision of Dave Thomas to devote his retirement to cataloguing the fortunes of Burnley Football Club is that his interest in biography has seen him publish books on individuals whose stories would otherwise have gone untold. I think the most striking example of this from his oeuvre is his book on Roy Oldfield, the Turf Moor and Gawthorpe groundsman who found himself at the sharp end of the club’s calamitous decline in the 70s and 80s. But some players also have enjoyed the Dave T treatment who, at other clubs, would have slipped unheralded into retirement.

I don’t think it’s being unkind to Paul Weller to suggest that he falls into this category, despite the vital contribution he made to the club re-establishing its position as a solid, competitive second-tier outfit. In retrospect, we can now understand how important this was. It established a platform – a work ethic and a set of playing standards upon which subsequent managers were able to build. And in this project, Weller played far more than just a bit part. 226 starts and 287 appearances in 13 years at the club is a proper shift, no question. The relatively meagre return of 13 goals is maybe the reason why he divided opinion among some and left the club with little fanfare, part of the Ternent fin de siècle of 2004.

This seems both odd and unfair, given the pride that the club and its supporters take in the Burnley tradition of developing homegrown talent. Weller was one of the ‘Young Guns’ coming through and challenging the older players for a first-team place under Jimmy Mullen, along with Chris Brass, Paul Smith and Andy Cooke, and he won a prolonged run in the team under Adrian Heath, keen to bring the younger players through, and who in Weller saw something of himself, the diminutive, skilful attacking midfielder. Even at this early stage, however, Heath found himself having to publicly defend Weller after he was the target of some barracking from the Longside.

One of the problems for Weller was that while his contemporaries had clear roles in the team – defender, winger, striker – with obvious, tangible outcomes, this was less the case for what he was assigned to do: to be an outlet for the defence, find space, keep the ball moving through midfield, link up play. In today’s stat-saturated game, we know that Josh Brownhill is the leading interceptor in the Premier League. This does no harm at all to his standing among supporters, but how obvious this would be if the stats weren’t so widely publicised is an interesting but unknowable question.

So it is fair to say that Weller had to work hard to earn his acceptance among supporters, and this was before the illness that makes his story unique. Until that point, his was a fairly typical journey, starting as it did from inauspicious beginnings in a working class, split family household in Hove. He was actually brought up as Paul McDonald, the name of his step-dad, before reverting to his biological father’s surname at the age of 16. His mum worked two jobs to bring in enough money for the family, and Paul, although by no means a dullard, had little interest in formal education, spending all of his free time playing football with the other local lads on the streets and in the parks of Brighton and Hove. It was a family move just 10 miles down the south coast to Worthing that made the serendipitous connection that gave him his chance at the professional game. The local semi-pro side was managed by ex-Claret John Murray, who recommended Weller to his old team-mate and Burnley manager, Frank Casper.

We have noticed before in these pages the success of the Frank Casper–Gordon Clayton combo in spotting under-appreciated talent in the early 90s, although this was mainly with established pros (25k for John Deary? Yes please!). In the discovery of Weller, we have proof that Casper was alive to the benefits of keeping the feelers out among his old football pals, especially those still active at the grass roots of the game. Weller travelled north and did enough to earn an apprenticeship, signing his forms on the eve of Casper’s sacking in 1991. So, at the age of 16, he moves to Burnley and has the time-worn experience of the young footballing hopeful: in digs with local families, sweeping terraces, cleaning dressing rooms, polishing boots – all for £35 a week, with a £10 bonus if named in the first-team squad.

It’s when he is offered his first professional contract that a consistent Weller trait first emerges: he doesn’t under-estimate his value and won’t be short-changed by the club. He admits to being stubborn, but insists that his actions were motivated by a determination to be treated fairly:

“It seemed I was always arguing about, or holding out, for more money. Not out of greed but out of a sense of fairness and what I was worth and if you see other players getting that bit more, you want the same. It was almost a game, with me saying I’ll play when I get what I think I’m worth. I’m a stubborn little sod when I want to be.”

This tendency pays off handsomely when he is awarded a new contract at the start of the ill-fated ITV Digital era, but his first financial skirmish with the club is for a somewhat smaller stake: Jimmy Mullen offers him a first professional contract of £150 per week. When Weller discovers that some of his peers have been offered £175, he holds out for the higher rate and finally wins out. One reason for this is that he is already on the fringes of the first team, and when he is picked for an early-season League Cup tie against Leicester in October 1995, chairman Teasdale baulks at the sight of a non-contract player on the pitch and tells Mullen as much. The only resolution is to give Weller what he wants.

But his progression to the first team is not without its obstacles. He includes a chapter on his experiences of bullying while an apprentice at the Turf, although it is difficult to judge precisely where he stands on the issue. Weller both acknowledges the harshness of the treatment he was on the receiving end of, and yet seems ambiguous about the greater awareness that exists today about the toll that bullying can take on young players. He thinks the physical and verbal attacks ‘didn’t do him any harm,’ but it is always something of a puzzle when people downplay the violence that they once themselves suffered, and runs the risk of forgetting those who were more badly affected by it.

To be fair, Weller is certainly clear about what he thinks of his youth team coach at Gawthorpe, Harry ‘the Bastard’ Wilson – on one occasion he is physically attacked by Wilson just as he is going onto the pitch to ‘get him mad’. He also includes some nightmarish experiences experienced by his Burnley team-mates at previous clubs, particularly Graham Branch. Weller further acknowledges that other coaches at Gawthorpe were just as effective without the mania – he witnesses John Ward dealing with some David Eyres intransigence in such a chillingly cool manner that a spooked Eyres seeks him out afterwards to apologise.

Weller devotes a chapter to his impressions of the managers he played under. For all of Mullen’s flaws, he respects him for the promotions and particularly for the 91/92 side, which he rates as: “…one of the best ever, filled with characters and winners. I was only an apprentice then, but loved to watch them. They tore at the opposition, bombed down the flanks, snapped up the chances; Fourth Division they may have been, but they played a brand of football far above that.”

Weller enjoys playing under Heath, who he suspects has a soft spot for him as a small midfielder, telling him that he can be ‘the team’s Ray Houghton’, a midfield linkman with a few goals in him. The same could not be said of Weller’s experience under Waddle, who he says lost the dressing room almost immediately. That said, he establishes himself under Waddle, albeit in a losing side that at one point looked too far gone at the bottom of the table to escape relegation. Only when Glen Little is reinstated after being unfathomably sidelined do results start to recover, aided by the one bit of good business that season – the exchange of Paul Barnes for Andy Payton. It is during this desperate scrap against relegation that Weller scores one of his most memorable Burnley goals, a delicate side-of-the-boot flick and emphatic volley to put the Clarets 2–1 up at Oldham in front of an enormous and impassioned away following.

By this time, Weller has already started to suffer the early symptoms of the disease that will ultimately put his career on hold. Exemplifying the moniker of colitis as the ‘silent illness’, Weller admits that he told no one and just used an antibiotic in the hope that it would clear up whatever the problem was. When what turned out to be ulcerative colitis revealed itself with full-blown symptoms on a post-season trip to Cyprus in May 1998, a Burnley physio booked him into hospital under the club’s medical insurance.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. He had just bought a house in the area, but was also out of contract and stalling on a new deal – both because, typically, he thought the deal on the table could be better, but also that his form in the last half of the season had attracted admirers, the best known of whom was Harry Redknapp, then managing West Ham, who had invited him down to the East End for training.

From a certain perspective, this didn’t exactly endear Weller to Burnley fans: they saw a youngster nurtured at Gawthorpe and given his opportunity in the first team – in the best traditions of the club – now stalling on a new deal and openly admitting that he would be off to West Ham if the opportunity arose. It did, but after nearly three weeks in Burnley General on a course of high-grade steroids he wasn’t in the best condition to impress Redknapp. But it does indicate the quality of football Weller had produced on a consistent basis. Whatever your views on Redknapp, there is no question that he was one of the few English managers to trust flair players and place a high premium on skill, and in Weller he saw a potential top-flight player.

Meanwhile, Stan Ternent, newly-installed at the Turf, had secured the board’s agreement to give Weller the contract he wanted. So, by August 1998, he was back at the Turf with a three-year deal, a contract whose security value could not be overstated when the colitis quickly returned. After struggling through a 1–3 defeat at Walsall that same month, he sees the club doctor again. Stan, to his immense credit, tells Weller what he needs to hear: ‘Get it sorted and come back when you are ready. Take as long as you want.’

Indeed, Stan Ternent is a huge part of the story that follows, and Weller is clear that he holds Stan in high esteem for what he considers to be a true football education. The opening chapter reprises some of the ‘best of’ Stan stories from ex-players, all of whom have the same impression – that he was a canny practitioner of tough love, a pugnacious and often unreasonable character, but one who they also instinctively understood had their best interests at heart.

The medics initially tell Weller that he needs more drugs and rest (who doesn’t?) and it is suspected that stress was a factor in the development of his colitis, although he explains that it is more commonly thought of as a malfunction of the body’s auto-immune system. But by November 1998, it is clear that the medication isn’t working and Weller, still just 21 years old, is given a daunting diagnosis: he needs to have his bowel removed.

The procedure took five months and three operations, and he doesn’t spare us the details. I think we can safely say that this is the first Burnley FC memoir to discuss the problem of anal soreness. But while Weller’s illness is unquestionably an important part of the story he tells in ‘Not Such A Bad Life’, it’s worth emphasising that it isn’t defined by it. He never gives the impression of feeling sorry for himself, just irritated that this is the fate that has befallen him, and always with a focus to recover and continue playing.

Between the first operation in December 1998 and the third operation in April 1999, Weller has a stoma that requires an external colostomy bag. One minor plus is that he wins hands down a scar contest with Glen Little, who is recovering from a hernia operation. But the key to saving his career was the creation by the surgeon of an ‘internal pouch’, meaning that by the end of the process, he no longer needed the bag. Paul admits today that that was the sine qua non without which he would have retired.

However, this isn’t the end of the bad timing. Weller misses the undefeated run at the end of the 1998/99 season that set the squad up for their promotion triumph the following season: Stan had established a winning format without Paul Weller. He makes his return as a substitute in the televised 1–2 home defeat to Scunthorpe in October 1999, but finds it tough to break into a side that consistently challenged at the top end of the table. His frustration starts to show:

“My fitness was back and I was raring to go. But there was no regular first-team place. I was 24, probably another ten years ahead of me, the peak years approaching, and felt hard done by. I was certain I was ready to get back in the side but Stan didn’t include me. We had more than one row and fell out several times… He knew I was disgruntled, so the day came when he said ‘right you can go’ and put me on the transfer list.”

To add to the impression of someone writing off the season and getting ready to put himself in the shop window for the next campaign, Weller has a knee operation in February. By April, he is fully fit and Stan includes him in the squad for the game at Oxford.

Perhaps I am writing here only for myself, but I suspect that others also look back at that Oxford game as the 90 minutes that convinced us that nothing was going to stop that side from winning promotion. Let’s not let the final result cloud the realities of the day. For starters, the kick-off time was put forward to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. This merely meant more beer for the many London Clarets there that day in what was, and remains, a decent drinking town. Once the game started, however, we were forced to sober up on an open terrace in the driving rain watching a wretched Burnley performance against an Oxford side in deep relegation trouble. Stan threw on Ian Wright as a sub. Less predictably, he also turned to Weller. The clock was nudging 5pm when Steve Davis rose to plant a majestic, parabolic header beyond the Oxford keeper to level the game at 1–1, and it wasn’t much longer after this that the two subs combined for the decisive moment of the match. Wright chased a lost cause down the Burnley left, retrieved the ball and sent over a guided missile of a cross. Without having to break stride, Weller, at the back post, nonchalantly headed it across the Oxford keeper and in. Cue damp pandemonium.

Weller lingers on this moment in the book. He describes the scenes after the game in the dressing room, but also makes it clear that it is a happy moment of personal reflection for him: “…grinning from ear to ear, once lying in a hospital bed having had a major operation, not once but three times, at one point looking at my intestines lying on top of my stomach, wondering: would I ever play again?”

The two seasons that follow see Weller at the peak of his game. He is a near ever-present in the side and is awarded a 4-year contract that takes into account the ITV Digital money that the club has included in its projected budget, with the contract even including an in-built pay rise each year, peaking at £5,000 a week, the most money Weller ever got as a professional footballer.

Of course, the fever dream of ITV Digital was not to last, and Weller became one of the stalwarts that the club relied on to see it through its period of financial retrenchment. By the 2003/04 season, the club was in a desperate financial state. Weller recalls one triallist leaving before the end of his trial as it was so obvious how little money the club had. As the club tried to rally support in the town, Weller ended up on the Stoops estate with a Sky camera crew in tow knocking on doors to try and sell ‘Claret & Blue Bonds’. He grimly recalls:

“Some of them hadn’t got two pence to rub together, yet here we were asking them to stump up a quid a time, or to become regular subscribers. They came to the door when we knocked because they could see the cameras that followed us around, otherwise they’d have ignored us, probably thinking we were debt collectors. ‘What am I doing here?’ I thought, getting money from people who had none. I only did it the once; it was enough.”

The 2003/04 season was Weller’s last at the club on his millennial deal, and the environment had dramatically deteriorated from the optimism of the first two seasons in the second tier. Stan was forced to make do with the squad he had, and Weller says that a number of them occasionally played when not fully fit, himself included. He believes to this day that survival in 2004 was a significant achievement for that squad of players, but there was a heavy price to pay. Weller needed a knee operation mid-season, but he delayed it to help the club to safety on the assumption that Stan, and by extension himself, would be offered new contracts. He didn’t even mind the inevitable and heavy reduction in pay. As he put it:

“There was no way that Stan had any intimation of what was to come. In my head there was no reason to think that both of us were now on borrowed time. I was due to be married in the summer, it was reasonable to expect that Stan and I would sit down and talk about a new contract.”

Weller thinks that Barry Kilby was 50-50 on whether to extend Stan’s contract until quite late in the season. The chairman had been distinctly unimpressed by the meek FA Cup defeat at Cheltenham, but Weller thinks that it was the chaotic 3–0 defeat at Rotherham, with players openly arguing among themselves, that finally convinced Kilby that a change was needed.

Weller had, unusually, gone through his career without an agent. But looking back, he now understands that this was a period where he would have benefited from some guidance. Stan’s release from the club suddenly placed Weller in a deeply precarious position, something he thinks he could have avoided with an agent looking after his interests – such as negotiating a temporary three-month contract to prove his fitness to the new manager. Even worse, he continues to make mistakes – he doesn’t think to insist that the club allows him to rehab at Gawthorpe after his knee operation, which would have seen him around the place as the new manager settled in.

Steve Cotterill was appointed on 1 June, and a few days later, on the night before Weller’s wedding, he phones Weller to tell him he is being released, this in spite of the new manager turning up and finding a club with just eight professionals on the books. Weller is now completely cut off from his past life at Turf Moor and, at the age of 29, has no playing contract. An offer finally comes along: Rochdale offer him £180 per week. He turns it down and heads for trials at other places, but realises that he does not have the sufficient desire to play full-time in the lower leagues. He is officially unemployed:

“The oldest cliché in the book, from hero to zero in the space of a few months. One week, people are asking for autographs and now you are yesterday’s man… And from the club itself, absolutely no aftercare whatsoever. Disposed of like an old settee. But then that’s what happens at most clubs.”

Weller sets out clearly the perils of the retired footballer, and the book relates some stories from his old team-mates at the Turf. One factor in the stories that turn out well seem to be the presence of a supportive family and dependents, and Weller is no exception. He has two young children and kindly in-laws; this, together with his own pro-active disposition soon sees him back in work and busier than ever. But once again, things don’t quite work out as he hopes.

In some ways, Weller is the victim of his own success. After some coaching and community work at Burnley, his reputation is impressive enough for him to be recruited as head of the community operation at Bury. He creates an award-winning programme, but as his stock rises, so does the responsibility and stress. He has an inside track at Bury of the goings-on that ultimately led to the demise of the club, an outcome that he says, sadly, did not surprise him. When the decision is made to move Bury’s football academy over to the community team, Weller finds himself regularly dealing with the men in suits in the boardroom. On the pitch, he finds success. Together with fellow ex-Clarets like Vince Overson and Alan Moore, Weller instigates changes that raise standards to the point where some of the youngsters can be sold on for fees. But off the pitch, the internal politics become so stressful that Weller again develops a serious health problem. This time, he is diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, another serious inflammatory bowel condition.

Weller takes the hint and gets out of the game. Today he is a successful car salesman with his own business, but keeps a toehold in football through his work for Radio Lancashire, where he offers articulate and opinionated views on Sean Dyche and his team. Indeed, it is rare to find Weller without an opinion, which is certainly helpful when you have a book to write. ‘Not Such A Bad Life’ includes his views on a range of modern issues in football, and he tends not to hold fire. He is, for example, sceptical of what will be achieved at Gawthorpe with the expensive move to a Category 1 Academy:

“Burnley can’t attract the best young players. Even with Burnley in the Premiership, still the best kids are hoovered up by United, City, Liverpool and Everton. Millions have been invested at Gawthorpe…and still, I can’t see any prospect of Burnley’s first team, one day, being comprised of a core of home-grown players.”

As well as being a Paul Weller book, this is also in part a Dave Thomas book. While Paul relates his side of the story from a playing perspective, the narrative of his years at the club is deepened by Dave’s encyclopaedic knowledge of events off the pitch. These include chapters on the ITV Digital fiasco and on the strange saga of Peter Shackleton, the latter in the sort of forensic detail that makes me wonder that Dave might have missed his true vocation as a private investigator.

This being a football book, it wouldn’t be complete without the usual quota of after-dinner stories of high crimes and misdemeanours. One of my favourites was about Glen Little, to whom a chapter is devoted since Weller considers it one of the true friendships he has made in football. In Little’s first practice match of a week-long trial at the Turf, he nutmegs manager Heath at will. Watching on the touchline, scout Clive Middlemass is hugging himself with delight, convinced that the club has lucked into recruiting a major talent. After the second day of training, an incredulous Heath calls Little into his office and says: “What’s happened? You’re either on drugs, up for murder, or on the run. Someone with your talent shouldn’t be coming on trial from an Irish club.”

Heath snaps Little up, but he is immediately sidelined by Waddle, which makes one wonder whether Super Glen got on the wrong side of Waddle by giving him the nutmeg treatment as well.

To conclude, this is ultimately a redemptive story, told in a straightforward but compelling narrative. In many ways, Weller fits the standard mould of a kid from a council flat making his own luck and carving out a decent career in a notoriously volatile profession. But to have done this whilst also having to deal with a major physical and mental trauma at a young age makes Weller’s tale something out of the ordinary.

The remarkable thing is his lack of despondency. I happen to know that the working title of the book referenced one of his illnesses, but it is entirely apposite that the finished product rings a much more positive note on his time at the Turf and, indeed, on Weller’s life in general. For this is about facing up to some formidable adversaries, and, even if not entirely defeating them, being able to look back with the satisfaction of knowing that neither did they defeat you.

 

This article originally appeared in the London Clarets magazine.

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