“There was a 99 percent chance that my career was over – but it was not 100 percent and I wanted to be the one percent that could prove them wrong.”
Four years ago, after a highly successful loan spell at Blyth Spartans, teenage goalkeeper Paul Woolston was released by Newcastle United. This despite making a name for himself in the Magpies academy and during his temporary stay with the then-Northern Premier League champions.
After spending time on trial with a number of EFL clubs and one in the United States, Woolston was given a chance to prove himself on the grandest stage English football has to provide. Manchester United offered him a deal after he proved himself during a trial with the 13-time Premier League champions and he settled into life training alongside the likes of David de Gea and current Newcastle transfer target Dean Henderson.
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But this year a routine operation picked up a hip injury that would end his promising career at the age of just 23. In an emotional interview with ChronicleLive, he explained: “I knew going in for the second operation, that could be the end of my career if it did not work.
“There was progress, the balance was right, I was flying but I knew there would be dips. I went outside, I did ball work, I did running, but then I made a ten yard pass and felt that feeling in my standing leg and I ran, the same thing happened.
I felt like someone had stabbed me, so I went on the physio bed and had it iced because I knew it had gone. I broke down in the car, I knew, I just knew that was it, I was done as a player. “
Two years of slog and sacrifice were without reward. There had been hours of lonely, painstaking recovery and rehabilitation and watching on as team-mates went about their day-to-day business on the training pitch and enjoying the challenges provided by matchday.
Some of his young Man. United team-mates have progressed into the Red Devils’ senior setup and others are starting to make a name for themselves at other clubs. But for North Shields-born Woolston it’s about reflecting on what he called ‘a real low blow’ as friends like Angel Gomes, Sean Longstaff and James Garner continue in the game.
“It’s been a long two years and it has not been easy,” he explained. “Football is a cruel game, and you do think ‘why has this happened to me?’.
“If I was in my mid to late-30s and I’ve had a chance to make a career for myself, you think fair enough, at least I’ve done something with my career. But I’m 23, I’ve not had that opportunity to make a name for myself. You think of the hard work, the sacrifices from everyone around me, it’s a real low blow. ”
Support has been forthcoming from his close-knit family and friends. Manchester United, to their credit, remained a constant throughout his rehabilitation and will remain present as he approaches the next step in his life.
Football’s famous ‘Goalkeepers Union’ has come to the fore, with Spanish international De Gea and experienced stopper Lee Grant both on hand to provide advice during a testing two years. But support has gone far beyond the union, it has come from other senior members of the first-team ranks at Old Trafford and those working hard behind the scenes.
Support has been there in abundance as Woolston came to terms with the heartbreaking news. “I had four great years at Manchester United and I got great support from a lot of people at what is a brilliant football club.
“The goalkeeper union is tight, we are always there for each other and the other goalkeepers were always there for me. They reassured me, they looked at different pathways and gave me advice on what could be best for me.
“The club have been brilliant, I’ve been able to talk about the future with them and they’ve understood I have needed time away and my own headspace. They’ve told me to ring if I needed them, I’ll try not to pester them too much because they’re on their holiday, but knowing they’re there as a club makes me think everything will be alright. ”
Football has been Woolston’s life for over 20 years. He started out playing in a Washington United Under-7s team coached by this writer to play at what many believe to be the biggest club in world football.
It was a journey that took him from playing on mud-caked pitches on Wearside to representing England at youth level and standing between the posts at the likes of St James’ Park and Old Trafford. He has trained alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard and has been part of a Red Devils academy famed for producing young talent that has gone on to shine at the highest level of the game.
But now, his playing career is behind him, thoughts have turned towards what comes next and a new chapter in his life. The game will continue to be his passion, his driver and his career, of that there is no doubt. “I will not jump into anything, I want to try everything out,” said Woolston.
“I am finishing my badges off and I will see what is out there. Manchester United have set me up with a lot of different meetings with different people from different backgrounds.
“I can not walk away from football – it’s just something I can not do because it’s something I’ve done since I was little. It’s all I have known so it would be the end of me to walk away from the game. “
“It’s a case of trying everything out and having the chance to speak to people to find what is the right option for me. It’s got to be the right fit. ”
Paul Woolston is now ready to move on from biggest blow of his career and prove people wrong all over again.
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