Former Manchester United goalkeeper Paul Woolston did not want to accept reality when he was told his career was over at the age of 23.
“I completely zoned out,” he says. “Is he talking about me? Is this real? Surely this is wrong? It can’t be me. It can’t be right.”
Sadly for Woolston, it was and at the end of last month he announced his retirement.
It turned out the minor hip twinge he felt in training 14 months earlier was far worse than he could have imagined.
After two lots of surgery, Woolston was presented with a clear choice. He could try to play again, push his body through more pain as he tried to fulfil the footballing dream he had held since he was a small child – but the consequences would be severe.
“The advice of the specialists was if I continued for another two years, my way of life would be totally different, that I would struggle to walk,” says the former England youth player.
“It would be a full hip replacement at the age of 25. From there it is a long road. It was simple things like, if I am lucky to have kids in the future, I didn’t want to say: ‘Sorry, I can’t do it because I have ruined my hip.'”
If there is one solace Woolston can dreg from the darkness that enveloped him – “I wouldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to get out of bed” – it is that football is far more aware of the duty of care it has for young players.
Woolston achieved far more than many footballers. He played for England at the Under-17 World Cup, in the same squad as Trent Alexander-Arnold. He was signed by boyhood club Sunderland. He also joined Newcastle and even though he never made a first-team appearance at Manchester United, the senior goalkeepers at Old Trafford all sent messages. Lee Grant, in particular, has been a major source of advice.
The interview Woolston conducted with BBC Sport was part of his rehabilitation process – talking about his experiences has become almost cathartic in getting over the trauma he has experienced.
“I am pleased the topic of mental health is out there now,” he says.
“The club have been brilliant in what they have been able to offer and the guidance they have given. Having that support has made the last 12 to 14 months much easier.
“Going back a few years, I would probably have been just out of the door. But they have given me time to get fit for life and help me on the next part of the journey.”
It is hard though. Resilience is a word that comes up quite often as Woolston explains his feelings at what has happened – and what does lie ahead.
“It took a while to deal with it,” he says.
“At the start there was lots of ‘why me’s?,’ ‘what have I done wrong?’. I wasn’t wishing it on anyone else but it was: ‘Why couldn’t it happen to someone else?’ I was right at the start of my career. It hasn’t really started. It was like: ‘Why? Why has it stopped my dreams coming true?’
“I had a few days where I wasn’t thinking straight and I had scenarios running through my head.
“Once I fully understood what I needed to do, it was easier to know why instead of blaming myself and others. It is something that happened. It is life. It is tough. It is difficult. But there is not much you can do.”
‘I have a determination to succeed and that will never change’
United have let Woolston work in various departments at the club. He wants to stay in football and is starting on the path of getting his Uefa coaching badges but it is not entirely certain his body would be up to the demands of a conventional goalkeeping coach, so he may have to look at other avenues.
Evidently, Woolston’s life to date has revolved around football. He is stepping out of that environment at a time when many of his peers are fresh out of university and starting to build their lives and careers from firmer foundations.
“It is quite scary,” he says. “But it is also quite exciting. There is a world out there I haven’t even dipped my toe into.
“I have a determination to succeed and that will never change.
“In two years’ time I want to be starting to make a name for myself. I know it is not going to be easy. It is a difficult road and it takes time but I will come back.
“Mentally I want to be in a good place. I will be settled hopefully and using every bit of experience and advice to make me the person I want to be.”
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