The most moving moment during the half-an-hour in Paul Woolston’s company is when he recalls the Manchester United doctor informing his mother her son would never play again.
Woolston’s mam, as she is known by her North Shields-born son, and dad had to endure the sorrow of their son’s retirement at the age of 23 after the upset of their daughter, Newcastle women’s full-back Rachel, recovering from rupturing her earlier cruciate ligament. Rachel had sustained the same injury in her other knee two years earlier.
The mention of ‘mam’ is the only occasion where Woolston’s voice trails off. He thought he had accepted the news he will never patrol a penalty area again due to a hip problem that required two lots of surgery until a BBC headline on Monday. The words ‘Former Man Utd keeper’ stopped Woolston in his tracks.
“I kind of had an inkling before the second op that this (retirement) was more than likely this was going to happen.,” he says in the media room of the Jimmy Murphy Center at United’s Carrington training complex. “It was just before the end of April. They said there could be a chance, like a 1% chance (of success). Ninety-nine out of 100, you want to be that one, don’t you? And I was like, if anyone can hopefully do it, it would be me.
“We knew, everyone around us at the club, this could be the way it might go, the dreaded news nobody wants to hear. When I first found out, luckily the doc was there, so I could block everything out, I didn’ don’t want to hear it.
“When the doc told me mam…. he kind of gave it the big script. I was just kind of dazed, I don’t really want to listen to it. It was hard at the time accepting it, to actually go , is it not true? Is this what the picture looks like? It didn’t settle for some time.
“There’d be nights where I wasn’t even maybe getting an hour’s sleep, every thought running through my head. It was difficult on my family as well, the sacrifices mam and dad made growing up, my brothers and my sister, everyone around us played a part in it.It wasn’t just me on this journey that everything stopped, it was the whole family and everyone around us.
“They put me in goal when I was little, my two brothers! So when they had friends come round in the garden it was just ‘throw the youngest in there, kick it as hard as you can!’ And that kind of developed me into a goalkeeper even though I played outfield until I turned 10 at Darlington.
“It was emotional, it was difficult, but we got around each other and said, okay, this is something you’ve dreamed of since you were little but what can you take out of this? What are the positives? What can you look back on and say this has helped me be that person, to go there and experience that?”
Despite all those hours, days, prone in a hospital bed or on the sofa, Woolston has retained his strapping frame and is remarkably upbeat. An adviser at Base Soccer, his representatives of him, last year held weekly video calls with Woolston to check in on him as he braced himself for the news to be publicized. They detected he was putting on a brave face and assured him it was okay not to feel okay.
I didn’t. Woolston adjusted to sleep in discomfort some time ago and the sleepless nights were a mental toll. “I would say it was more mental,” he says. “I know how to fall asleep in a bit of discomfort and niggles, I’m used to that, but it was about not being able to take my mind off it, not think about other things because it was the same scenarios going through my head.
“No matter the time of day, a lot of questions, a lot of whys, ifs. If I didn’t do that, if I’d tried something different, but it was probably more mental than physical, that was the impact at the start.
“Once I accepted that the dream’s over, that everything I’ve worked for since I could walk, basically, something that I loved, was taken away from me, it took a few months to get over but after that I kind of went, if I can’t be successful on the pitch I want to be successful off it.
“I’ve had setbacks, been released from two clubs, played for my country and didn’t play again. I’ve used that to go, all right, that’s fair enough, I’m going to keep going and keep working hard .”
Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay and David de Gea went out of their way to speak to Woolston. It was another member of the goalkeepers’ union who was an invaluable confidant: Lee Grant.
“The main one really has been Granty. From the start, he’s been brilliant,” Woolston enthuses. “Having that conversation with someone who’s had a career, still having a career, he’s experienced, he’s been in my shoes at times. Not with this, but he’s been a great mentor, just sometimes taking my mind off things, looking at it slightly differently.
“Because he didn’t have to do it. Why would an experienced pro want to invest? But that’s just who these players are, they have genuine interests in who’s coming through. And most of the time it’s ‘how are you doing? How are you feeling in yourself?’ And just looking out for us.
“He’s just said, [stay] as I was on the pitch, off it, in the gym, around the building, just be myself. Doors will open, things will move, don’t rush into anything, take your time but most of all, make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing and don’t think you need to do this, this and this. Sometimes take a step back and have a look. You need to make a decision at some point but you don’t need to do it now. Have fun and enjoy what’s about to come, enjoy the experiences you’re going to have and if there are any questions then give us a call and we’ll go through things. Just bits of advice – should I go for that? Working with each other, throwing things at each other, he’s been brilliant for that.”
Although Woolston was 20 at the time of his arrival and not technically an academy product at United, he caught the eye of their scouts playing for Newcastle Under-18s against them. On his debut, as ftae would have it, back up at Newcastle, James Garner and Mason Greenwood were fellow starters. In Woolston’s final career appearance, Hannibal Mejbri and Anthony Elanga were in the same line-up.
Woolston’s alarm blared at 5am on Thursday morning ahead of a flight from Heathrow (he laughs he is relieved not to be flying from Manchester) to Dallas to assist the U15s and U17s in the Generation Adidas Cup. Woolston is close to obtaining his Uefa B license coaching badge and keen to gauge how United operate off the pitch. He intends to be involved in everything from scouting the opposition to assisting the kit man.
The academy is the most celebrated feature of United and run with determination and dignity by Nick Cox. Those released in the summer of 2020 were still assisted in finding new clubs and invited to train at Carrington to maintain their fitness
Woolston has been another beneficiary of that duty of care. I have received a contract extension in July to provide financial security even though his playing days were over.
“They’ve been brilliant with the duty of care ever since I stepped through the door,” Woolston beams. “For the club to go, right, there’s another year, forget about everything, work hard to get fit. And unfortunately, it didn’t have the pot of gold at the end that I was fit and back out playing, but it gave me a chance to look forward and get fit for life.
“It was everyone in every department working together to make sure I would be all right for the year. Medical staff, people at the top, everyone trying to pull something together to give us extra time to get fit.
“The support they do that goes on quietly behind the scenes doesn’t get acknowledged. They’ve understood what I’ve needed, if I need a break here or there, just take me away from coming in, knowing that it will come to a head one day, giving me that time and helping me know to go into the real world.
“I’ve been lucky enough to live a life in football and seeing that there is more to life than football, even though it was my dream, but there is another side that doesn’t mean if I can’t be successful here I can be successful wherever.
“They (United)’re there, we’re working together because they’re a part of it, they’re not saying go and find things on your own, they’re helping me get in touch with people, sit down with people, work with people, have these experiences.
“It’s strange. you hear about the Man United family, you think, ‘what is it?’ You don’t really know until you get inside and you have all of these amazing people at the club helping me to achieve whatever’s next.”
Woolston’s unveiling at United was as original as it was impromptu. The singer Anne-Marie was visiting Carrington during the November internationals in 2018, because of a photocall in a quiet week. Woolston had been training at the club since September, residing in the Premier Inn by the Trafford Centre, but his signing had not been formally announced.
De Gea was on international duty, so Woolston was promoted to first-team training. Conscious he did not feel a sense of belonging in the senior squad, he stepped out of shot. Fellow Guard Grant enthusiastically encouraged Woolston to strike a pose, so Woolston was sandwiched between Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young. United’s tweet welcomed Anne-Marie but Woolston, bearing the squad number 32, was the conspicuous presence.
“It was surreal finding out a club of this size wanted me after getting released by two clubs, going on trials and it not working and thinking is it over?” he says. “I never wanted to accept that, I believed in myself, worked hard and gave myself the best chance.
“When the phone call came, it was like, you’re winding me up, Man United? But then they said ‘can you come tomorrow?’ and I thought, this is serious.
“I’ve driven along that lane a few times growing up,” he says of the stretch approaching Carrington, “playing against the academy. To actually drive down it on the first day as a Man United player was quite surreal, I was shell -shocked the biggest club in the world wanted to sign me.”
A cricket obsessive and cousin of the Australia international Matt Renshaw, Woolston had to decide between the red ball and football aged 15 and the prospect of following England abroad appeals. He already has tickets for England’s one day international against New Zealand in Amsterdam in June and longed to be in the Caribbean for the three Tests last month.
There will be more time for family days out at Sunderland, Woolston’s boyhood club. He says he will take time to enjoy experiences that would have otherwise been reserved for retirement in his mid-to-late 30s. In such a condensed career, he has still banked memories that are boy’s own stuff.
“Winning at Wembley with my primary school. That was April 26 2008,” he reflects. “We got beat in the semi-finals the day before off Peafield Lane, a school from Nottingham. They handballed it! I still remember it now. But then we won the third/fourth play-off. Stuff like that, even talking about it now, it’s with immense pride.
“I look back at it a bit more: playing for England, experiences and success I had at Sunderland coming through, Newcastle and here. There are that many.
“Walking out at Old Trafford, definitely, is what millions worldwide dream of. I think it was against West Ham, we drew 2-2. Having that experience on the pitch drives you on: I want more of this, I want to play on this regularly.Just getting the opportunity to be here and sign for Man United has been a great experience.
“Some of [the memories] are a bit raw but they are brilliant to look back on and even in years to come, I did all right for myself.”