Former Northern Ireland footballer, Paul McVeigh moved to England as a 16–year–old after signing a professional contract with Spurs. He went onto enjoy a top flight career spanning 16 seasons.
Now retired from playing Paul delivers training and keynote speeches about mental performance and personal effectiveness. He has published a book on the subject called, ‘The Stupid Footballer is Dead: Insights into the mind of a professional footballer’ and has recently returned from a speaking tour of the United States. On top of all this Paul works as a football pundit for Sky, BT, BBC & Talksport.
NIC: First of all, take us way back. How does a kid from Belfast end up getting picked up by a Premier League side and what are your early memories of that time?
Paul: Like most young kids, I grew up kicking the ball about with friends in in the street. Then when I was about 9 or 10 I started playing for my primary school, St John the Baptist. We won virtually all of our games in P7. My dad was working at Ford in Finaghy (south Belfast) at the time and was approached by a guy called Jimmy Kerr who used to be one of the managers at Lisburn Youth.
At my first training session there were some scouts watching. Jimmy McAlinden who’s a pretty famous guy who used to play for Belfast Celtic, he was scouting for Liverpool at the time. He was in his 70s and the scout for Spurs at the time was a guy called Robbie Walker who’s one of my best friends now.
They were both standing on the side of the pitch seeing me in my first training session and the story goes that both of them sprinted round the other side of the pitch to speak to my dad to offer me trials at Liverpool and Spurs but because Robbie was 20 years younger he got round to my dad faster. That was it really, not long after I went over to Spurs for the first time as an 11–year–old!
It was amazing because it was at the same time that Gazza had just joined Spurs. He was my favourite player. Just seeing the incredible ability that he had. I thought, this is one of the best players in the world and suddenly I’m on the same training ground as him, suddenly I’m doing the same training, I’m in the canteen with him. He was basically the David Beckham of 1990. There was no one bigger in world football that Gazza, especially after the World Cup.
When did you move over and become full–time?
I left Belfast for Spurs as a 16–year–old kid, leaving all my family and friends behind. I just thought it was the most natural thing in the world. I always wanted to be a professional footballer and suddenly I was in full–time football and it was the best thing ever. Although as a kid you’re not as self–aware and I just remember around that time leaving and my mum was crying her eyes out and I just didn’t get it. Now that I’m older I know she was just thinking that I’m leaving and I’m probably never going to come home and live in her house again.
London is a very different place to Belfast and would’ve been even more different back then. How do you remember that period of adjustment?
Walking down Tottenham High Road was a bit like going on a tour of the world. You walk a hundred metres and it’s like going through Africa, another hundred metres you arrive in Turkey and you walk another hundred metres you arrive in Israel, another 100 metres you’re in India and so on.
I grew up in west Belfast where there was literally one black person in my entire school and he was in my class. So it’s fair to say that Belfast back then wasn’t so culturally diverse as it is now. I suppose coming to London maybe opened my eyes to the world a bit more really.
A few quick fire football questions….
This is a little bit paradoxical. I played for Norwich in the play–off final in the Millennium Stadium in 2002 to try and get from the Championship into the Premier League. We played against Birmingham and ultimately lost on penalties but because it was literally the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in. It was the biggest, most vociferous crowd I experienced. It still is the richest game in the world. In those days it was worth £30m. Now it’s more like £150m.
I probably had one of the best games of my life and then even though we lost on penalties. I remember walking around the pitch afterwards doing a lap of honour and some of the older players in our team were crying. They knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get in the Premier League but for me it was my first season. I was walking around with Nigel Worthington thinking to myself ‘what an amazing experience’. Even though we had lost I knew this wasn’t going to be my only opportunity. I was only 22 and I had just established myself at the club.
Worst moment in football?
Being released by Nigel Worthington before I had even started my career at Norwich. It’s quite ironic that he tried to release me when I had only played about four games at Norwich at that stage. I knew I needed to change his mind. I was able to put in enough good performances in the team so they didn’t sell me. I ended up playing there for seven years and the rest is history.
You’re in the Norwich Hall Of Fame now aren’t you?
Yeah, well Hall Of Fame and obviously played in the play off final, played in the league winning team and was top scorer at the club for a season. Then after leaving and coming back, in my last season at Norwich won another league title as part of a team under Paul Lambert.
Best player ever played with?
Either Teddy Sheringham or David Ginola.
Biggest lesson learned during football career?
Probably to stop looking outside yourself for help or the advice or the expectation that someone is going to come along and provide guidance for you when everything you ever need to be a success is within you.
Was there a moment – do you remember when that realisation was?
When I was 17 I read a book by by Antony Robins, a personal development guru from America. One of really close friends gave me this book. I can remember the inscription, ‘Paul, to your success, Tim. November 1995’. I remember finishing the book and thinking ‘wow that was amazing’, I just really need to work on me. If I improve me then everything else will follow.
Since retiring you’ve obviously published your own book, The Stupid Football Is Dead. It’s an interesting title. What’s it about?
Different people can take different things away from it. A young aspiring professional footballer could read it and learn a bit more about what it takes from the mental side to become a professional at the top level and stay there.
It’s also interlaced with how do you maximise your personal potential of an individual. Within the book there are techniques and strategies that help with that as well. These can be applied in the sports world, the business world and other walks of life.
Ultimately it’s about how much you can get out of yourself that will be the difference. Not what gadgets you have, what resources, what environment, your mentors etc.
How has it been received within the professional football community?
It’d say it’s the hardest sell in football. Whenever I joined Spurs in ‘94. Within a year or two we had the first ever sports scientist arrive at the club. At that time the set–up comprised of a coach, a physio and a kit man, then suddenly a sports scientist is coming in and telling you what to do and obviously that was unique and very unusual for professional football in the mid 90s.
It’s totally different now. The club I work for, Crystal Palace, we would have three sports scientists just to work with the academy. Then in the last ten years or we’ve seen a lot of analysts come into the game and that’s obviously become a big big part of football. Nutrition has always been there or thereabouts but is probably somewhere near the priority level as psychology and the mental performance side of things. But really it’s the last area that hasn’t fully broken into the mainstream of football.
Why do you think it is the hardest sell?
Probably not enough good experiences. Possibly a little bit of ignorance and lack of appreciation and understanding given the importance that is placed on it so many other professions and sports.
The players are all great athletes. Technically, most of the guys playing now have come through an academy system. These kids are coming in at 7 or 8 and by the time they reach 18 they’ve had 10 years of coaching three times a week. So if they’re physically great, technically great and tactically they all know what they’re doing. What’s going to be the difference? For me it’s a no brainer. The only thing left to try and maximise is the mental performance of the individual.
As well as writing your book and working with the academy at Crystal Palace you deliver keynote speeches for businesses. What can someone expect from one of your talks?
Ultimately it’s all about improving performance. Whether you’re a stay at home parent or a business owner working 60 hours a week, it’s all about mental performance. I talk about the ability to deal with setbacks, the ability to deal with mistakes as well as successes. In a business setting there are specific processes that I don’t understand because I don’t work within that business but what I do understand is the process of how to get the best out of yourself.
You’ve had quite a busy few years with lots going on. What’s next for you?
When I turn 40, I’ll have I’ve been in England for 25 years. I’ve recently made the decision to move back to Belfast. So I’ll be coming home in the Autumn of next year.
I nearly moved back about seven years ago whenever I stopped playing football but I didn’t because I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d have the same opportunities to achieve the goals I had set myself following retirement.
I’ve seen so much change and improvement at home and I know what life is like there. The whole regeneration of all the areas is incredible and I know there is more to come so I’m really excited by it and I just want to be a part of it.
NIC: Thanks for talking to us Paul. All the best.