'I feel like she has a loaded gun to her head, 24/7' - Paul Devlin opens up on perspective and regrets over his exit from Sheffield United

Before he moves on to discussing his successes and regrets during his time at Sheffield United, Paul Devlin makes a heartbreaking admission.

By Danny Hall
Sunday, 31st May 2020, 10:00 am
Updated Monday, 1st June 2020, 1:24 pm
Robert Page of Watford tussles with Paul Devlin of Sheffield United: Tom Shaw/ALLSPORT
Robert Page of Watford tussles with Paul Devlin of Sheffield United: Tom Shaw/ALLSPORT

"I feel like Annie walks around with a loaded gun to her head," Devlin says. "It might not go off for 70 years, or it could go off in two minutes. You just don't know."

Annie is Devlin's daughter and suffers from Addison's Disease, a rare condition that means she cannot produce certain hormones and illness, injury or even stress could prove fatal. Addison's has no cure and in 2017, Annie suffered an adrenal crisis.

"Basically, her whole body shut down," Devlin remembers. "We had 24 hours in A&E, not thinking she was going to survive, and then a week in intensive care while she recovered.

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Paul Devlin of Sheffield United holds back Lee Clark of Fulham: Michael Steele/ALLSPORT

"Hopefully Annie doesn't feel the same worry I do. If my other kids are on the trampoline and bang their head, they might get a bruise. It could be fatal for Annie. Sally and I worry, as you can imagine, but we try and get on with it.

"You can't wrap kids up in cotton wool because life is stressful. We just have to be careful and hope that she manages it as well as we can now, when she gets older."

Like many others, Annie's situation has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic - she is considered 'high-risk' - and the Covid-19 crisis has also hit Devlin's fundraising efforts, to raise a pot of money in case further treatment for Addison's ever becomes available. Kevin McCabe, the former United owner who was Blades chairman during Devlin's time in the Steel City, is one of those to have made a significant donation to Annie's fund.

Devlin is humbled by such support, with fans of all his former clubs rallying around to raise almost £15,000 on a JustGiving page at the time of writing. The Brummie is more commonly associated with his hometown club of Birmingham City, where he had three spells and helped them into the Premier League. But over his long professional career, he played more games for United than any other club and only this week, the Blades' social media team shared a clip of him scoring a screamer against Blackburn as their 'game of the day'.

Paul Devlin and his daughter, Annie

"I finished 15 years ago, not just the other day, and it's brilliant to see that people still remember me and appreciate the job I did," Devlin said. "My son's godfather is a Blade and I still have a good connection with the club, especially with an old pal of mine in charge now and doing such a good job.

"It's great to see the clips and photos... some of them I haven't ever seen before. It's a good job I don't see as many videos of my red cards and misses, though, because there were enough of those!"

He isn't exaggerating. David Kelly once joked with him that Devlin was the only winger to kick lumps out of his full-back, rather than the other way around. Devlin explains the 'red mist', to use his own words, as a combination of factors - including his dad's Glasgow roots, and his own route into the game.

Devlin had no designs on being a footballer in school - "I didn't think I was good enough," he explains - and so planned a career as a chef. He also worked as a roofer and on building sites while playing Sunday League football, and was good enough to be invited on trial with Liverpool while at Stafford Rangers.

"I didn't drive, so Ron Yeats picked me up in the morning and on my first day, my five-a-side team was me, Ronny Rosenthal, Jan Mølby, Graeme Souness and Mike Hooper. I scored the winner for the reserves in Ian Rush's comeback game - there were 8,000 there - but they couldn't agree a fee with Stafford. I also went on trial with Leeds but chose instead to sign for Neil Warnock's Notts County. That year, Leeds won the First Division title and Notts County were relegated. So that was a good bit of judgement!"

Devlin moved to Bramall Lane from County, and played well over 150 times in four seasons.

"It was a bit of a turbulent time when I signed," the Scottish international said. "It seemed like they'd spent big on players and it didn't quite work. It felt very much like a rebuilding period for the club.

"But under Neil Warnock, I probably played the best football of my career for about a year and a half and the biggest regret of my career is how I left United.

"I'd signed a four-year deal but my head got turned, as simple as that. I had the chance to go back to Birmingham, my hometown club, and I got swept up in the emotion of that. I went about it the wrong way, and I could have handled it better.

"I let people down, I know that. But I can't turn the clock back."

Devlin's Blades career was relatively short, but certainly eventful. He played in the infamous FA Cup tie at Arsenal when Marc Overmars scored a controversial goal - "We should have had a replay at Bramall Lane, and I'm still bitter about that" - and headbutted a naked Marcus Bent in a post-game row in the dressing room. "I got on well with Benty before that, and after," Devlin chuckles.

Bent has detailed his mental health issues since retirement, and Devlin considers himself fortunate to not have gone through similar struggles.

"I came up through non-league, so I've seen the other side of the game," Devlin said. "A lot of lads are cocooned in football from a young age and then when they retire, it's 'thank you very much... out you go into the real world'. All they know is football.

"How do you recreate that high of scoring in front of 25,000, or winning play-off finals or beating Wednesday in derbies? You never can, but a lot of ex-players end up with addiction problems because they're looking for that same high.

"Others have suffered financially because of bad investments and, in my era, players never earned enough to not have to go to work again. You have to dust yourself down and get on with it.

"People ask me 'don't you wish you were playing now' and for the money in the game, we all do. I was never the most gifted player, but I always offered 100 per cent. I worked hard and got a bit of luck.

"And I did something for 15 years that I would have done for free anyway. All my mates would give their right hand to play football... so I can't have any complaints at all about how it went for me."

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Stay safe and take care. Thank you. Danny.