Paul Pettinger’s Football Journey

Former Leeds United goalkeeper Paul Pettinger

Paul Pettinger is possibly the only goalkeeper in the country who can say he made his Football League debut for one club as a right winger.

That is just one story of many from Pettinger’s ten-year League career – a tale of hard luck as he had to play second fiddle to first choice stoppers for nearly all of his career in the Football League. He rarely got the chance to prove his worth to his respective teams.

But, that’s not to say he didn’t take away countless happy memories away, as well as friends for life – including Westlife singer Nicky Byrne. 

An England youth player, Pettinger was a member of former European Cup runners-up Leeds United’s fabled 1993 FA Youth Cup winning team which stunned a Manchester United side containing David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Robbie Savage and Gary Neville to lift the trophy after two legs. Over 31,000 people attended the second leg at Elland Road.

With former Arsenal and Leeds championship winner John Lukic and second choice Mark Beeney ahead of him in the pecking order, his football journey took him away from the Whites and to places such as Tony Pulis’ Gillingham, Carlisle United and Lincoln City.

His four-year spell with Rotherham United was his best period. He had bizarrely made one appearance for the Millers as a right winger in a loan spell in 1995 before returning in 1997 to be part of the squad which Ronnie Moore took from League Two to the Championship thanks to two consecutive promotions.

Pettinger slowly fell into Non League football – playing for Harrogate Town and Frickley Athletic, among a few other clubs. At the same time he lost his love for football and had been out of the game for ten years until recently.

The world’s current situation has reignited an interest and ex-team-mate Lee Morris has persuaded him to join the Worsbrough Bridge management team – a role he will take up when football returns.

This is Paul Pettinger’s Football Journey 

Paul Pettinger in 2008

Supermarket sweep for Brian Clough 

“One of my earliest memories is playing for Wombwell Town with Emlyn Hughes when was 14. I only played in a couple of games so I remember little about it. I’ve no idea why Emlyn Hughes who was the former captain of England and Liverpool was playing for Wombwell either?

“I started at Barnsley as a schoolboy like a lot of local lads did like Paul Haywood and Lee Stratford. Me and Chris Hilton have known each other since we were nine years old. We played in a Barnsley boys team together which won the English Schools Final when we were 15. So I won that and the FA Youth Cup, the two best Junior competitions you can win. I’ve always been friends with him as well as his mum, dad and sister because I’ve known them a long time.

“I was supposed to have signed for Nottingham Forest at first. I went down there and trained on the pitch with Archie Gemmill and John McGovern. Paul Hart as well funnily enough. Barnsley wanted payment for me and I think it would have been £100,000 if certain things were meant like a certain number of appearances, England debuts. At the time they had Mark Crossley there and Andy Marriott as goalkeepers.

“I met Brian Clough down there and that brings me to a funny story. I went on the pitch to train and came off at the end. In the tunnel, Alan Hill who used to be Clough’s chief scout was there and he told me that the gaffer wanted a word with me. I was only 15 at the time and Alan pointed me towards the hut at the other side of the changing rooms because I didn’t know my way around. It was an old-fashioned Swedish sauna and I didn’t know what was going on so I started looking back at Alan? ‘In there,’ he says. I went in and opened the inner door and lo and behold without any thing on, there’s Mr Clough who says ‘now then young man, I believe you want to play for my football club’. ‘Yes Mr Clough,’ I replied. He then said ‘right, I want you to go to the shop and get the local newspaper, a can of pop and a Mars Bar, thank you very much’. I shut the door and walked out to tell Alan who simply said ‘well go get them’. He had to give me some money because I didn’t have any on me. Off I went and I brought the local newspaper, the can of pop and the Mars Bar back for him. 

“But I never signed for Forest and then Paul Hart went to work for Leeds and because he had seen me play when I trained at Forest he signed me.

Playing for Leeds United, one of the country’s greatest clubs 

“My first job as a young pro/apprentice was cleaning the toilets at Elland Road in the dressing rooms. You had lots of jobs to do and cleaning the toilets was one of them. Paul Hart used to go round checking them so it was like been in the military. The idea was you do all the jobs and go home, but the problem was that you’d have injured players who may be around for longer in the day. One day I had cleaned all the bogs and Paul Hart went round checking. Next thing I hear is a booming shout of ‘PETTINGER’. You’re thinking ‘oh s***’. Off I go into the toilets and he says ‘what’s that, who’s cleaned them’? After I cleaned them, one of the first team players had been in and had a dump and left a pubic hair on the toilet seat. The other problem with that is the fact everyone had to do their jobs again. You’re not flavour of the months with the lads either are you? 

“I once got found guilty in one of ‘court cases’ that the lads ran and got knocked out. That was interesting. The toilet story had happened and the lads had been out on a night out on the Tuesday and not trained well the following day so a couple of us got put up for a ‘court case’. What they used to do is cover you in boot polish, tie you up and ping balls at you. You’d be stripped naked too. I was tied to a metal post which used to be at the old training ground at Leeds. The problem was that there was a metal bar and Andy Couzens pinged a ball at me which hit me square in the face. I smacked my head against the bar and I was knocked out. So I was naked, covered in boot polish, tied to a fence and unconscious. Someone untied me and took me the changing room and when I came round I was in the bath with someone washing me. 

“If it happened today you would get locked up, it wouldn’t happen. I don’t think the young lads of today are as hardy as what we were. It was the norm then. Now they make them sing songs and they think that’s bad so the youth of today have it a lot easy than we had it. We were literally at something what was like a Marine Military School. What I say as well is that the kind of initiations that went on were probably just the same as what used to go on in the Military and Police. I don’t think these kind of things were right, but they happened. 

Pettinger in a Leeds United side in 1994. Mark Jackson, Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp and Mark Ford are pictured
Former Leeds United and Farsley Celtic player Mark Jackson is now Leeds United’s under 18s manager

“There was people like Noel Whelan, Jamie Forrester, Andy Couzens, Mark Ford, Rob Bowman, Mark Jackson during my time in the youth team. I actually spoke to Jacko recently about trying to get a pre-season friendly with Leeds under 18s at Worsbrough. If they come, I don’t know what they’ll make to the slope, but it isn’t as bad as Tadcaster used to be like. I’m sure my first game as an apprentice for Leeds was at Tadcaster in a pre-season friendly. All I remember is that it chucked it down and a kid had a shot and it bounced in front of me and hit something and went straight in. I got hammered for it. 

Pettinger and Leeds United’s 1993 FA Youth Cup winning squad celebrating beating David Beckham and Manchester United after the second leg at Elland Road

“I played in the 1993 FA Youth Cup winning side in my first year as a pro and we were better than the Class of 92 as we beat them. But you look at back and they got given opportunities in Manchester United’s first team. Some of the stories we got told when we played against in the final included things like they were on decent contacts, they were all driving decent cars and if they had won they would have got £600 a man and a Gucci watch a-piece. All we got a glass decanter saying ‘Leeds United FA Youth Cup winners’. Those Man U lads got brought on as players. There were a few lads who got in the Leeds first team a couple of times, but for whatever reason Howard Wilkinson was more about playing experienced guys. That’s my view. You look at his signings during my time there was Nigel Worthington, David White, John Pemberton, Tomas Brolin – all experienced players. I found that if any youngsters did play it would be for one month and then they’d not play for another four weeks. In that Man U team there was Beckham, Scholes, Butt, (Chris) Casper, (Robbie) Savage, (Ben) Thornley), the list goes on.”

England Schoolboys/Youth International 

Paul Pettinger in an England Jersey

“I played under 15s, 16s, 18s with people like Tony Vaughan, Kevin Gallen, Mark Ford.

“I’ve still got my caps and I’ve just been looking at them. You only get one cap each for playing in the youth and schoolboys , but it includes all the games I played in. It is definitely something I look back on with pride as not many people get to represent their country at any sport and at any level.

“I lost my mum last year and my dad ten or eleven years ago and they were massive followers of my career. My mum used to have the caps on the wall in her house. I’ve got them now and I’ve never really looked at them because they were always in her house.”

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne

“I used to train Nicky Byrne from Westlife and I still speak to him and I messaged him a few years ago when they were doing a gig at Sheffield. He said I could go backstage with the missus and he’d sort it when the dates got announced. I booked a holiday three or four weeks before that and never thought anything more about it. When the gig was held we were on holiday so we never went. But he said ‘next time we’re in Sheffield, come and see us’. 

“He came to Elland Road after signing for Leeds as a young lad and he used to train with us. I’ll never forget when John Lukic was kicking balls at him in training. Nicky had played for Ireland youth so he was a decent goalkeeper. He turned round to John ‘I’m a bit more advanced than this, can we do something a little bit better than this’. We were like ‘what’s he just said’. You had Mervyn Day there as well.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a big Westlife fan, I’ve not got the CDs. But what I do remember is Live and Kicking being on in the 1990s on a Saturday morning and they had the new bands on. I was sat there one morning watching it with the kids and the missus and this is new group comes on – Westlife. They’re singing away and I moved to the edge of my seat and I slowly got closer to the TV. My missus was going ‘what you doing’? I’m like ‘that’s Nicky’! My missus didn’t have a clue and I went ‘it is Nicky, my old boot-boy at Leeds, he used to clean my boots’. I used to do John Lukic’s boots and he cleaned mine in his first year at Leeds. Now he’s a multi-millionaire singer.”

Mixing with the first team and unused substitute appearances

“When I signed for Leeds the goalkeepers were Mervyn Day and John Lukic. “I got drafted into the first team squad at Maine Road at 17 when Manchester City beat Leeds. Mervyn Day played and I was on the bench. Afterwards on the bus there was Chris Fairclough, Mel Sterland basically just giving me drinks. I was that drunk I nearly fell off the bus. To be fair they shielded me from Howard Wilkinson so he didn’t know.

“I was in first team squad for a few years, but I never got on. I was sub about five times, including the Wimbledon game ((1995/96) when (Tony) Yeboah scored that volley. The Wimbledon game was the nearest I ever got to playing. I was supposed to play as Lukic had a problem with his finger. I was ready to play, but we got down there and John said ‘no I’ll play’. At the time you had Ian Walker coming through at Tottenham and I was playing for England Youth, but I still never got put in. I don’t think I was ever given a fair chance in my career.

“I still speak to John Lukic now and then. He’s a very private guy and I once phoned him when he was still playing at Arsenal to ask him how he was getting on. He said ‘I’m good thanks. I was sat in the west wing minding my own business and the phone rang and it was Arsene (Wenger) and he said do you fancy another season? You don’t need to train all week, just once or twice, but I’ll give you another year and double your money’. He asked me what I thought and I said I hope he took it. He did as well.

“I went to the 1996 League Cup Final as a squad member, but I didn’t go with the match-day squad. I took the wife with me and we went down on the train from Leeds with I believe Andy Couzens, Kevin Sharp, Jamie Forrester and maybe a few others. It was literally a free bar all the way down to London and a free bar all the way back. The team got battered by Aston Villa and we were all on the same train on the way back. When we got off in Leeds we all got piled into buses. There was no particular order, you just got on any of the buses. Me and the wife got on the bus with more-or-less the squad that had been beat. Carlton Palmer stood up and started singing ‘we’re s*** and we know we are’ at top of his voice. The whole bus then started singing it. They had been hammered to be fair, Savo Milošević ripped them to shreds.”


“I’ve had some coaches over the years. Eric Steele who was at Man United, Alan Hodgkinson, the former Scotland goalkeeper, Andy Rhodes so I’ve had some decent guys over the years. I know Mark Crossley as well and he’s always passed my name on. A lot of these guys have kept me going over the years because when you’re not playing you do get frustrated or gets frustrating after a while.”

League debut for Rotherham as an outfield player

Goalkeeper Paul Pettinger, centre of photo, playing as a right winger during his Football League debut for Rotherham United

“I went on loan to Rotherham from Leeds in 1992 and 1995. Matt Clarke went to the Nou Camp with Leeds, while I went to play for Rotherham Reserves in 1992 at Scunthorpe, Mansfield and somewhere else. When I went back Archie Gemmill and John McGovern were in charge and that’s when I made my debut as a right winger. It was against Hull. Back in the day there were three subs and one had to be a goalkeeper. You could still use all three. I was on the bench and the centre-half Mark Monington got stretched off so Archie Gemmil turned round to me and said ‘can you play right wing son’? I said ‘of course I can’. I should have scored because I had a header at the back stick and I’ve got a picture on my phone of the ball flying across the box. I remember the first corner Hull got because everyone was shouting ‘pick up, pick up’ and I was told to mark Dean Windass. I sort of played right wing and upfront with Shaun Goater. I was on about 20 minutes and I was literally doing doggies for 20 minutes. I was running up and down because no-one would give me the ball. It was very bizarre, but I’m sure Les Sealey played outfield for West Ham the same day. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few goalkeepers played outfield that season because of the rules. I used to have a bit of banter with the lads when I played Non League because with any lads who hadn’t played Football League I’d say ‘I’ve played more football outfield in the Football League than you have’? Nobody knew what I was talking about.”

Tony Pulis’ Gillingham

“I got injured in 1994 – a tendon in my knee – and when I got back playing properly I got offered the chance to go Gillingham (in March 1996) permanently for the last two months of the season under Tony Pulis. Leeds brought someone called Paul Evans from South Africa over and I was told I wasn’t told tall enough at 6ft 2 so I went to Gillingham. After Howard Wilkinson left (in August 1996) and George Graham came in you never know if I had stayed then I may have got a chance. Mark Jackson and several others got their chance under George Graham.

“They were top of the league with a chance of getting promoted. Jim Stannard was in goal and there was a lad called Dennis Bailey who once scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford. Leo Fortune-West who I ended up playing with at Rotherham, he was there.

“I was on the bench for them every week, but we got promoted to the Second Division. I was always going to struggle to get into the side as Jim Stannard had recorded a great number of clean sheets.

“At the time I didn’t think that Tony would go onto be one of the country’s top managers, but he’s an understated guy who was sound and very clever. He could coach and he had a good side with a good work ethic. He had big lads and they did really well.

“I play golf now and I bumped into him at Forest Pines, Scunthorpe way as he was there with West Brom. I had a chat with him too. He looked at me a bit funny and I just went ‘do you know who it is’? He went ‘I do now, you’ve lost a bit of hair’. I only had six months with him to be fair so for him to remember me was really good. 

“I was offered a contract for the following season (1996/97), but to move my family down there the money wasn’t enough so I turned it down and ended up at Carlisle under Mervyn Day. I did a season there and they got promoted too, but I was sub again there for the whole season.”

Rotherham United 

“Rotherham was one of my most happiest times in football. The first season we got into the play-offs, and in the third and fourth season we won consecutive promotions under Ronnie Moore and John Breckin.

“We once played away at Plymouth and we stayed over on the Friday night. I was rooming with Paul Hurst who I’m still good friends with. At this hotel you could go down the footwell and get out to the car park where there was a Sainsbury’s. I went in and got myself a pack of six cans of whatever. I went back to my room and watched the TV and drunk my six cans. The next morning I thought that it was a good four or five hour bus journey home so I went to get a 12 pack to get ready for the journey home. Obviously there was plenty more beer on the bus. So we played the game and I think we won 2-1 which was a good result. I was absolutely blind drunk on the bus, I really mean it as well. We got back to Millmoor where I got picked up and I fell off the bus and Ronnie Moore is looking at me shaking his head and he said ‘I will see you next week’ in a stern manner. 

“We had a reserve game on the Monday away at Newcastle. Their side included Stuart Pearce, John Barnes, Paul Dalglish, Lionel Perez, it was a right side worth millions of pounds. We were thinking ‘oh my god’. There’s a piece on the internet somewhere and a guy wrote ‘why does every team have a top quality goalkeeper and ours are c**p’. That was a Newcastle fan! We won 1-0 and Richard Tracey scored. I had an absolute worldie. I was saving everything. Top corner shots, low shots, you name it. Ronnie pulled me afterwards and he went ‘right that’s never going to happen again is it?’ ‘What’s that’? ‘Saturday’, he said. ‘No gaffer I’m sorry’. He said ‘you’re a lucky boy because I was going to sack you today, but you were absolutely unbelievable today, keep it up’.

“I loved it there. I didn’t play in the first promotion team because Mike Pollitt was ahead of me. But he got the chance to go to Chesterfield and they brought Ian Gray in. I ended up playing the last 16 games of the promotion year to the Championship. Those 16 games were amazing and I think I had six clean sheets as well. I really enjoyed it and felt comfortable. Winning promotion that season are some of my best memories.

“At the end of that season, Ronnie got me in the office and said he was bringing Mike Pollitt back and he was going to play in the Championship. I was out of contract and although he said I had done nothing wrong and he was happy with my performances, he was going to let me go.”

Chesterfield / Yeovil / Lincoln 

“I was on holiday down in Cornwall and I got offered a contract with Chestefield because Mike Pollitt had gone back to Rotherham. Chesterfield were in administration and that’s why it never happened. Nicky Law and Ian Banks were in charge and they phoned me up and offered me a three-year contract as first choice goalkeeper. I told them I was in Cornwall and I was back on x date and I would then call in and sign the contract. Everything was sorted. Two days before I came home I rang one of them to ask what time to go to the ground? There’d been a problem and the administrators would not let them sign me as there’s been some dodgy deals in the past and the administrators didn’t like the fact that Polly was signed from Rotherham, then bought back by Rotherham and then I was signing from Rotherham. They refused to sanction my signing. I couldn’t believe it.

“I had told Yeovil I couldn’t sign for them because I’d agreed a deal with Chesterfield. I had told Northwich Victoria and two or three clubs the same. I phoned Gary Johnson and asked if the offer was still open. It wasn’t because he’d agreed to sign Jon Sheffield, but he said I could train so I went down with Will Varty, another lad from Rotherham. I trained and there was another young goalkeeper called Chris Weale and I just said to Gary Johnson that he quality and worth playing. He ended up playing loads of games for Yeovil and he later went to Bristol City with Gary Johnson. The funny thing is that day at training he was hammered because he’d come back from holiday in Ibiza, but he was quality.

“From there I got a phone call from Keith Alexander and Alan Buckley at Lincoln. I hated it to be honest, every minute of it. I played a few games for Lincoln, but not many and it was destined to end in tears.”

Drop into Non League Football

“After Lincoln went into administration my contract got paid up and it was January time and Phil Stant signed me for Gainsborough. I played there for a little bit and then the following season I got offered the chance to go to Kettering – a club I had previously played on loan at. Domenico Genovese was the manager, but he didn’t do very well and the ex-Chelsea striker Kevin Wilson took over. He had been at Northampton before that and he brought the young lad Mark Bunn in. Mark Bunn obviously went onto play in the Premier League. Every club I’ve been you can look back and say ‘he was a decent goalkeeper, he was a decent ‘keeper’ and so on, but I won’t be the only goalkeeper who can say that. Every club needs two or three goalkeepers and unfortunately lads are not going to get played. Looking back at my own career, I had six promotions so I was nearly always in a decent squad.

“Mark Bunn arriving meant I had to move on from Kettering and I went to Hucknall Town. They were top of their league and were looking to win promotion to the Conference. Their goalkeeper had just been sold to Brentford. I got a call from Steve Burr and I went down there and signed. Everyone said it was the first time they had sold someone and got somebody better for free. We won the league, but they couldn’t get promoted as the ground was not good enough. The chairman literally said he wouldn’t put anymore money in after that because the club could not go anywhere. I was driving home from a game and one of the Harrogate Town players I knew rang me to say would I be interested in going there. I went over and met John Reed, plus Bill (Fotherby) who used to be the chairman of Leeds when I was there. Bill was his usual salesman self.

“I first met Moz at Harrogate and in his first day at training, he picked the ball up over the halfway line and took two touches and smashed it over my head and into the net. I was like ‘who’s this lad’? He lives near me so we’ve been friends ever since.

“It was the first time I had come across John and he was a proper motivator. Mark Atkins was the football brain on the field. We were flying high under John in the Conference North, but then John and Mark upped and left to go to Stalybridge Celtic (in 2005). Lee Philpott was put in charge briefly before Neil Aspin took over. I actually followed John and Mark to Stalybridge when the season ended and I was captain there for a season-and-a-half. 

“We played Salisbury in the FA Cup I think it was. We stayed over night and we had ‘Juggsy’ Mark Haran and Mark Barnard. I had a skinful in the hotel and put all the cans and pint pots outside someone else’s room. Chris Price and Mark Haran went into Salisbury and had a load of beer. They bought a kebab each on the way back and when they got to their room they wanted to go to sleep so rather than eat their kebabs they put them in the trouser press to keep them warm.

“My dad was really poorly during my second season there and I told John that I was struggling and that I needed to be there for my dad. I didn’t want to play because my dad went to every game. I got sold to Worksop Town and I didn’t want to go because I wasn’t interested in playing. Stalybridge played Worksop and Worksop beat them and I didn’t play as my dad passed away that evening. 

“After Worksop I went to Ilkeston Town because Mark Crossley put in a word with his friend Nigel Jemson. I shouldn’t have played for them. My head wasn’t in the right place. I wasn’t doing myself any favours. I’d gone from in my eyes a decent goalkeeper to being not even able to think about what I was doing during the game so I left Ilkeston.

“I was sat at home and you get the phone calls and I got one ‘do you want to play for Frickley’? It was Billy Heath so I went down there. But Jon Hood was playing so I never played so I left. 

“A friend of mine who I had played with, Danny Hudson then called me. He was joint managers with Andy Carney at Belper Town. I found my feet again and I started to enjoy playing again. I did quite well. We got in the FA Cup first round draw, but we lost in the fourth qualifying round replay to Droylsden. We did quite well in the league and that’s when Mark Atkins took the job at Matlock Town so I went there. They were bottom of the league, but we stayed up. I got injured in a pre-season game against Derby County so I packed in. When I recovered, I played a few games for Sheffield FC in 2010, but I packed in again when I was 34 or 35. I haven’t played much since. I’ve played in a few charity matches and testimonials. 

Appointment at Worsbrough 

Lee Morris recently appointed Paul Pettinger to his Worsbrough Bridge management team

“When Hilts was the manager of Worsbrough I actually went down and trained with them, but I didn’t end up playing.

“Moz has asked me a few times to come down, but I’ve never fancied it and I had to look after my mum a lot before she passed away. I do have a lot more time now and I don’t have to worry about my lads as they are in their 20’s. I play Golf a lot and I enjoy it. But with what has been happening recently, it makes you think a lot more and I felt I had a lot to offer and I have never given anything back so I said yes to Moz. I’ve probably also thought about a lot of my memories from playing football so I’ve probably got the bug back.”

Summing Up

“I bumped into Hilts the other day. I haven’t seen him for ages and I went walking with my lass and the dog and there was this voice of ‘now then daft lad’! I live near Cortonwood and it was at the back of BBQ and he was on a long walk with the dog. It was funny because of social distancing because we shouting at each other from either side of the road. So to clarify for readers we were stood quite some distance apart.

“He mentioned yourself (and suggested doing an interview about my career) and I said ‘aye, tell him to give me a ring, no problem’. It is the most I have spoke about my career for ten years and it has been good to talk about some of my memories.

“My only regrets are not playing more in the Football League. When I was 16 at Leeds part of our contract was that we had to coach on a Tuesday or Thursday at the academy. I used to coach the goalkeepers on a Tuesday and this Tuesday I was told to take the 12 to 14-year-olds. I had a group of four. There was one lad who was fairly tall and when I was pinging balls at him you could he wasn’t bad. You keep kicking it harder and he wasn’t bad. So I said ‘what’s your name son’? ‘It’s Paul’ he replied. ‘What’s your surname’? ‘Robinson’. So you could see he was decent even then. I must have been decent to get where I did, but I never got the chance to prove it.”

Paul Pettinger was interviewed by James Grayson

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