The eyes of a crowd of 72,000, and millions at home, watched a 30-year-old step up and take a play-off final penalty, which could help send his boyhood club into the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. Paul Devlin subsequently scored his penalty 16 years ago, giving his name somewhat heroic status in the city of Birmingham.
Devlin considers himself as a “late bloomer” in the world of football, with his first professional contract being signed at the age of 19 and his first international cap coming at the age of 30. After a career spanning 17 years, the 45-year-old admitted retirement was a difficult period in his life.
“It’s really daunting to go out into the big wide world and try and earn yourself a few quid after football.
“The more footballers you speak to the more you’ll hear about how they’re advised badly through agent fees and financial advisers, and they’ve lost a lot of money. That’s why I think you hear a lot of stories about ex-players struggling with depression and finding themselves in dark places because they can’t handle it.”
Despite the initial struggles, Devlin now finds himself settled down as an established football coach in the West Midlands, teaching children the enjoyment of being involved in football.
Devlin asserted his belief that the main reason he continues coaching is to make sure children of all backgrounds in the West Midlands are doing something they enjoy.
“I get kids of all different abilities, and as it’s just weekly coaching I’m not looking for the best eleven players every week,” he asserts. “So, a lad that’s not good enough to get into a team will enjoy it as much as he would’ve had going to an academy so it’s great to see them running around.
“At the end of the day, if they don’t enjoy it they’re never going to want to progress through their footballing life, so it’s a first step into their footballing pathway.”
Difficulties and Regrets
However, it hasn’t been a free-flowing retirement for Devlin after his playing career came to an end in 2008. A lack of qualifications outside of football alongside the financial crash that occurred just after his retirement, meant he found it difficult to find something to occupy himself with.
“I’ve always had the plan to do nothing but never had the money to be able to do that!”, he jokes. “I was involved in a building company which unfortunately went with the financial crash in 2008. The main reason [why coaching wasn’t a plan] is because I wasn’t qualified to do anything else.”
As a result of this, one of Devlin’s biggest regrets is not gaining his coaching badges whilst he could as a professional footballer.
“One thing you do have on your hands as a footballer is time. You look at the likes of Chris Wilder and Sean Dyche, both ex-teammates of mine, and they’re doing brilliantly well now after taking their badges while they were playing. You can never get enough education.”
With a grin on his face, Devlin reflected back on a career that included over 500 Football League and Premier League appearances, Devlin found it difficult to decide which of his many footballing moments were his favourite.
“I’m a Blues [Birmingham] fan, and getting my chance to play for Blues and scoring in the play-off final in 2002 when we won on penalties and got promoted, that was unbelievable.”
Alongside the hundreds of appearances he made in club football, Devlin also managed 10 appearances for the Scotland National Team, an experience in which he is visibly grateful for.
“Making my international debut at the age of 30 was also incredible, it really was fantastic.”
Despite the difficulties Devlin initially faced following his retirement, he has now steadied himself in the career of football coaching following a period of uncertainty which included being involved in manual labour. It’s clear he misses being closely involved in football, but remains as close as he can be as a supporter. After his performances and heroics in the early 21st Century, Paul Devlin will long-be an unforgotten name throughout many supporters of Birmingham City.