How heroin deprived a budding football star of his talent - and then claimed his life at 21

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The Independent Online

John Courtney was only three when Eileen Clarke, a nursery teacher, first set eyes on him kicking a ball on his own in the corner of a playground in Newcastle upon Tyne's East End. She instinctively knew he was special.

John Courtney was only three when Eileen Clarke, a nursery teacher, first set eyes on him kicking a ball on his own in the corner of a playground in Newcastle upon Tyne's East End. She instinctively knew he was special.

"I've seen a smashing little player," she told her husband, Brian, one of the city's best known football scouts. Mr Clarke, who has discovered prodigies including Paul Gascoigne, Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott and Shola Ameobi, turned his nose up at first but his wife's instincts 18 years ago turned out to be right.

John graduated to Newcastle United's school of excellence where Mr Clarke, whose reputation is dependent on not exaggerating talent, considered him "another Alan Shearer".

But it was not to be. John Courtney's parents have just buried him at the age of 21. Yesterday they released images of him as he was found dead: slumped half-dressed on a carpet, clutching a final heroin fix.

Few clues indicated that "Courts" would succumb to a cycle of alcohol, drugs, crime and prison. He had insecurities: it was a source of some anxiety to him that he was the only boy among seven siblings; he also struggled academically and had little to show for his years at Walbeck Road juniors, Middle Street secondary and Benfield School, all in Newcastle.

But things were different for Courts when he had a ball at his feet. At seven he signed for Brian Clarke at Walker Central Boys' Club, a team with a legendary record for producing Newcastle United stars.

At 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he would be found racing the 500 yards from his family's terrace home at Troutbeck Avenue to the team's training ground, where he found himself in the company of football's future stars. Lee Clark, later a Newcastle midfielder, became a confidant. He played alongside Michael Chopra, now a Newcastle player, and Richard Offiong, who was to become an England under-20s star.

Aged 11, John netted 33 goals in a season for the under-12s, and a year later found himself at United's school of excellence under the eye of the club's former assistant manager, John Carver. "He had natural ability, with a bit of grit," said Mr Carver.

His drinking seems to have started at 14. It involved "a few bottles on a street corner", according to one friend.

At the time there were some high-profile warnings about heroin and young footballers. Another United prodigy, Anthony Parry, was sacked in 1999 after developing a £500-a-week habit. Jamie Burt, who played at Newcastle's Centre of Excellence, was so hooked that police caught him, aged 19, peddling it to pay for his own supply.

But the drugs drew John in, took a yard off his pace and - in coaching parlance - he didn't "come on". He left Walker Central after a year in the under-15s and left the academy after 18 months. At first, it was a weekend habit, then Mondays and Tuesdays - then every day, his family says. It prevented him holding down a labouring job, which prompted the thieving. Cash, televisions and DVD players went missing from the family's new home in Losh Terrace. "You name it, he pinched it - anything he could get his hands on," his sister Jo-Ann, 28, said. "Just this March he told me he had spent £90 a day on heroin. He broke into my house three times."

There were fleeting footballing comebacks. Two months into the 2000-01 season, John turned out for Brian Clarke again and scored five in his first game. But minutes into his third game, he started vomiting on the pitch. He was pulled off and left the ground immediately. He was 16.

Confirmation of the addiction arrived on his 18th birthday, when he lay still on the sofa, unable to open his presents. "His aunt forced him to tell me what was going on," said his mother, Angie, 46. Each time he stole from her she told the police, desperate to get him confined to prison, away from dealers and the "devil's dust", her name for heroin.

John's last letter home arrived while he was on remand for burglary at Durham jail. "It said that he wasn't going to get two years like I wanted, but that when he came out he would be clean," Mrs Courtney said. John also told Brian Clarke he was clean when they met at a caravan park on the Northumberland coast at Amble 10 months ago. They never met again.

Two weeks after his latest release from the jail, John was found, as the police photographs showed him, at his uncle's flat earlier this month after another Friday night on heroin. Officers arrived with the news at his family's home at 8.30am. "I thought it was him banging on the door to get in," said his mother. "When the police officer asked if I was alone, I just knew."