Ian Herbert: Tragic tale of Wayne Harrison shows football is more about those who get discarded along the way than those who earn fat salaries

When a Liverpool v Oldham testimonial was staged he wasn't fit enough to play

The festive conversations here have taken their usual course this past week – beginning, as they so often do, with someone's casual interest in what it's like to write about football, and developing into that someone telling me that the salaries of those who play the game are indecent, immoral and all points in between.

Sport brings more than enough arguments all year round, so it can be hard to muster the energy for that one, though the death of Wayne Harrison at the age of 46 on Christmas Day provided the most powerful testament as to why the players really do deserve the big percentages of the cash which flows through football. For a select few, there are more riches than they know how to spend, but for very many more there is the life of disappointment, regret and scant consolation, when football has built you up and thrown you away.

For Harrison, the "what ifs?" were multiplied by the extraordinary promise he offered, when becoming a symbol of an all-conquering Liverpool's buying power, in the mid-1980s. Harrison was a 17-year-old on the fringes of Oldham Athletic's team back then, when word got out that he was the one to watch. Ron Atkinson, Manchester United's manager, watched him several times, in Oldham's reserve team, and badgered his Oldham counterpart Joe Royle, with whom he socialised, to swap him for several of his Old Trafford youngsters. Everton and Nottingham Forest were on the case, too. But it was Harrison's contribution to Oldham's 4-3 win in a 1984 FA Youth Cup tie at Anfield, under the eye of legendary Liverpool youth development officer Tom Saunders, which set his life on a Merseyside course. "The Liverpool staff wouldn't let us leave the boot room that day. They just wanted to talk about him," Royle tells me. They were soon on the telephone, too, offering £250,000 – straight cash, no swaps, and more than a teenage player had ever fetched – for a raw goalscorer who had played five times in the Second Division.

The psychological aspect of a player is the one all the managers want to know about these days – "Is his head right?" – and that's one of the parts Royle best recalls. "He knew there was something different about himself and there's nothing wrong with that," Royle says. His technical component, honed by Oldham's great youth team coach Billy Urmson, was built on an incredibly fine instinct, too. "He was very young but he knew the job; lived on the shoulder," Royle says. "He knew when to run; knew when to stay onside. He was bending balls when he was 17. And there was electric pace."

Of course, there are never any guarantees about what strength a boy will take into manhood. Royle and Urmson generally ended up with the United and City cast-offs in those days and perhaps the reason why no one spotted Harrison before they did was that there was so little of him. "He looked a waif at times. The shirt hung off him," Royle remembers, though the boy's self-belief seemed likely to insulate against any insecurity that might bring. Royle suspects that Harrison's confidence may have taken a little adjusting to for Liverpool's young teenagers – "there was a bedding-in time there" – though his sense of humour was always irresistible. "He was nicely cheeky, not in a way to offend anyone," says another who knew him.

Liverpool did not rush the teenager, sending him back on loan to Oldham and to Crewe Alexandra to develop, but some fine performances in Liverpool's excellent reserve side were punctuated by a desperate sequence of injuries. The first serious one, a pelvic problem in his second Anfield season, led to a double hernia operation. A torn groin muscle followed, and cartilage trouble in his knee, though it was when on the verge of a seat on the substitutes' bench that he suffered the bizarre catastrophe of crashing through a greenhouse, suffering a loss of blood which almost proved fatal with the local ambulance service on strike. Back-up Army medics possibly saved his life.

Still Harrison came back, convinced – as he later put it – that he had "acres of time" to break through. He was always an optimist. It was on 5 May 1990, when Liverpool reserves played at Barnsley for the Central League championship, that a high tackle by the goalkeeper, as Harrison tried to latch on to the ball, left him with the knee ligament damage from which there was to be no way back. Nine operations followed, and seven weeks in plaster, but the day he first tried to train on the knee at Lilleshall told him all he needed to know. "The first time I did a turn, it just gave way completely," he said, several years later, grimly attempting to describe the sound of tearing tissue.

Gradually, the saga of whether the £250,000 kid might make it began to recede. "A story will only stay on the boil for so long," says the journalist and writer John Keith, who reported on Harrison's journey in his role as one of the leading chroniclers of the club. The small progress reports in the margins of the Liverpool Echo Football Pink provided testament that he was still in the background but the expectations had gone. Then Graeme Souness, who had just replaced Kenny Dalglish as manager, called Harrison in to say that the doctors had declared his fight over, after 23 football-related operations. Keith remembers one of the headlines – "Whatever happened to Baby Wayne?" a riff on the 1962 film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

When a testimonial game for Harrison was staged between Oldham and Liverpool in 1992, he was not even fit enough to turn out on the field for a token appearance. By then, he was back in the modest surroundings where he began – on a disability allowance for a time, though later returning to work as a funny, popular HGV driver for Stockport's Robinson's brewery. When Royle last spoke to him, he was contemplating resuming his education. He turned out for local Sunday League side Offerton Green, too, though continued to experience health problems. It was after a short illness when he developed pancreatic problems that he died in south Manchester's Stepping Hill hospital.

Harrison knew – and always said – that his struggles were not unique. The former players' charity XPro, which estimates that just 2 per cent of footballers who sign for a club as a professional are still playing beyond the age of 21, has 30,000 registered professionals on its books as it helps with medical, mental and financial problems. But the most remarkable aspect of his story is the absence of bitterness. "Maybe I tried to grow up too quickly," Harrison reflected, believing to the end that it had always been within his own gift to conquer football. "I should have stayed put at Oldham and worked harder on my game and my fitness. Then maybe it might just have worked out."

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