PERHAPS for more obviously dramatic reasons, what’s happened in Warren Aspinall’s life since he stopped playing football has rather overshadowed a playing career which began at Wigan Athletic and ended with Brighton and Hove Albion.
Nowadays, the worst demons a more content Warren has to contend with are awkward-looking names he famously mispronounces as the expert pundit on Radio Sussex Albion match commentaries.
It’s a far cry from the post-playing, desperately-dark, drink and debt-ridden days he has opened up about in various media interviews, describing how he attempted to kill himself after blowing £1million on gambling.
Warren’s story is a case study The Samaritans feature as part of their Men On The Ropes programme and, even after several tellings, in print, on TV and online, it remains a salutary tale and, as Warren clearly hopes, a warning to others once the glory days are over.
The 32 games Warren played for Albion in 1999-2000 were the final outings of a playing career that spanned nine clubs over 15 years in which he made approaching 500 appearances, scoring nearly 100 goals.
Born in Wigan, his dad was a miner and his mum worked in a sewing factory. At just 13, he was snapped up by the Latics and after fifty-odd appearances for his hometown club in the old Division 3, he got a dream £150,000 move to Everton.
Unfortunately they were well served by the likes of Graeme Sharp, Adrian Heath and Gary Lineker at the time so Warren’s opportunities were limited to just seven appearances for the Merseyside club, but his form for the reserves – 21 goals in 23 matches – attracted the legendary Billy McNeill, then boss of struggling Aston Villa, who snapped him up for £300,000.
An article in The Guardian on 31 December 2015, charting the previous time Villa had been relegated from the top flight, mentioned “the £300,000 spent on 19-year-old Everton striker Warren Aspinall was seen as a gamble” and added: “Throwing an untried youngster into a First Division survival battle seemed a strange decision and it didn’t work out for either man.”
In November 2015, Villa supporter Colin Abbott interviewed him for the Villan on the Spot feature on avfc.co.uk and said Warren’s goals were paramount in clinching promotion back to the top flight in 1987/88 at the first attempt. “A nippy striker with an eye for goal, he was a clinical finisher,” Abbott wrote.
He played in the same Villa side as former Albion loanee Martin Keown but was sold by McNeill’s successor, Graham Taylor, after not heeding a warning about accumulating too many bookings, getting himself sent off in a pre-season game against St Mirren.
Portsmouth paid £315,000 to take him to Fratton Park where he stayed between 1988 and 1994.
Warren adorned the front cover of the programme for a Pompey v Albion fixture on 17 December 1988 (see picture) when his teammates included Mark Chamberlain (another who later played for Brighton) and he was up against an Albion defence which included Nicky Bissett and Steve Gatting.
Warren was part of Jim Smith’s Portsmouth side that only narrowly lost on penalties to Liverpool in the semi-finals of the 1992 FA Cup but, come the 1993-94 season, with Pompey back among the elite, he was sent out on loan to Bournemouth and Swansea and on New Year’s Eve 1993 joined Bournemouth on a permanent basis.
In 1995 he made the long journey to the far north west and spent two seasons with Carlisle United but, citing a desire to move back south, linked up with Micky Adams for the first time at Brentford. Next stop was Colchester United, initially on loan and then permanently, before Adams, by then in charge at Brighton, brought him in initially on loan and then permanently. It was an ankle injury he sustained playing for Brighton that brought his career to an end.
In a Sunday Mercury/Birmingham Mail interview in 2011, he recalled: “I went into hospital for a routine operation on my ankle in 2000. I woke up afterwards and the doctor told me that I would never play football again. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“It turned out I had got MRSA and it had eaten away at the tendons in my ankle. Looking back, I think that is the moment things started to go badly wrong for me in terms of the drink and the gambling.
“I was constantly thinking: ‘What am I going to do now?’ I had no direction and no idea what I was going to do after football.
“It was a big shock to the system.”
What happened next is documented in plenty of other places so I don’t intend to go into the detail in this blog.
Apart from his radio pundit role alongside Johnny Cantor, Warren now works night shifts as a forklift truck driver at the Sainsbury’s distribution centre in Basingstoke and is a part-time scout for the Albion, with goalkeeper Christian Walton his most notable ‘find’ to date.
The former striker also now goes round football clubs up and down the country sharing his story with teenage players.
“When I visited Villa I saw Gordon Cowans, who I used to play with, and he was flabbergasted at how I had ruined my life since I left Villa Park,” Warren told Colin Abbott. “But if I could save just one kid from making the same mistakes I did, then I would be very happy.”