‘I’M not signing for less than £250 a week’.
Schooled by experienced pros including Adrian Heath, Alan Harper and Jamie Hoyland a young Paul Weller had learned to stick up for himself against Jimmy Mullen.
The rookie midfielder had been accepting of his first contract – £115 a week. With accommodation provided and expenses paid for he was financially better off as a trainee, but being a professional footballer meant more than money.
It increased to £150 in his second year, then £175 in his third.
Weller was being kept on his toes. But he soon kept Burnley on theirs.
“After £175 Jimmy said ‘We’ll go to £200 next year’ and I said ‘No, you’re all right, I’ll leave it’.
“Adrian Heath had been giving me advice, telling me to play hardball,” he said.
“The Bosman rule, allowing players to leave, had just come in so he said he would get me a pre-season down at Stoke.
“That worked a little bit because Jimmy told me to go back and we’d talk about it. I finished off pre-season at Burnley, but it was still £200 a week.
“It got to October and one Monday Jimmy said ‘I want to play you tomorrow’. It was against Leicester in the second leg of the League Cup. He said ‘I want to give you your debut. But you’ve got to sign your contract first’.
“I said ‘I’m not signing it. You give me £250 and we’ll go from there’.
“He said no, so I said I wouldn’t play. But I got named on the teamsheet anyway. I did okay so I thought I might get a chance on the Saturday. I wasn’t even in the squad. Dropped completely.
“A couple of weeks later we played Crewe in the Auto Windscreens Shield and Jimmy wanted me to play in it.
“Kurt Nogan scored one of the first ‘golden goals’. He scored and he waved to everyone and ran off down the tunnel while we were all celebrating and wondering where he’d gone. It was hilarious, and it was a really good game and I played really well.”
Mullen wanted to name Weller in league games, but not without his signature.
“I said ‘You need to pay me £250’. And I got my £250,” he smiled.
Although a personal victory, it was just one example of the difficult relationship Weller had with his first manager.
Weller had more dealings with Mullen than most of his peers after being given his battered old boots to clean.
His other job was to tidy up Jimmy Holland’s medical room, a task which included an extra, eye-opening chore.
“Apart from cleaning it I had to get the big ice bucket ready for away games, with Jimmy Mullen’s bottle of whiskey and his glass.
“I was under 18 handling the alcohol. As a young lad I’m thinking ‘Really? In professional football?’.
“But as you get older you start hearing all the stories of him falling asleep and all the calamity that went with it.”
Weller made his league debut against Carlisle in December 1995. Mullen left the following February but Weller’s career kicked on under his mentor turned manager Heath, following Clive Middlemass’s brief spell in charge.
“I used to get stick for being ‘Inchy’s boy’. But he made the transition work.
“By the end of the season he was getting better at it, and he’d brought in a fantastic number two in John Ward who was a great character, very knowledgeable and brought the best out in the players,” said Weller.
“We just missed out on the play-offs that year but when he resigned at the end of that year it was heartbreaking for a lot of people.”
Enter Chris Waddle. But Spurs fan Weller’s White Hart Lane idol was not the ideal manager, nor “Sergeant Major” Glenn Roeder as his number two.
When Burnley started the season away to Watford, Weller and team-mate Glen Little were shopping in Manchester having been omitted from the squad.
“Roeder was the front, Waddle stayed out of the way,” Weller said.
“The way he did things just made you laugh. He told me I wasn’t a midfielder but a wing-back, so I had to learn that role.
“But after Christmas I thought things were really good, I thought we played really well. Once he got Glen back in and got a settled formation I thought we played some really good football.
“I think he learnt a valuable lesson in the first six months and I think we would have done okay had he stayed.”
But Waddle left and in came Stan Ternent, before Weller had been able to sign the three-year contract he had been offered under his old boss and the colitis he had been diagnosed with was getting worse – later developing into Crohn’s disease.
He had a trial with West Ham, but started the new season with Burnley. Yet no sooner had the the season begun than it was over for Weller as drastic action was taken to rid him of his bowel problems.
“We played Walsall away and I didn’t have a very good game. I was shattered, I couldn’t run, I just felt horrible.
“I had to get it sorted out.
“We got to the end of November and they’d tried quite a lot of drugs already. They told me there were other drugs we could try, or they said they could take my bowel out.
“I had a chat with a lot of people, I was only 23 and I thought if they take it out the problem’s gone.
“It was a three operation procedure. First they would take the bowel out and give me a colostomy bag, then a few months later once things have settled down they would go back in and form an artificial pouch inside my tummy with my bowel, but I would still need a colostomy bag. Then a few months later I’d be connected up inside and I’d be working.
“Normally when they do this it takes over a year but with me they wanted to try to push it along.
“I had the first one on December 14, 1999, to have my bowel removed, and then I went home for Christmas with my family.
“I came back up and had the second one done in February and then the third one in April, so they crammed it all in. And it was all done at Burnley General Hospital.
“All the lads used to come and see me, and Stan came every Sunday.”
Weller was like a new man after surgery.
But what should have been a fresh start almost ended in his Turf exit the following season.