OLIVIER Bernard is struggling as he limps, a smile on his face failing to mask the agony of hip bones relentlessly grinding together when he walks. This is the physical pain that accompanies his mental scars.
At just 21, Bernard was a regular member of a Newcastle side that emerged from mid-table obscurity under Sir Bobby Robson to become one of the most exciting teams in English football.
There have not been many teams better in black-and-white stripes than the one Robson built and, in many ways, Bernard epitomised everything that what was special about it.
Young, hungry, quick, attack-minded, powerful and bold, Bernard arrived in England as an unknown winger from Lyon, became first-choice left-back in a side which qualified for the Champions League twice, reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup and amazed critics and supporters alike with its speed and energy.
Just six years later, that career was over. Forced to retire because of injury, soured by bitterness and regret, Bernard felt like a victim of a curse.
“It was awful, I’d had so many highs at the start of my career and by 28 I was finished,” said Bernard, who lives with his Geordie wife Diane and their two daughters in Newcastle. “I was devastated.
“It cost me a lot of money trying to get back into football, but it was a lost cause.
“I came back to Newcastle, went to America for an operation, to Canada, to Birmingham, but I never played competitive football again.
“I was very unlucky, it was very hard to accept. I had a taste of football at the highest level and it was taken away with the snap of a finger. It killed me for a good year.
“I was depressed, so miserable. I’d done everything I could, but nothing worked. I made good money for a young man, but not enough to set me up for life.
“I can’t even enjoy watching Newcastle play anymore, I hardly watch any football at all.
“I do go sometimes, but I find it brings back too many memories, good and bad.
“It reminds me of what I had and what I lost. I wish I could be out there again. I’m only 31, I should still be playing at a good level.
“Just looking at the Newcastle shirt makes me proud, it was a big part of my life, but it was taken away from me and I resent that.
“I need an operation, I’m in constant pain, but I’m scared. There are no guarantees that I will be able to walk properly afterwards.
“It will clear up the pain, but I might have a limp for the rest of my life, I might not have full mobility, I might not be able to run.”
Bernard admits he will have to take the risk eventually, the discomfort is becoming too much to ignore, yet at least his mental suffering has subsided. He is no longer tortured by what he lost, happier to reflect on what he had.
“That team was incredible,” he said. “It was the best time, it was so enjoyable to be part of it. I had a manager like Bobby and figureheads like Alan Shearer, Rob Lee, Gary Speed. I was a young man and I was so proud to play alongside them.
“It was a young team – except for a few, we were all in our early twenties, we were all together, we went out together. It snowballed, we could feel the force inside us.
“We went to Arsenal, won in December, and we believed we could win the title. We had no fear, we were young and we knew we were good, too fast for people. There hasn’t been a quicker team than that. We tore teams apart.
“If we hadn’t suffered with injuries we would have won the title in 2002, I still believe that. Sir Alex Ferguson said as much. Next year we were in the Champions League, beating Juventus, fantastic memories.
“We should have won something – the Uefa Cup in 2004, injuries killed it. We lost nine players for the second leg of the semi-final, it was too much to cope with.”
Happy on Tyneside and part of a side which suggested it would end the most embarrassing trophy drought in England, Bernard left in acrimonious circumstances, angry with the club and furious with the manager who forced him out.
He said: “I wanted to stay. I was enjoying my football, but it all changed very quickly. I don’t regret what happened. I left because I had to.
“The club stopped negotiating with me. Bobby got sacked, Graeme Souness came and he had completely different views. He killed the momentum and the team. He sat me down in our first meeting, said this is the contract, sign it now or you’re out.
“He said ‘I’ve got another player to come anyway, I don’t think you’re that good’. That player was Celestine Babayaro. I was really upset. I said ‘you don’t even know me, you’ve hardly seen me play.’ He wanted me out and I went.
“Everything was perfect for me, Souness ruined it. He deflated everything and everyone left. He didn’t like young players, he didn’t like difficult characters, he ruined the club.”
Bernard went on loan to Southampton before moving to Rangers as a free agent in the summer of 2005, but life in Scotland also turned sour when the Ibrox side replaced Alex McLeish a year later with a manager he had fallen out previously with at Lyon, which facilitated his original move to Newcastle.
He explained: “Paul Le Guen, he told me I was too fat to play. He was one of the reasons I left Lyon and I knew it was game over for me there.
“I lost too much weight in too short a time. I’ve always been stocky, it didn’t mean I couldn’t run. I was on a soup and bread diet. I lost all my strength, I went from 82 kilos to 74 kilos in three or four weeks.
“I don’t think I was ever the same again, I had no energy and the injuries kept coming.
“I couldn’t force my way back into the team, I came back to Newcastle and never played a game.
“My hip was in bits, I wasn’t the same player. My body was breaking down. I didn’t realise then, but my career was already over.”