A former professional footballer is wel lon the way to achieving a much-cherished goal of his own. Shiela Weber reports.

DREW Coverdale is in his element. For the first time, all the health professionals he will be working with are together under one roof. His roof. And it is a moment to savour for the former professional footballer who has branched out into the physiotherapy and sports injuries sphere. This is what he has worked for. Risked all for.

"It has been a bit scary but we move on from here," says Drew as his new colleagues gather at the physio centre he runs at Norton, near Stockton.

After launching the business last November, he has quickly reached the point where he has been able to create more consulting space that other practitioners - such as a podiatrist and a counsellor - can use. In fact, Drew has arrived at this juncture earlier than he thought he would. This says a lot for the forward planning and drive of this 36-year-old who has found there is life after football.

Football fans will no doubt remember Drew as a player with both Boro and Darlington in the 1980s and 90s.

Born and bred in Norton, he went to Blakeston Comprehensive and became an apprentice with Boro. After a year playing for the club, he followed his youth team manager Brian Little to Darlington where he stayed for three years, during which time the team did well on the trophy front. A spell in the Conference League followed.

"At that point I knew I could scratch around in the lower leagues for another five or six years or go to university and get the qualifications which would take me forward in life," says Drew, who was just 24 at the time.

No contest. He played for a number of local clubs to pay his way through studies for the next three years.

"It was pocket money, better than working in a bar," says Drew.

Mission accomplished, he went to work in the NHS as a physiotherapy specialist at Hartlepool General Hospital, while also doing private work for Darlington FC.

He had always had one eye on Norton as the place for a business venture. More specialised work at Darlington's Memorial Hospital followed, along with the success of getting a Masters degree in manual therapy at Manchester University. Now was the time.

"With my sports background and acquired skills I was well placed to go it alone," he says.

He knew other sports people would identify with someone who had probably had similar injuries He says that apart from the hospitals, there was nothing in the Norton area catering for such injuries or other complaints. "Everyone knows that most NHS hospitals have waiting lists for physio treatment and I came to understand why the private sector is so successful - little or no waiting," says Drew.

The next step was to find premises and here came a hitch with council planning policy. Because the business was not mainstream, Stockton Council viewed it as non-retail and were reluctant to agree change of use. In the delay, the initial premises Drew fancied were taken. But he quickly came upon the centre he now runs at Norton Road and this time the council said yes.

For 18 months before all this he saw patients at his own home in Norton. "It didn't really fit in with the family dynamic, but I couldn't turn people away," he says.

Even though the new business has taken off quickly, Drew still works 30 hours a week for the NHS. He says his bosses have been very supportive and allowed him to drop a day, which he now spends at his own clinic, along with four evenings and Saturday mornings.

Drew played football with two of the specialists who have joined him. The others he found through advertising, emails and word of mouth.

His original two rooms have been expanded to five to provide space for a sports therapist, podiatrist, counsellor, nutritionist, sports masseur, beauty therapist, hypnotherapist and holistic therapist. Ultimately, Drew wants a one-stop therapeutic shop. "They say the first year is the hardest so we'll see how we go," he says.

With a wife and three young children, Drew admits he has risked everything to follow his dream.

"You are risking your home and the stability of the family," he says. "But working privately part of the time gives me a bit more flexibility to be with the children."

Jenny, his wife of ten years, has been nothing but supportive. She is a partner in Drew's business and helps with the admin, but she herself is soon to start studies for a nursing diploma. "It's a busy time for us," says Drew.

He hopes to build on his sporting contacts to boost the business. Former Boro and Darlington star Bernie Slaven performed the clinic's opening ceremony and Drew sees this kind of link as crucial.

Clients come with all kinds of complaints - bad backs, bad necks, twisted ankles, strained knees - and sporting injuries. Drew also takes on litigation work and health and safety issues.

And yet, he says the NHS has a richness he would never want to leave behind.

"I will always have contact with the NHS," says Drew. "Working in hospitals I feel I am doing my bit, I really do. The NHS is a great organisation and there is no bitterness involved in my drawing away a little bit. I want to offer patient choice. That's all there is to it."

Jenny Coverdale is full of admiration for what her husband has achieved. "He lives and breathes the clinic," she says.

Does Drew miss the beautiful game? I ask. "No," is the firm reply. "Because I have put my energies into this venture. I saw what I wanted to achieve and went for it."

He does, though, still play socially from time to time. But he keeps being asked to play for a local over-35s team.

"Now that is a bit disconcerting," says Drew.

* Norton Physiotherapy and Sports Injuries Clinic is at 317, Norton Road, Stockton. Tel: (01642) 361166.