Ex-Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Everton and Brighton man Warren Aspinall: I died on the operating table after superbug had eaten away my ankle ligaments

It was an operation to save his football career – instead it almost cost Warren Aspinall his life.

Thursday, 31st March 2022, 6:00 pm

The former Pompey, Everton and Aston Villa man had undergone a routine procedure to remove a piece of floating bone from his right ankle in November 2000.

However, after catching the MRSA superbug, he would die on the operating table.

Thankfully, surgeons managed to resuscitate Aspinall after his heart stopped for several seconds.

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Yet, at the age of 33, the Brighton midfielder was forced to quit football.

‘I’m told it was for a few seconds, but I died on that operating table,’ Aspinall told The News.

‘It all began with Brighton’s physio advising me to have a floating bone in my right ankle removed. It had been troubling me, but I would then be okay for the rest of the season.

‘I was checked into Bupa in Brighton for the operation and released the following day to recuperate at home. Except my ankle swelled up to the size of a football.

Warren Aspinall celebrates with Martin Kuhl (left) following Pompey's 1-0 success over Nottingham Forest in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in March 1992. Picture: EMPICS Sport/PA Photos

‘I was screaming in agony, in tears. The ankle was getting bigger and bigger by the day, there were red blotches all over it. As I was living in Hedge End, I couldn’t go back to Brighton, it had to be closer to home, so I went to Southampton A&E for help.

‘It turned out I had contracted MRSA, a superbug. How it got in there, no-one knows. It must have come from a nurse or doctor, it was known to happen at that time.

‘It’s a bacteria, it had started to eat away tendons and ligaments in my ankle. They eventually said I would never play football again as a result, I was finished.

‘Yet now I needed an operation to get rid of this infection, which involved me scheduled to stay on a hospital ward for 14 days, attached to an intravenous drip while antibiotics were fed into my body.

Warren Aspinall takes on Manchester United's Paul Parker in the Rumbelows Cup in October 1991, with the Blues losing 3-1

‘After 13 days, my body broke out in a rash from head to toe. It had rejected the drug.

‘So I had the operation once more – and it happened again. After 13 days, my body rejected it.

‘For 28 days I’d been on that hospital ward, so I was then offered the chance to return home if I underwent an operation to insert two tubes into my heart, one for the intravenous drip to enter and the other to take blood out.

‘That sounded good to me – apart from my heart subsequently stopping during the procedure. I died.

Warren Aspinall (left) has spent the last nine years working for BBC Radio Sussex co-commentating on Brighton with Johnny Cantor

‘I don’t know what happened on that operating table, but they brought me back, and I was allowed to go home to Hedge End, with a district nurse checking on me every day, even Christmas Day.

‘There were two six-inch tubes hanging out of my chest, with the nurse taking blood out of one and putting the drugs into the other.

‘Mind you, I had a four-year-old and a two-year-old at the time, they were clambering all over me and I had to keep telling them “Don’t pull those wires!”.

‘I lived, the antibiotics killed the superbug, but my career ended there and then. I was aged 33, with nothing planned, no coaching badges. I had to go into the real world.’

It was March 1987 when Aspinall turned down Pompey boss Alan Ball, with the Everton man favouring joining Aston Villa on deadline day for a club-record £300,000 fee.

However, 18 months later, the striker was back on the market, despite having netted 11 times in 32 appearances in a successful Second Division promotion campaign under Graham Taylor.

Warren Aspinall appeared 37 times and scored three goals for Brighton before his career was cut short in November 2000. Picture: Steve Bardens, Allsport UK

Aspinall’s on-pitch discipline would prompt his ‘sacking’ – with Ball this time beating Sheffield Wednesday to capture the 20-year-old for a record fee of £315,000 in August 1988.

So began an eventful five-and-a-half seasons at Fratton Park, consisting of 158 games, 28 goals and an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool.

Aspinall added: ‘I had been suspended three times in the 1987-88 season for Villa and Taylor warned me: “I need you on the pitch, not in the stands. If you don’t buck up then you’re out”.

‘Then we had a pre-season friendly at St Mirren and this big hairy Scotsman kept coming through the back of me – and I’d had enough. I looked at the nearest linesman, looked at the referee, they both weren't watching, so I stamped on his chest.

‘Unfortunately, the linesman on the opposite side was waving his flag. He had spotted me.

‘In the dressing room after the game, Taylor announced to the team – and me – that I would be leaving. Within two weeks, I was a Pompey player.

‘The headline in the local paper was “Aspinall sacked”. Villa got money for me, so I was hardly sacked!

‘It’s my own fault, nobody else’s, but that’s the way I played. My temper on the pitch was always an issue. I wanted to win – and if it wasn’t going right I’d get frustrated.

‘There would be late tackles and late challenges, I knew what I was doing, even if you plead innocence to the referee! It’s part of your DNA. I didn’t deliberately go to hurt people, but on the other hand I may have done!

‘That Pompey side had great characters and winners, the team spirit was unbelievable. After every game, the players would be ushered into the boardroom to have a drink with the chairman – Jim Gregory – who sat at the head of this massive table, like Henry VIII.

‘There would be a cigar in his mouth, yet he never smoked it and never lit it. He’d sit there and pretend, even dabbing it out before getting another out, but never smoked them.

‘One Christmas, he took us to Midhurst for a meal and drinks. Afterwards, we stopped off at a pub for a few more drinks, before the remaining players climbed into his chauffeur-driven car and stopped off in Goldsmith Avenue.

‘The chairman then challenged me to a race – from one lamppost to another – with £50 to the winner. Well, this was going to be the easiest £50 I had ever earned.

‘I set off like my backside was on fire. Then looked back and saw Gregory jump into his car, speed past me, before leaping out with a yard to go and reaching the lamppost first.

‘Wait a minute. “Come on Mr Chairman, that’s not right”, but he wasn’t reversing his win!’

Ball was sacked as manager in January 1989, five months after signing Aspinall, with coach John Gregory promoted as boss.

The ex-England midfielder was the choice of Fratton Park chairman Jim Gregory, with the pair having previously worked together at QPR.

Although albeit his first managerial role wasn’t a success.

‘John Gregory came in, the backstabber, and brought Steve Wicks as his assistant,’ said Aspinall.

‘Those two spent more time in the mirror than they did on the training pitch, it was like Wham. Wicks must be the only centre-half who had his broken nose operated on, everyone else let it set itself.

‘Most days after training, me, Graeme Hogg, Kenny Black, Mark Chamberlain, Steve Wigley and John Beresford would stop off at a pub for a quick pint, but you’d be there all afternoon.

‘Now Chambo lived in Port Solent and would let a friend moor his big boat at his berth. Chambo was also allowed to use it. So, while having a few drinks, we came up with the idea of taking it out to the Isle of Wight.

‘Hoggy was panicking because of his wife, so he dropped out, but the others were keen. We realised we’d spent all the money between us, so I got my cheque book from my car and cashed some in to buy beer for the trip over.

‘When we arrived, we visited a few pubs in Ryde. At the end of the evening, we caught a taxi back to the marina, only to realise the boat was moored across the other side – and 100 feet of water.

‘So the plan was to climb onto this wooden pallet we’d found and paddle over there, only for it to sink as soon as we put it into the water.

‘Then we noticed a little rowing boat in somebody’s garden, perfect. However, we were making so much noise trying to get it into the water that a big spotlight appeared on us. It was the police.

‘Luckily enough, they were Pompey season ticket holders, so drove us back to our boat with the instructions not to use it that night as we were in no fit state. Not a problem, we could sleep on it.

‘Not that we did, thanks to Kenny Black. He wore contact lenses but couldn’t take them out, so insisted: “If I'm not sleeping, you’re not sleeping” – and kept us awake all night.

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‘We returned in the morning, drove to Hedge End, where most of us lived, and Steve Wigley stopped off to get a loaf of bread from the shop.

‘Well, he walked into his house, gave it to his missus, who smacked it around his head. “Where have you been for 24 hours?”.

‘Then it was a quick change – and off to Pompey training!’

After Gregory there was Frank Burrows and caretaker boss Tony Barton, before Jim Smith arrived at Fratton Park in June 1991.

Aspinall featured in the FA Cup run to the semi-finals against Liverpool in April 1992, as well as the Blues’ 1992-93 campaign, which resulted in a play-off semi-final defeat to Leicester.

It was also under Smith that the midfielder would depart Pompey, switching to Bournemouth in December 1993 for £15,000.

‘Jim Smith was tremendous, a different gravy to other managers,’ laughed Aspinall.

‘He liked a drink and often got onto the team coach after spending 50 minutes in the opposition boardroom following the match.

‘On one occasion, we were playing cards at the back and, halfway through the journey home, said to me: “Warra, what a bad game you had today”. I replied: “What do you mean a bad game, I didn’t even play!”.

‘He thought he was talking to Warren Neill. I continued: “I was sub”. He responded with “Well, your warm-up was rubbish”. Okay gaffer!

‘He used to have his cigar going, it was like Stars In Your Eyes when he walked down the bus, you couldn’t see anything.

‘Jim would often put his hand on his head and move it down his face, so a flake of tobacco ended up covering all his face where he kept touching it. Classic.

‘When we reached the FA Cup semi-final, Neil Sillett, the physio, had an agreement with Lucozade to sponsor his treatment bag.

‘With the match being televised, every time the camera picked up Sill’s bag, it would earn us £100, with all proceeds going towards an end-of-season holiday for the lads.

‘Well, we were going down like ninepins and, with there also being a replay, £3,500 was raised, paying for us to go to Tenerife, where we watched Liverpool win the FA Cup from Lineker’s Bar.’

Following his departure for Bournemouth, Aspinall later represented Carlisle, Brentford and Colchester before his career abruptly ended at Brighton in November 2000.

During his post-football career, the 54-year-old successfully battled drinking and gambling addiction, while has worked at Sainsbury’s distribution centre in Basingstoke since 2006.

Having scouted for Pompey under Harry Redknapp, he has been at BBC Radio Sussex for the last nine years, serving as a co-commentator with Johnny Cantor on Brighton matches.

‘I still had a few playing years left in me when forced to retire, while to this day my ankle becomes sore in the cold and I have a little limp,’ added Aspinall.

‘But I’ll tell you what, being on a Southampton ward for 28 days was great for a diet.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Warren Aspinall turning out for a Pompey veterans side in a six-a-side game at the Wellington Sports Ground, Eastleigh. Picture: Mick Young
Warren Aspinall featuring in a fund-raising game in aid of ex-Hawks player Jack Farrugia in January 2009. Picture: Steve Reid