Covid: The football fans who will not return
"When I think about all those memories now, I'm not sure how I can go back, even though I know I have to..."
Returning to stadiums has been a moment the vast majority of football supporters have longed for for over a year. For some, however, it will be a poignant occasion: a time to think of the friends and loved ones who will not be returning to their usual seats.
Here are the stories of some of the fans who have been lost in the time away, as told by those who spent countless matchdays by their side.
Liam O'Neill, a Manchester City fan
"When we beat PSG, we were all in tears. Not just because we'd finally got to the final, but because Liam wasn't here to see it."
My dad and Liam knew each other since they were teenagers. They were best mates. Every home game, they'd go to Maine Road together. There was even a time when they both worked in hospitality at Old Trafford on the weekends City were away!
The Maine Road days were before my time, but Liam was a part of every match day I can remember. He wasn't related to me by blood, but he may as well have been. He was like an uncle to me, a football uncle. There's a group of us who go to the games together and have done for years. They're a brilliant team now, but when City were crap, the day out and the people you spent it with was better than the actual game. Liam was a big part of that.
He text my dad to wish him happy birthday last October. He didn't even mention anything about the Covid. Two weeks later he was in a coma, and remained so for a month before he passed away. It was awful. Really, really awful. At the funeral, everyone wore blue scarves. My dad read out a prayer.
I've thought about him every time we've played ever since. We weren't able to be together for the PSG game, but when we won, we were all in tears. It wasn't just that we'd finally got to the final, but because Liam wasn't here to see it.
The funny thing about it is that he absolutely hated Uefa. The European games at the Etihad when we'd be booted out of our seats for all their officials, the way they distributed tickets for the big cup finals, he couldn't stand all that. He'd moan about it all the time. But I think he'd have loved to see them get to the final.
He was a great bloke. He thought the world of his wife, was so proud of his three daughters and he loved City, too.
I've sat next to him all my life, at every game. That first one back with him not there is going to be a strange one.
Nick Price, Liam's 'football nephew'
Stephen Beard, a Tranmere Rovers fan
"Stephen and I spent years together growing up at Prenton Park. As I promised when he died, I will be back, shouting my lungs out for him."
I lost my best mate, Stephen, to cancer in April 2020. We'd been going to Tranmere matches together since we were teenagers, right through to being blokes in our thirties.
It was actually at a game in 2017 when I noticed Stephen didn’t look well. He ended up going to see the doctor and less than a month after that match, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a huge shock, but he dealt with the diagnosis as he dealt with the rest of life, in such a calm, nonchalant way.
He was determined to keep going to games after it and we had a day to remember when Tranmere played Boreham Wood in the National League final at Wembley in 2018. Tranmere had a man sent off after 48 seconds and we used up all our subs in the first half - it looked an impossible task to win it, another season lost in the non-league loomed. But somehow the Tranmere players mustered up something from somewhere and we scored a winner in the 80th minute. I made sure at that moment to hug Stephen like I’d never hugged him before - I knew I might never get another chance to.
Like Tranmere that day, Stephen mustered up something from somewhere, and stayed with us for almost another two years following that day out at Wembley. In fact, a year after Stephen was diagnosed with cancer, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I could barely walk at one stage, but still, we both went to Tranmere matches. There was a problem when I got to the match, though.
Due to MS symptoms, I couldn’t lift my legs to walk up the steps to our usual seats. But Stephen, who was weak from the cancer, offered to act as my crutch to help me get to our seats. It was an unbelievable gesture and makes me well up just thinking about it again. Such selflessness all in the name of friendship and football.
The 2019/20 season was tough for Tranmere. We were near the bottom of the league for most of the campaign, but our form picked up after a few shrewd January signings. It looked like we could avoid relegation - and Stephen believed that too. It was then the pandemic struck and, of course, put the season on hold in March 2020. Stephen was in and out of hospital then. He passed away the next month.
When Tranmere were demoted by points per game in June 2020, while it seemed incredibly unfair, my immediate thoughts were about Stephen. I was numb to everything happening in the football world. I was fortunate enough to go to two Tranmere games with my dad when lockdown was partially lifted on the Wirral in December 2020. I found the occasions incredibly emotional. Stephen and I spent years together growing up at Prenton Park. Again, me and my dad will be going to Prenton Park on Thursday as Tranmere face Morecambe in yet another play-off semi-final. As I promised when Stephen died, I will be shouting my lungs out for him.
We miss you, mate.
Chris Norman, Stephen's best mate
Jacqueline Brown, a Manchester United supporter
"She said something to me just after the goal, about how she wondered if she'd ever get to experience moments like that again. I thought she'd meant it as a comment about the pandemic, but I wonder if she knew that that was it. That was the end."
She was the one who got me into football and United. She'd ask me at times if I'd want to go with my mates instead, but I never did. That was how I'd grown up watching football, that was how it was meant to be.
Mum used to go in the early seventies with her older brother. He'd done well and got a job in a bank. We're from Barnsley and he was the first one from our family who never went down the pit. He died suddenly in 1975 but she kept going and then took me and my brother.
The first time was 1989. I just remember the noise, everything. I was mesmerised. She'd drive us across for every league game from then on. We went all over watching them: Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona in 1999.
It was around the start of 2007 she got the brain abscess. She'd been fit and healthy until then but she spent a lot of time in hospital. She was unsteady on her feet after that, but she kept going. She lived for the football.
Mum died last month. Our last game was the City game just before everything shut down. We knew what Covid was then, that football might be stopping soon. I remember the Scott McTominay goal at the end that made sure of the win, celebrating on the steps. She said something to me just after it, about how she wondered if she'd ever get to experience moments like that again. It didn't seem that significant at the time, but I've not stopped thinking about it since. I thought she'd meant it as a comment about the pandemic, but I wonder if she knew that that was it. That was the end.
I drove over for the protests recently. She'd have wanted me to do that. It was strange, her not being there, and I've no idea how I'll manage it when I'm driving over for an actual game. But I wouldn't change any of the time we spent together. Not a single second.
David Robinson, Jacqueline's son
Jim Fleming, a Linfield fan
"We need to take that walk up to Windsor Park together. That, I hope, will be our closure. Our way of accepting he's gone."
I'd known Jim since I was a kid. He and my father had been friends since they were kids themselves. It was the pair of them who set up our own supporters' club.
People who don't follow football won't relate to how important it is, being part of a supporters' club like ours. You go to the home games, you get on the minibus to aways, have a drink and a sing-song. You spend all those hours in the company of the same people. It's like a family, and Jim and my father were the ones everyone looked up to.
Jim had taken sick a few years after we'd set the club up. He had bowel cancer and got over it and was doing great. We managed to get together in the local bar a couple of times after the first lockdown, but when the second one came, it all went wrong from there.
He'd started feeling unwell but they couldn't find anything wrong when they did tests in hospital. They'd put a drain in his leg but sent him home after four days with it still in. Because of Covid, he couldn't get back into hospital after that and the area around the drain in his leg became infected. Soon after that, he died.
Even on the day of his funeral, his family - his real family, not the supporters' club - had arranged it so we could all be there, even with the limited numbers. That was how much it meant to him.
It sounds strange when we were all at the funeral but it still feels like we've not had the closure. One of the young lads told me the other day that he was dreading the first game back without Jim being there. I think it's the same for us all. Maybe it's different across the water but over here, pretty much everyone recognises each other at the games. I know that when we come back, people will be asking where he is, even those who don't know him by name. I'm not looking forward to that.
We'll all struggle that day, whenever it comes, but we need it. We need to take that walk up to Windsor Park together. That, I hope, will be our closure. Our way of accepting he's gone.
Gary Spence, Jim's friend
Alan Lesner, a Tottenham supporter
"It wasn't just about going to the game. It was my time with Dad... In time, it was his chance to spend time with his grandsons. We had some wonderful times."
Dad grew up on Lordship Lane, walking distance from White Hart Lane. In his teens, he'd take himself to games with his friends. He went to every single home game in the '61 season, when they won the double.
Life got in the way a bit as he got older. He'd have to work a lot of Saturdays, so took me to some of my first games on bank holidays like Boxing Day or at Easter. I remember sitting in the front row of the upper west stand, dropping Smarties over the edge, the way people would move forward in the standing area after a goal. They're all great memories.
When I finished university I took up a season ticket with a friend and that kind of sucked Dad back into it. He got a ticket soon after, and so did my cousin. Eventually, my three children all started going to games with us too. We ended up with eight tickets together.
It wasn't just about going to the game. It was my time with Dad: a bit like a counselling session where we'd sit in the car together on the way and talk about things. In time, it was his chance to spend time with his grandsons. We had some wonderful times.
Dad passed away with heart failure last July. He'd had a major bypass operation over 30 years ago. Before he died, he'd renewed his season ticket. My boys had shared one ticket up until then and, fortunately, the club allowed us to transfer it into my youngest's name. I was so pleased we were able to do that. I wasn't ready to go back to a game, whenever that would be, and see someone else sitting there.
Going back to a game is the one hurdle I've not really confronted. We've done the other stuff, like the first birthday since he passed away. Seeing a game without him is the last one I have to do. But at least we still have his seat. That makes it easier.
Scott Lesner, Alan's son
Tony Kelly, a QPR fan "with a soft spot for Arsenal"
"I don't have a good memory, generally, but I'll never forget that night we beat Barcelona. It's not necessarily that we won the game and played brilliantly, it's that we won and I was there with my dad."
I'm a lifelong Arsenal fan, Dad was QPR and actually played for them until the age of about 18. He had a bad knee injury which stopped him. Everyone has their "could've made it" stories, but in his case, he really could.
He worked in the film industry building the sets. He was busy a lot with work - crazy hours - but whenever we managed to get time I'd get him a ticket to come down the Arsenal with me. He was a closet Arsenal fan. He loved it. There'd be times when he'd get so passionate about it, or so wound up about David Luiz that I'd have to remind him he was a QPR fan!
I didn't see him all the time, so that time together was special: a chance to catch up and talk about the family and stuff. We'd get in quite early because Dad loved reading the programme. Not just skimming through it, either, properly reading it - every word! The whole day - going there, getting a quick pint before we got the tube in, getting a bite to eat before we went in the ground, having another pint afterwards and a chat about the game - it all added to the experience of the football itself. All of that, I'll miss so much.
I'd always try and get him a ticket for the big Champions League games. I remember the Barcelona one in 2011 specifically, where we won 2-1. The whole atmosphere was incredible. We didn't sit down the whole game. I've got a bad memory, generally, but I'll never forget that night. It's not necessarily that we won the game and played brilliantly, it's that we won and I was there with my dad. That adds to it.
Dad passed away suddenly in December. It was a real shock. I'm now in a position where I have to decide whether I'm going to renew my ticket again. When I think about it now, I don't know if I'd actually want to go back. It would bring back so many memories and I don't know if I'll enjoy it. Some of that is because of the way football is going in general, I think, but a big part of it is definitely because Dad won' be there with me again.
Jaymie Kelly, Tony's son
Jim Brown, a Liverpool supporter
"My dad watched Kenny Dalglish all through his career. I've never really seen him starstruck but that day, with weeks left to live, he genuinely was."
My first game would've been when I was about six or seven in the mid-nineties. From there, I went to more and more games with Dad.
In March when they were close to winning the league he seemed fine. Then, with the delay, the season finished in the summer. That's when he found out he was ill and only had a few months. When he knew that, he was desperate to go back one last time.
I was desperate to make that happen so contacted someone I knew at the club. I didn't think anything could be done but we got invited to the directors' box for one of the games. I was so grateful for that. It was bizarre, the whole thing, me and him, sitting in a near-empty ground. I even managed to get a song played for him over the speakers at half-time. It was nothing like our normal match day, all the routines were gone because everything was Covid secure, but it was still special.
When we first got there, there was Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish and all these other directors just looking at us, probably wondering who we were, sitting in the corner. We were having our pre-match meal watching another game on the TV and Kenny came over, asking what the score was. My dad had watched Kenny Dalglish all through his career. I've never really seen him starstruck but that day, with weeks left to live, he genuinely was.
Later on he was like "I've not long left to live, I'm not holding back here, I don't care if I embarrass myself." He went over and had a chat with him. From a safe distance, we got a few photos with him. None of the directors knew the circumstances but they made a point of coming across and asking how we were and talking about the game. It meant a lot.
Dad passed away in November. I got to go to a game when things opened up briefly in December. There were only 2,000 fans in the ground and I was in the Kop, not in my normal seat in the Main Stand. I spent so much of the game looking across at where me and my Dad used to sit, remembering.
To be honest, I'm dreading that first game back in my seat. I just want to get it out the way and move on. Some of the lads who sit by us, they don't know what's happened yet. It's that relationship that going to a game makes: you're close to the people you sit with but you don't know them at the same time. I'm going to have to explain that to them. I don't know how I'll manage that.
Ad Brown, Jim's son
Russ Alcock, a Manchester United fan
"I was offered tickets for the Fulham game but I turned them down. A bit of that's down to the Glazers situation but it was also because Russ won't be there. It's going to be very difficult to fill that void."
With us, we're old school. He was 62, I'm 63. Every time you'd have a debate with Russ over United, he'd always say "Yeah, but I've watched these since the sixties!" It became his catchphrase. We'd always give him stick for it and we had great banter between us. I don't think we ever had a cross in 35 years.
We'd watch United everywhere. All the home games, all the away. Great times, incredible memories. One of the best stories was in 1999, the semi-final at Villa Park where Giggs scored the goal. Russ used to work in personal security. I'd worked for the club for a bit and got him a job looking after a few of the players and their families.
It was when the M6 toll road had just opened up. I was driving us down for the game and we had Giggs' mum with us. Russ has driven everywhere, so I asked him if we stayed on the toll or not. He insisted we did. The next thing we realised we're driving past Villa Park and should've come off. Giggs' mum is looking at me, I'm looking at Russ. He was so embarrassed. We ended up the other side of Birmingham and had this mad rush to get there in time. Luckily, we ended up getting in 10 minutes before kick-off. Can you imagine, if we'd not been able to get in and Giggs' mum missed that goal? Hilarious when I look at it now, not so much at the time.
He passed away in March. He was buried in his United shirt and all the estate lined up in United shirts or wore red to send him off. It was so moving. It was cancer. I spent a lot of time by his side during his final days. I still round and look out for his wife and son.
I've so many great memories with him. When I think about it all now, I'm not sure how I can go back, even though I know I have to. It'll be so strange not having him there, making me laugh, shouting "I could have finished that, you daft bastard," whenever someone missed a chance; telling someone he used to watch United in the sixties.
I was offered tickets for the Fulham game but I turned them down. A bit of that's down to the Glazers situation - Russ and I would've both been at those protests, too - but it was also because he'll not be there. It's going to be very difficult to fill that void.
Trevor Dwyer-Lynch, Russ' mate
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