As anyone who follows football online as well as in real life will know, there’s usually a bit of “banter” between fans of rival clubs – and there’s even the odd dedicated “banter” forum on the Internet, to facilitate this. Sometimes it jogs along on a fairly friendly basis, other times, friendly is not exactly the word. But occasionally – and now is one of those times – even the agitated banter between fans of clubs who really don’t normally have a lot of love for each other tends to fade away in the perspective of true human loss. At those times, football is relegated to the back seat it should always occupy when more serious and compelling matters come to the fore.
Lately, fate has dealt cruel blows to both Leeds United and Norwich City, of an almost identical nature, making such matters as Spygate or Norwich’s away dressing room makeover look as trivial and irrelevant as they really are. First, on January 12th, young United fan Toby Nye lost his brave battle against neuroblastoma, just days after his sixth birthday, passing away with his family around him. On Friday, Toby will make one last journey past the Leeds United ground at Elland Road, on the way to a celebration of his life.
The story echoed that of Bradley Lowery, the six-year-old Sunderland fan who died in July 2017, also from neuroblastoma. Bradley had formed a close friendship with ex-Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe when he became a mascot for the team, and Toby too had a big mate in the Leeds squad, with club skipper Liam Cooper among others closely involved in supporting and encouraging the young Leeds fan’s fight against this awful illness right up to the end. Cooper, who had once carried Toby on to the pitch at Elland Road, said on Twitter he was “heartbroken to hear that my little mate has peacefully passed”.
Just days later, there was news of another and tragically similar loss, as young Norwich City fan Sophie Taylor passed away at the age of five from osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that originates in the bones and had, in Sophie’s case, progressed to her lungs. Sophie, as in the cases of Bradley Lowery and Toby Nye, had formed a special attachment to one of her Norwich heroes, midfielder James Maddison. Although Maddison had moved on from Carrow Road to Leicester City last summer, he kept in touch with Sophie’s condition and was clearly devastated by news of her passing. In a touching Twitter message, Maddison wrote “Rest In Peace my little Angel. I love you always & forever.”
And, just in the past day or so, we have heard the news of Cardiff City‘s record signing Emiliano Sala who is missing after the aeroplane he was travelling on from Nantes to Cardiff disappeared from radar over the English Channel. This situation is still a developing one, but it appears that a happy ending – while devoutly hoped and prayed for – is unlikely, given the time of year and the temperature of sea waters. Meanwhile, Sala’s parents in Argentina are left hoping against hope that there will be better news forthcoming, while fans of both his old club, Nantes, and his new team Cardiff are united in what is becoming more a case of mass grief than any real hope.
Death is the one real certainty for all of us, with its timing being the main factor that will accentuate or mitigate the level of tragedy associated with each sad departure. The death of children, those poor little angels who have had such a brief shot at life before being snatched away, is, of course, acutely tragic and mourned with a level of intensity and shock, as we have seen. But the loss of a young man with talent and the world at his feet is also something profoundly to regret, and – if confirmed – will touch literally thousands of lives. In all of these cases, human nature has asserted itself, mundane rivalries and mutual irritations have been put aside – and everybody has concentrated on what’s really important, to the exclusion of club rivalries. And that is exactly as it should be.
Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything therefore extends sympathy and condolences to anyone connected to the three young angels recently departed, and also to those affected by the probable loss of a major football talent. It’s a great pity that it seems to take events such as these to remind people of what’s really important and, in that respect, I’m no less guilty than anyone else. But I suppose it’s reassuring also to know – because we have seen it happen – that, when tragedy does strike, people of different outlooks and affiliations will come together in the common cause of mutual support and comfort. At the end of the day, against a background of ever-present strife, that’s the most important thing of all.