As my then nine-year-old son John and I left Roots Hall on March 7th 2020, all seemed normal. A 3-1 home win against Bristol Rovers wasn’t going to save Southend from relegation, but we’d seen a young Shrimpers team play with enough verve to put a spring in our step. Egbri…Gard…Elvis…we could be on to something here.
Tickets for the following week’s game at Rotherham were collected from the club shop and thoughts turned to John’s match against Bushey & Oxhey the following morning. Then, a few days later, everything changed. Everyone realised Covid-19 was going to pause things for a while (remember that first announcement, when football was only going to be stopped for three weeks?) but we had no idea our next game would be over 14 months away. The whole world was thrown into a fog by the pandemic, and we weren’t alone. Football became something just to be watched on the television, but we knew we’d be back soon enough. If not to Roots Hall, then to a local non-league ground. In the meantime, enjoy Bundesliga and Premier League games as best we could.
But in late August, our world stopped. John awoke on a Tuesday morning feeling a bit ill and by that same afternoon he was in agonising pain. Just a few days later his Mum and I were sitting in a room at Great Ormond Street Hospital with a doctor telling us our son had Burkitt lymphoma. A long road lay ahead for John and GOSH became his home for the next couple of months, with us parents taking turns to sleep on a camp bed alongside him.
Yet football remained a presence in our lives. We decided not to watch Southend games on iFollow, but still followed the results closely every Saturday. It seems ridiculous now, seeing as John was suffering badly from the side effects of his chemotherapy, but when Exeter scored that injury time equaliser on October 10th, both of us reacted in anger and disbelief. Yes, there was a much bigger battle on our hands, but in that moment, Alex Fisher’s goal was a huge deal.
One of John’s many doctors – Torjus – was from Denmark. England played the Danes twice during our time in GOSH, so football gave us something to talk about. They got the better of those autumn battles, much to Torjus’ delight, although that trilogy ended well for us at Wembley in June.
Knowing John loves his football, many friends bought John football shirts, which he wore while in hospital. Again, they provided a talking point, whether it was to comment on how smart his new Milan and Marseille tops looked, or to ask why there was a prawn on the badge of that dark blue one he was wearing. Get well soon cards on display in the room from SUFC and The Shrimpers Trust made his allegiances clear, but that still didn’t stop one nurse giving him a Chelsea bottle and pencil case. That’s the problem with hospitasl – people are so lovely, even when they do something terrible like that, you can’t be angry with them.
Football even became an escape for me. I didn’t tell everyone about John’s illness – including some friends from the pages of this fanzine – as having football to talk about (even in the grimmest of SUFC seasons) was, even briefly, a distraction from the pain of real life. Autumn became winter and eventually John was able to return home. By this stage, his junior football team were playing again, but he was still too poorly to cheer on his team-mates. An hour standing outside in December is not advisable for someone still recovering from a major illness! By March, his recovery was almost complete, and John went through the (incredibly embarrassing for him, incredibly emotional for us parents) hospital tradition of ringing the bell to signal the end of his treatment. It takes a lot to knock May 23rd 2015 off the top of my ‘greatest days ever’ list but…
Junior football was still on hiatus at this point, but on April 11th, he was able to return to action for Hemel Hempstead Town Under 10s Blues. The game ended in a 3-1 home defeat to Tring, but if ever a result didn’t matter, this was the one. Well – it didn’t matter to us and his coaches, just thrilled to see him back out there on the grass. John was fuming, however. He has never been one to take defeat well, despite all the practice he has had following Southend United. Happily, he was able to play in six more games before the season came to an end.
There was still one more football-related step to make in his recovery though – getting to a game.
The opportunity for this didn’t come until late May, when Leverstock Green FC, about a mile from our home, hosted the final of the South Midlands League’s ‘Spring Cup’. Colney Heath v London Lions may not sound like a must-see fixture, but after 14 months away from the terraces, it ticked every box. Burger, chips, tea with three sugars, floodlights, three goals, two red cards and a spot of argy-bargy at full-time as the Lions sought to protect their slender lead with some excellent time-wasting. As we left Pancake Lane, that same spring in our step we’d had the previous March was back, and John’s last words before falling asleep were “I love football, Dad”.
Legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi said that football is “the most important of the unimportant things in life” and that is something I have found myself agreeing with a lot over the last year. Football doesn’t really matter when your son is lying next to you on a morphine drip. But the great game provided us with comfort, support and perhaps most importantly, something to look forward to during the very toughest of times.