A harrowing, emotional illustration of why there’s always hope

Not all that long ago, mention was afforded in this space to the time my dear mother was the winner of a draw run by the local soccer club for which the first prize was two tickets to see Liverpool vs. Manchester United at Anfield. As was referenced in the previous piece, with there being no disabled viewing spots left for the weekend in question, we actually ended up going to Old Trafford to see United take on Bolton Wanderers instead.

Which, with the two of us being ardent United fans was actually a much better fit. It didn’t exactly go to plan at the time though and the hope is held that some day that imbalance can and will be redressed. The day in question came back to mind recently having just finished Martina Cox’s beautiful, yet harrowing account of how 17 seconds on the evening of a football match changed the world for one man and his family forever.

Sean Cox. From the first time our paths crossed, we hit it off. As Martina says several times while telling her husband’s story, “When you know, you know”. Even after that initial encounter, it was clear as day that Sean was everything you’d want in a friend and, by extension, club activist. It didn’t take long to become obvious that he was a Chairman of our club in time.

It was when he did assume the reins that Sean and I really became close. He had everything you need to excel in a leadership role. The vision and drive to guide a thriving club through enormous transitional change whilst at the same time remaining forever conscious of the club’s journey to their standing at the time and those who guided it.

With Sean and Jack Cox at St Peter’s GAA Club Gala Ball in 2014

In With Hope In Your Heart Martina details how Sean had his homework on Dunboyne done before convincing her to migrate to the Royal County. That same attention to detail was a hallmark of his years of involvement with St Peter’s GAA Club – which was still ongoing up to the time of the heinous attack which left him gravely ill and permanently disabled.

Indeed, I was humbled and honoured to be the beneficiary of a very thoughtful gesture which has taken on greater poignance as the years have gone on. Knowing that I had been a selector when our lads won the Meath Minor Football Championship in 2002,when the Delaney Cup next spent a winter with us 12 seasons thereafter, he insisted that every one of the players – including his own lad Jack – shook my hand having received their medals. A simple thing, but one which meant more to me – and forever will – than he or they would ever realise. Something only magnifief by time.

***

There’s always a sense of foreboding about phone calls or text messages received late at night. So when, on April 24th 2018, a text from Aisling McEntee beeped in at circa half eleven at night reading “Did you hear about Sean Cox?” it surely wasn’t going to be good news…

Just how catastrophically bad, though, I don’t think anybody could have foreseen, least of all Martina herself or Jack and his sisters, Shauna and Emma. Life really can change in a heartbeat.

The old adage about if something looks too good to be true it generally is may, in this instance, seem an absurd starting point, but please stay with me here. What Liverpool fan wouldn’t have loved to find themselves in the positions Sean and his brother Marty did on that spring morning three years ago. Scoring last minute tickets to see their beloved reds take on AS Roma in the Champions League semi final…

***

European nights at Anfield are the stuff of legend. The same is probably true of any such occasions at any ground but with such a long Irish traditional link with Liverpool and them having lifted club football’s top gong six times, even as a United fan it’ll be admitted that theirs is the story which resonates greatest. Mostly because when I was young several members of the Republic Of Ireland team – Steve Staunton, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge – were in situ at the time.

In their wake followed Steve Finnan, Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Robbie Keane and, most recently, Caoimhin Kelliher. So that the club has always had a large Irish following shouldn’t be that big of a shock. The thing is, from the time Alex Ferguson engineered a breakthrough and spell of almost total dominance for Manchester United, devotees of the other red brigade have had very little to enthuse them. Apart from the miraculous resurrection in Istanbul in 2005.

Caoimhin Kelliner is continuing a fine Irish tradition at Liverpool

Enter the smiling assassin, Jurgen Klopp. Such is my admiration for the man, it tends to be necessary to remind people that one is still very definitely an Old Trafford devotee. That said, admiration for the great German has admittedly ascended even further having witnessed how he and his employers have carried themselves since Sean and his family had their lives devastated by a completely unprovoked act of violence.

From a purely footballing perspective, I had tracked and admired Klopp’s teams for a long time. Whilst at Dortmund, he was just unfortunate to encounter an incarnation of Bayern Munich at their most ferocious – ironically under the guidance of a certain Mr Guardiola – and, with usurpation of their chief nemeses quite unlikely, a move to the Premiership became an inevitability.

Personally speaking, the major disappointment was that – after Ferguson retired – instead of trifling around with the likes of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho (though the latter pair did attain silverware in their time at the Theatre Of Dreams) the club’s mis-managers, Ed Woodward and the Glazers, should have been going straight for the bespeckled Bavarian. One man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure.

For this observer, the man who once had an assistant known as ‘The Brain’ (Klopp aint no Pinky!) pontificates a brand of football which absolutely enthralls me. Both because it’s a system predicated on attacking in waves and on the counter attack. Of course, that itself is only made possible due to the often mesmerising effectiveness of the Gegenpressing phenomenon.

What the deceivingly simple but highly effective game plan equates to is that your last line of attack equates to your first form of defence. In another arena, Jim McGuinness was almost credited with revolutionising Gaelic football. He hardly did. Teams dropping forwards out to assist with rearguard duties is nothing new.

Sean Boylan pioneered it when trusting David Beggy and, mostly, PJ Gillic to sacrifice their own games to curtail the undoubted influence of Paul Curran and Eamon Heery going forward for Dublin. Likewise, Brian Cody has long honed the wing forwards under his direction to augment safeguarding measures in their own territory. For the final GAA reference in this section, if you’ve never seen Pat Comer’s magnificent A Year ‘Til Sunday documentary telling the story of Galway’s 1998 All Ireland SFC success from the inside, do yourself a favour and look it up .

Therein, John O’Mahony forensically dissected the Kildare team his charges would encounter 24 hours later in the season’s showpiece fixture. Back then, the Lilywhites were famed for what they now call in soccer ‘Playing out from the back’. In the case of Mick O’Dwyer’s side, that meant putting necklaces of short passes to get them up to and beyond the halfway line.

Thus, the former Leitrim and Mayo manager placed massive emphasis on stopping their artillery invasions at source. Drilling it into his full forward line that “If you put in a big hit Neil (Finnegan) or you Padraic (Joyce) or you do Derek (Savage) it makes it much easier for Ja (Fallon) or Michael (Donnellan) to come piling in behind”.

***

To be fair, Klopp inherited a group in a fairly good spot from Brendan Rodgers. Now, general consensus was that Steven Gerrard slipping and letting Demba Ba in cost them the title. I’d differ though. Was it not occurrences like throwing away a big lead against the likes of Crystal Palace? In other words, malfunctioning defending.

Right, so the acquisition of Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton helped with that immeasurably, but, as much as the dynamic Dutchman has given them so much, conversely, Gerrard’s departure at more or less the same time left a huge void – physical and spiritual – to be negated.

Talk of replacing Gerrard would be futile. As it is whenever any iconic figurehead departs any scene. Of course there were players signed by the new man to put his own stamp on things but in actuality the meant moulding his players to perfect the concept of Gegenpressing.

Jurgen Klopp meets Sean Cox almost two years after my friend and former colleague was attacked en route to Anfield

It is possible, mind you, if not even probable, that even they were surprised at the rapidity with which it bore fruit. Granted, the actuality of tangible reward didn’t manifest itself immediately, but that had more to do with the reality that change takes time to embed.

Manchester City were every bit the potent force they had been in 2018/’19 the following season, but, sometimes it means more than the sum of what goes on between the lines. Much more.

***

Sean Cox and his brother Marty went to see a football match. Neither of them saw as much as a ball being kicked. Only one of them came home. The late night text from Aisling was the start of something which changed and touched the world of an enormous number of people. Obviously, principally, Sean and his family, but, ordinary people as well. And, as became obvious very quickly, Liverpool FC themselves.

Martina’s strength, courage and determination to “Get as much of the old Sean back as possible” flows through every drop of ink in the book. It’s that very hope which sustains her and the family through the darkest of times. Indeed, how she, her wonderful husband and their battled and continue to is a harrowing, emotional illustration of why there’s always hope.

One thing I learned a long time ago and am forever telling people is that every disability is different. That’s why I am always careful to never, ever compare one person’s situation to another. That is not to say, mind you, that I wasn’t able to relate to even very small parts of Sean’s story.

Before he was attacked, for example, the intrinsic part sport played in his life. Indeed, the huge role it has played in his journey since the attack. From a personal perspective, I could relate all too easily to the upset and frustrations experienced in dealings with HSE agents and representatives while Mrs Cox strove to give their beloved husband the best shot at the best quality of life he could hope for.

***

The following would surely be applicable to anybody anywhere if they encountered such horrors as befell the Cox family, but, the manner in which communities came together came together to support and assist Sean, Martina and their famlly demonstrated everything that’s good about communities. In Dunboyne, throughout Ireland and anywhere and everywhere around the globe where people were horrified and moved by the attack on Sean.

King Kenny: Dalglish made contact with Martina Cox very quickly after Sean was attacked. The club have supported them every step of the way

Liverpool FC themselves reacted within minutes of Sean and Marty being caught up with a mob of hooligan Roma fans. Very quickly thereafter, the club’s CEO Peter Moore met with Martina and assured her the ‘Liverpool Family’ would be with them every step of the way.

Given the size and profile of the club, it is quite probable they get inundated with requests for assistance. Maybe not in such horrific circumstances or regarding cases that gained as much traction as did Sean’s, but, Martina’s initial scepticism about the pledge would be very easy to understand.

She needn’t have worried. As statements of intent go, a meeting with arguably the greatest player and manager the club ever had is about as big as they get. This wasn’t PR window dressing. Later in the book, it’s revealed how Kenny and Marina Dalglish had stayed in touch with Martina and the family even when Sean had made it back home to Dunboyne.

On a broader scale, the club and the people of Liverpool threw their weight behind the gargantuan fundraising efforts to help Sean. Via a Liverpool vs. Ireland Legends game and s night of stand-up comedy organised almost entirely by the wonderful comedian John Bishop.

***

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned the rapport I built up with Sean and how fortunate one feels to have done so. Therefore, I was absolutely determined to make my contribution to supporting Sean in whatever way it could be made work.

Initially, that came by way of contribution to the GoFundMe page which was established and taking part in the ‘Run For Sean’ walk/run which took place on the October Bank Holiday weekend after the attack.

But I wanted to do something more. Something personal. So it was nearly always going to be something written. How it would eventually to come about could never have predicted however. Thankfully.

The passing of Sean Nealon and the impact it had – and will forever have – on yours truly often gets a mention here. If you recall, he slipped away days before Dinboyne won the Meath Senior Football Championship for the third time on October 14th 2018.

Though it was obvious between both events that a large amount of writing would have to be done but there was no way any of it was being done before the Leitrim man was laid to rest. When it was got around to, hardly surprisingly, it ended up being so long that it was decided there was a enough of a foundation there to put a book together.

Once the seeds of Heroics And Heartache were properly planted in my mind, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I wanted half of whatever revenues accrued from sales to go towards assisting Sean. That remains the case, though a cacophony of circumstances – not least Covid-19 – have contrived to render such an occasion impossible, but it will be done as soon as is possible. My word is my bond.

***

I will conclude as this journey had begun, underlining the influence Sean has been and continues to be on me. There are very deep feelings for him and his family in this seat. Not just for very obvious reasons either. More so out of a sense that Sean Cox and his family were denied justice by the British justice system. Why was the charge against the suspects not attempted murder? That makes my blood boil.

The two Roma fans got three and a half and two years in jail respectively. They were freed before Sean had returned to the family home in Dunboyne. What sort of kip of a world allows that to happen?

The Cox Family re-united in Dunboyne

The bravery, strength and courage shown by Sean himself, his wife and his family would stir the emotions of a stone. It is only right that our journey concludes at Anfield to where Sean made a defiant, inspirational return to witness his beloved reds beat Manchester City 3-1. There was no way they weren’t winning Premiership medals last year. Just the same as it was with European momentos the previous year. YNWA Coxy.

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