My father, a football man, passed away on Nov. 6. That’s not an intro I expected to write for one of my ESPN columns, but you’ll understand why I have if you read on.
I’d said my goodbyes to him and left his bedside to fly to watch Manchester United play Juventus in Turin on his urging. When Juan Mata scored the equaliser in Turin, my father would have approved, ditto the late winner. But it was all a bit of a daze to me and I put off writing a match report until the following day. Those goals and Jose Mourinho’s excellent late substitutions brought some cheer in a difficult moment, but it only masked a pain I’ve never felt before.
I miss my dad every day, but can cherish the best part of 45 years of memories. My 12-year-old brother who has lost his father, his hero, the man who watched him play every week, cannot say the same.
As a football club Manchester United were superb regarding my father’s death. And then on Wednesday night midfielder Juan Mata showed up in the bitter cold at my brother’s training session for his junior team in Wythenshawe, south Manchester. The mother of one of my brother’s teammates knew Mata and his girlfriend, Evelina, as she had previously looked after their dog when they were away. She mentioned to Juan that one of the young players had lost his father and was struggling and wondered if it would be possible to get something signed for him.
Mata agreed and said that he would get a signed shirt — one that he had worn in a game. Evelina heard this and chipped in “if the young boy can wait, maybe you can present it to him in person.” Mata agreed.
That’s why Mata and Evelina drove to Wythenshawe — once Europe’s largest council estate — on Wednesday. Mata wore a hat to thwart the cold and so the boys didn’t recognise him initially. One mentioned that he looked like Juan Mata. The others, suddenly realising it was him, stared at him in disbelief. What on earth was he doing among them?
“I knew he was coming and thought he’d stay for 10 minutes,” explains Fergus Burke, manager of Wythenshawe Town Mavericks Under-12s, a position he’s held for six years. “It was freezing, but Juan and his girlfriend stayed for 50 minutes. I couldn’t believe it — none of us could.”
One of the other coaches wanted to show off a ball launcher which can be used in training to Mata, but instead the Spaniard suggested that he would cross the balls for the young men instead, which he did for 20 minutes.
Mata then asked who Harry, my brother, was. The pair of them spoke and then Mata presented him with a signed Manchester United shirt. That boy lives for Manchester United. The Christmas present he cherished most was a small piece of paper from his cousin saying he was going to go on a coach to Newcastle away from Manchester on Jan. 2.
@juanmata8 is a true legend & gent I manage @WTFC1946 U12s & one of our kids dad sadly passed away before Christmas he made a promise that he would come to one of our training sessions and present him a shirt Tonight he did & spent 45 minutes joined in and was a star what a man pic.twitter.com/upnRom36rG
— Fergus (@fergusmufc) January 16, 2019
He loved that trip, but he’d swap all that to have his dad back. He sleeps under Dad’s picture on his bedroom wall. Harry’s manager updates me with his progress but some of it is just too heartbreaking to hear — Harry now points to the sky when he scores.
I’m sure Harry will tell me everything when he gets back from school. I spoke to him before training and he — or I — had no idea what was coming next.
“Harry looked lost for words and then he gave Juan a big hug,” said Fergus. The Spaniard then signed shirts which belonged to the boys. “The shirts we’re supposed to be wearing for our game this weekend,” sighed Fergus, a big United fan himself who travels with his wife and two kids to every United game, home and away. “And another player had his boots signed, so I’m not sure whether he’s going to wear them again either.
“I stood talking to Juan for ages and he was so down to earth, asking questions about the team. There was another team due on after us and I didn’t want Juan to get mithered, so I said he might want to leave before they came. Instead, he insisted on another drill.”
I know Juan and respect him for being a fine person as much as a top player. He had no idea of that Harry was my brother. Why would he?
Fergus, though, has one regret.
“I should have asked him if he could get me a ticket for Paris as I’ve not got one, but that would have been too cheeky…”