For English football fans, December usually means one thing: more football. The Premier League tonight enters its hectic end-of-year extravaganza, in which a whopping forty-six games will played over the course of twenty three days. Sky and BT will serve up a festive treat for us all, and we will lap up every last morsel of goalmouth action, eyes firmly glued to our television sets.
One five-year-old Sunderland fan can put the whole thing into perspective.
Bradley Lowery, who suffers from neuroblastoma, is a normal kid who loves football. Towards the end of last season, the Premier League united to raise the £700,000 necessary for him to receive special cancer treatment in America. Sunderland players and fans alike donated in their masses after Bradley was invited to lead out the team in Sunderland’s the final home game of the season against Everton. The Toffees themselves pledged an incredible £200,000. In September, Bradley again assumed mascot duties against Everton, and the image of him clutching the hand of Defoe, his hero, was a extremely powerful symbol of hope.
Unfortunately, hopes of the new treatment giving Bradley the life every child deserves to live were dealt a major blow with the announcement that the cancer has since relapsed, and is now terminal, giving him only months to live. You can only imagine what the parents must be going through.
Football is notorious for its hyperbole. Pundits make a living off it, forever talking about players battling hard, or hurting after a heavy loss. Every day, we the fans talk about survival (in footballing terms), as if avoiding relegation from the Premier League were a matter of life and death. For Bradley, survival actually is a matter of life and death.
In such difficult times, I believe that people should come together – and there is nothing quite like football to bring us all together, in the good times and the bad times. Thousands of football fans have sent him personal Christmas cards to spread their love. On Saturday, Newcastle fans put aside their fierce rivalry with Sunderland and produced a fantastic minute of applause for Bradley in the fifth minute of their Championship match with Birmingham City. It was a really classy act from the supporters and we are sure to see more of the same over the next few weeks from other clubs.
After all, it is so easy to get caught up in the media frenzy that accompanies the football in this festive season. Klopp’s much publicised row with the Neville brothers over the recent form (on and off the pitch) of Liverpool’s ‘keeper Loris Klarius does seem so futile in relation to the struggles of Bradley and his family – for Bradley represents every football fan that loves the game, as well as the harsh reality that the fairytales of football can often overlook.
Bradley is set to lead out the team tomorrow night against league leaders Chelsea at the Stadium of Light. This time, you can expect his reception to be louder still.
By Pascal Foster