Archive for category The Heartbroken

Samuel Okwaraji – 1989

By Hugh Wragg

On 12 August 1989, Nigeria met Angola in Lagos in a critical World Cup qualifier.

Nigeria won the game 1-0, but were still unable to qualify for Italia ’90, losing their next game to Cameroon.

Despite their best efforts, Nigeria could not dedicate a successful qualifying campaign to the memory of Samuel Okwaraji. The midfielder had suffered congestive cardiac failure with ten minutes remaining of his country’s victory over Angola, and was dead before the final whistle sounded. He was 25 years old.

Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji was born in May 1964 to a large family in Imo State, south-eastern Nigeria. His father, an employee of the now defunct Nigeria Airways, and his mother, an esteemed school teacher; had seven children of which Sam was the second youngest.

Nigeria had become  independent of British colonial rule during Okwaraji’s early years, and the turbulent nature of the nation’s development is reflected in his own story; Sam’s father was one of many casualties in the deadly Civil War of 1967-70.

Okwaraji lost his father at the time we form the some of the strongest parent-to-child bonds. The emotional impact was severe for him, however through his teenage years Okwaraji strived to make a success of both his schooling and sport, receiving a full primary and secondary education before moving to college in Orlu. He enjoyed an active childhood and regularly played football with his five brothers.

Alongside football, progress in the world of academia was central to Okwaraji’s life. Indeed, his break into football came as a result of his academic endeavours. He moved to study international law at the Sapienza, the University of Rome, completing both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Okwaraji later referenced his brother’s influence in his European move, one which he was sceptical of, owing to the financial impact it would bring on his family. Their encouragement of their younger brother was vital.

While undertaking his studies in the Italian capital, Okwaraji was also privy to the contrasting fortunes of AS Roma and SS Lazio.

The former, led by Swedes Nils Liedholm and Sven Goran Eriksson, were frequenting the later stages of European competition and collecting Scudetti titles; while the latter underwent a period of turbulence that only a Leeds United fan could empathise with.

Lazio collected just fifteen points in 1985-86, suffering relegation from Serie A, and almost fell into Serie C after a disastrous 1986-87 campaign in which play-off victories against Taranto and Campobasso saved their season. Set this on-the-field nosedive against a backdrop of betting scandals and ownership questions, and perhaps ‘contrasting fortunes of Roma and Lazio’ becomes a very reductionist statement.

Meanwhile, Samuel Okwaraji frequented University pitches in the city. His talent, first noticed and then nurtured during his school years as he played alongside his brothers, was now on public display for two of Italian football’s most famous names.

Well-built and supremely fit, Okwaraji had the physical attributes of an able box-to-box midfielder. These attributes also made him a competent central defender. Technically speaking, his European education was to prove hugely beneficial. Combative without the ball, composed on it, his reading of the game made him an asset for his teams as a robust central midfield player.

In 1984, Okwaraji graduated as a lawyer and was signed by AS Roma on professional forms. Roma had just reached the European Cup final, losing to Liverpool in their home stadium, the Stadio Olimpico. Although he never appeared for the Galliorossi, his time with one of Europe’s giants provided Okwaraji with a glowing reference.

He then spent time with Dinamo Zagreb of Yugoslavia, scoring a hat-trick on debut in a 12-0 friendly victory over NK Hodosan. He found his chances limited during his first season, appearing only once, before spending the 1986-87 season on loan at FC Kärnten of Austria. His performances in Austria engineered a move to VfB Stuttgart of the German Bundesliga, where he was immediately loaned out for the 1987-88 season to SSV Ulm 1846, then of the German second tier.

This was to be Okwaraji’s breakthrough as a professional, as he scored five in 28 Bundesliga appearances, including a notable brace against Fortuna Köln. Despite SSV’s relegation in 1988; Okwaraji made a significant impression upon Manfred Höner, then manager of the Nigerian national side.

Okwaraji, the qualified lawyer, was soon party to a legal wrangle of his own.

In January 1988, Okwaraji received his first call up to the national side for an Olympics qualifying fixture. However, his loan club – SSV – attempted to block the call up, demanding a significant sum from the Nigerian FA in order to let the player join up.

Okwaraji responded angrily to this development.

You or your club cannot stop me from playing for my country. Let me tell you, I am going to represent my country whether you like it or not.

He stuck to his word, and the threatened legal case disintegrated.

Okwaraji made his international debut in the Olympics qualifier against Algeria, a game which Nigeria won 2-0. The Green Eagles were now destined for Seoul.

But first, they were to compete in the African Cup of Nations. This was the campaign in which Okwaraji announced himself to adoring, fanatical Nigerian fans as they finished runners up. As football fans, we all elevate our heroes to a revered position. However, for Nigerian footballers, representing their national side sees them elevated further, to an almost religious position. The iconography and quotes attributed to Okwaraji after his death are testament to this.

Nigeria finished runners-up to a Cameroon side that two years later would find themselves within 10 minutes of the World Cup semi-finals. The two nations initially met in the group stages, where Okwaraji scored to cancel out a Roger Milla opener as a 1-1 draw was shared in Rabat.

After another draw with Egypt and victory over Kenya, Höner’s Nigerian outfit progressed to the semi-finals, topping their group. Nigeria met Algeria in Rabat, progressing on penalties (Okwaraji scored the first of Nigeria’s sudden death spot-kicks) to face Cameroon in Casablanca, where Emmanuel Kunde’s penalty edged a second tight encounter in favour of the ‘The Indomitable Lions’.

Okwaraji was now first choice in the Nigerian midfield and although he and his teammates lost all three games at the Olympics (0-4 vs Brazil, 1-3 vs Yugoslavia and 0-1 vs Australia), they gained the experience of playing against some of the world’s most talented players, including Claudio Taffarel, Jorginho and Romario who all appeared for a Brazil side managed by Carlos Alberto. Brazil would go on to win the silver medal, losing the USSR.

Okwaraji would play a total of 12 games for Nigeria. His final appearance, at the National Stadium in Lagos on August 12th 1989, would claim his life.

It was an extremely hot day. Water stoppages were essential. Despite Nigeria taking a first half lead, the soaring temperatures made the crowd restless.

Okwaraji gave a performance typical of his rising stature: energetic and combative, but also composed as he worked the space in between the banks of four.

Suddenly, without warning, he collapsed in the 81st minute. His heart had struggled to cope with both an incredibly high blood output and blood hypertension. Okwaraji lost consciousness was dead within the hour.

The death of Marc-Vivien Foé in 2003, and the well-publicised collapse of Fabrice Muamba in 2012 were both eerily similar events. Sadly, the numerous stories on this site are evidence enough that the football community has not educated itself to a suitable level around the complex matter of heart failure. More can always be done.

Samuel Okwaraji is still remembered and idolised by the Nigerian footballing community. As I have suggested, the religious reverence offered to footballers who represent the Nigerian national side is still served in the memory of Okwaraji.

A bust, standing seven feet tall, bearing these words stands outside the now defunct stadium where he lost his life also takes on almost military tone:

In memory of an illustrious and patriotic Nigerian sportsman; late Sam Okwaraji who died on active service to his Fatherland on the 12th of August 1989 in a World Cup qualifying soccer match between Nigeria and Angola at National Stadium, Lagos.

It also touching and refreshing for international footballers to show some compassion; with examples of such connected to the story of Samuel Okwaraji. Both Seyi Olofinjana, and more recently Emmanuel Emenike have donated money to Okwaraji’s family.

Okwaraji epitomizes the spirit of a committed and heroic football star, and the shock of his loss is still as fresh today as it was in 1989. His legacy still lives on.

Olofinjana on the 20th anniversary of his death in 2009.

He sacrificed his life to the national team. He made the ultimate sacrifice for this generation of players and we need to show some support to the family. It is important to remember and honour our heroes.

Emenike; the Fenerbahce forward made a donation to the Okwaraji family after dedicating a winning goal against Erciyesspor to the memory of Sam.

Sam Okwaraji Lagos memorial

 

 

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Christian Benitez – 2013

By Simon Wright

Ecuador’s 2-1 victory in the  2014 World Cup over Honduras in Curitiba was a poignant one. Not only did it give the South American side a chance of progressing into the knockout rounds of football’s greatest showpiece for only the second time in their history, it was done for one of their teammates, who was cruelly taken away less than a year before.

Christian Benitez, more commonly known as ‘Chucho’ to his close friends and colleagues was Ecuador’s star striker. Injury aside, Benitez was more than likely to lead the Ecuadorian forward line at the 2014 World Cup had it not been for a vicious turn of fate.

His sudden death from a cardiac arrest after his debut in Qatar in July 2013 was a huge shock. A hard grafter, Benitez was a proven goalscorer and so much so, English clubs were scouting him at the time of his untimely passing.

He created a goal scoring reputation in his early days in his native country, playing for El Nacional. Benitez won two national championships and scored 29 goals in 84 games across three seasons. Considering he broke into their first team at just 18 years of age, his talent was there for all to see.

Top Spanish club Villarreal took an interest in acquiring the tall, uncompromising striker but Benitez moved to Mexico to continue his development, playing for Santos Laguna. In 2007, he received an award for being the best Ecuadorian footballer to play outside his homeland. With personal and team accolades arriving frequently, Benitez was a hot property, impressing the Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish.

He joined the Blues for the 2009-10 campaign on a loan deal, after a knee injury saw an earlier permanent move collapse. It was to be a tough season though in the Barclays Premier League for ‘Chucho.’  Whilst Birmingham impressed on their top flight return, achieving an excellent 9th placed finish, the player’s form was inconsistent. He found the net only three times in the league, although his double did help Birmingham to knock Everton out of the FA Cup at Goodison Park in the Fourth Round. Birmingham were impressed, but elected not to take up an option in his loan after failing to negotiate successfully for a lower transfer fee with his parent club. A return to Santos Laguna beckoned.

After a strong 2010-11 season where he found the target 16 times, Benitez became a record breaker in Mexico, smashing the country’s transfer record when he moved for $10m from Santos Laguna to Club America. He scored on his debut and netted another 14 goals in 2011-12 to be the league’s joint top goalscorer.

His goalscoring record with Club America was phenomenal, netting 52 times in 79 games. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City were known to be monitoring his progress very carefully, so it was a slight surprise that ‘Chucho’ elected to move to the Middle East, signing for Qatari side El Jaish in 2013.

On 28 July, 2013, he made his debut in the Sheikh Jassim Cup against Qatar SC as a second half substitute. It was just a normal cup match which his new club won 2-0. Sadly though, it would be the last game of Christian Benitez’s professional career.

A day later, he went into the Ahli Hospital in Doha, complaining of a strong pain in his abdomen. What happened next is unclear but it is believed medical attention to ‘Chucho’ was slow and passive. He suffered respiratory failure and the complications led to a cardiac arrest and sudden death. El Jaish officials said that no complaints were made by the player of any heart problems. His official diagnosis was he developed peritonitis and died of cardiorespiratory arrest. He was just 27 years old.

In a statement, his new club said:

The club would like to offer its sincere condolences to the family of the player. His sudden departure is a big shock for each member of the technical and administrative staff. He was a player that over the short period he was here was regarded for his high moral character.

According to doctors, a congenital heart alignment had gone undetected during numerous medicals and physical examinations.

Birmingham City held a minute’s silence in his honour before their opening Championship game of the season. Meanwhile in Benitez’s homeland, his body was flown home with fans flocking the streets in the capital, Quito,  to bid farewell to one their country’s heroes. The national skipper Antonio Valencia was at the service alongside ‘Chucho’s’ family and his devastated wife.

He was Ecuador’s third highest goalscorer, scoring 24 times, only behind Eduardo Hurtado (26) and Agustin Delgado (31). It was very likely he would have broken this record had he lived.

He wore his national colours with pride. Part of the talented Ecuador squad in 2006 that were knocked out by England in Stuttgart, he made a substitute appearance in the 3-0 defeat by hosts Germany in Berlin, fulfilling one of his childhood ambitions.

Ecuador didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but ‘Chucho’s’ goals were valuable to their 2014 campaign. He scored four goals, including a winner against highly fancied Colombia as Ecuador soared towards Brazil. After his passing, the country’s football team rallied together but did struggle without him, only edging out Uruguay for the fourth automatic qualifying spot in South America on goal difference.

Following his death, the Ecuadorian Football Federation retired his no.11 jersey from the national team. It doesn’t come as great surprise that FIFA ignored this gesture and insisted that their rules have to be followed for use of squad numbers 1-23.  It is great sadness that FIFA didn’t recognise or understand a country’s national pain.

Ecuador’s hidden pain was one of the more poignant and emotional sub-plots of the 2014 World Cup. This is for one man who should have been with them in person but always will be in spirit, Christian Benitez.

Christian Benitez

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Alin Paicu – 2005

Alin Paicu was a Romanian footballer who died of a heart attack whilst heading a ball. Paicu was playing for  Minerul Matasari at the time.

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Ambrose Wleh – 2010

Ambrose Wleh was a Chad international who died from heart failure whilst playing for Invincible Eleven, a Liberian football team.  He collapsed on the pitch in the 65th minute with no other player around him.

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Axel Jüptner – 1998

Axel Jüptner was a German footballer who played for Carl Zeiss Jena. He died on the 24th April 1998 from a myocardial infarction.

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Piermario Morosini – 2012

By Alex Stewart

On April 14th 2012, Livorno lined up against Pescara in a Serie B encounter of genuine importance to both teams. Fourth-placed Pescara, cresting a run of good performances and with Ciro Immobile on target to finish as the division’s top scorer, looked to enhance their promotion chances in a battle that ended up going right to the wire. At the other end of the table, Livorno had flirted with relegation for much of the season and, indeed, would only finish out of the relegation play-off places by one point.

It was thus a game of real significance and Livorno’s famously vocal and left-wing support made their way to Pescara with a lot to be nervous about. By the time the match was abandoned on thirty-two minutes, football would be last thing on anyone’s mind.

It is the thirty-first minute, and Pescara are attacking, trying to salvage something from a swiftly achieved two goal deficit. A midfielder surges forwards, looking to play a one-two with an attacker poised on the edge of the box, tussling with a Livorno centre-half.

A Livorno player tumbles over as he tracks back to get into a defensive position, as if tripped or losing his footing on the slippery turf; the latter is more likely as there are no Pescara players near him. The ball is kicked high into the air on the edge of the Livorno box as the player staggers to his feet only to collapse again to his knees. He sags forwards again, flat out on the pitch, and the Livorno left-back runs up to him and gestures frantically to the bench, urging someone to come on and help. Livorno are still defending as a Pescara player picks up the ball and drives back towards the Livorno box.

The camera cuts to frantic scenes on the touchline as the Livorno staff plead to be allowed to run on. The Livorno player lies motionless. A Pescara shot is sent high over the crossbar and, finally, thirty or so seconds after the collapse, the referee seems to notice and beckon on the medical staff, some of whom had not even waited and ran on while the ball was still in play.

Frantic attempts to resuscitate follow and, eventually, an ambulance gets onto the pitch and the player is driven away on blue lights.

Piermario Morosini died before he ever got to hospital.

Morosini had suffered a massive cardiac arrest, later determined to have been caused by the inherited genetic disorder cardiomyopathy. At the time he died, the player was 25 years old, on loan from Udinese.

In scenes eerily similar to the collapse of Fabric Muamba, less than a month earlier, Morosini was initially treated not only by club doctors but also by a local cardiologist, Leonardo Paloscia, who happened to be watching the game. Muamba, of course, survived. Morosini was not so fortunate.

Piermario Morosini was born in Bergamo and began his career in local team Atalanta’s fabled youth academy. In 2005, recognising his potential, the equally fabled Udinese scouting set-up brought him to the Friuli in a joint-ownership deal.

He struggled to make an impact at first team level, despite the recognition of his potential, and he was loaned first to Bologna and then to Vicenza, with whom he signed a full deal in 2007 and for whom he scored his only league goal.

He was re-signed by Udinese in 2009 on an option and then loaned out again to a string of Serie B clubs, culminating in his time at Livorno, for whom he played eight games. A tenacious midfielder, he also played at every youth level for Italy, debuting for the U-17s when only 15. He never received a full international cap.

This tale of unfulfilled promise was played out against a background of tragedy. Morosini died an orphan, having first lost his mother in 2001, the year he first donned the Azzuri shirt, and then his father two years later. This left him the sole provider for two disabled siblings at the age of 17, a staggering responsibility for a young man trying to make his way in the notoriously tough world of Italian football, where loan deals and joint ownership arrangements often see young Italian players traversing the country on a regular basis.

The lack of stability must have placed an enormous strain on the young Morosini, who, by all accounts, took his role of carer extremely seriously. His younger brother committed suicide soon after his father passed away, leaving Morosini and his disabled elder sister the only surviving members of the family.

Some reports have suggested that she suffered from severe psychiatric problems as well as physical and had spent time in a mental health hospital in the family’s home town of Bergamo. She certainly required 24 hour care.

Despite this series of tragedies, Morosini was known as a jovial young man, utterly committed to football but light-hearted and fun to be around. The universality of this observation shows that it is not just something said to assuage the grief, but one of its very real causes.

Marco Andreolli, a fellow Italian youth team player, quoted in a piece from The Guardian, said

[Morosini] taught us how to smile every single day in life, even when the latter seemed to have turned its back on him.

Kwadwo Asamoah, a team-mate from Udinese, said Morosini was “a great guy and always smiling”. And Udinese club captain Antonio Di Natale added, “I’ve known him for seven years; he never let on he didn’t have a father or mother. He always had a smile on his face and always helped everyone”.

Di Natale, who admitted he had considered retiring after Morosini’s death, joined forces with Udinese to launch a fund to look after Morosini’s sister, saying he would do “whatever” he could to help her.

In the immediate aftermath, all Italian games were suspended for the remainder of the weekend which, staggeringly, prompted protests from some fan groups. Livorno announced they would retire Morosini’s number 25 shirt and Italian football’s governing bodies announced they would look into increased screening for heart defects and improved first response medical aid for players.

But, even as the grief was still raw and the tributes were pouring in, questions were asked. Paramedics reported, in an echo of another tragedy, Hillsborough, that a police car blocked their vehicle’s path to the pitch and that no-one could be found to move it, delaying possibly life-saving treatment. Eventually, local fireman smashed the car’s windows and pushed it out the way once the hand-brake was off.

Initial reports were also adamant that a defibrillator was used in attempts to resuscitate Morosini, but a subsequent investigation has raised serious questions about that. It is now stated that a defib, though available, was not used on the pitch. Indeed, three doctors associated with the case, Pescara and Livorno club medics Ernesto Sabatini and Manlio Porcellini, as well as Vito Molfese of the Pescara emergency services, are due to go on trial for manslaughter in December 2014.

This follows a lengthy report into the tragedy complied by respected Italian physician Cristian D’Ovidio that addressed both the chronic medical condition that caused Morosini’s collapse, but also investigated what could and should have been done to save him. It should be remembered too that all this happened less than a month after Fabrice Muamba’s collapse, which saw football bodies the world over pledging to take immediate action on cardiac issues affecting players.

It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that all my attempts to reach Livorno for a comment on Piermario Morosini have fallen on deaf ears. I have contacted both the general Livorno press office and, specifically, the head of communications Paulo Nacarlo, repeatedly, but not received any response, not even a ‘no comment’. It seems clichéd and even churlish to dwell on the patina of scandal that so often seems to shroud Italian football but, in this instance, there seems a very real sense that the clubs involved in the sad death of Piermario Morosini have closed ranks.

And it is this lesser tragedy of negligence and denial, lesser only because the death of anyone is always the greater loss, which will be of lasting importance for the sport of football. The game has made genuine strides in helping clubs diagnose players with congenital heart defects and improving the immediate response to such instances.

It is clear, though, that clubs can still do more, even if it is only to acknowledge their part in previous tragedies and promise to learn from them. Despite everything that had happened to him, Piermario Morosini lived his life in a spirit of happy openness and a full commitment to the transformative power of football. One can only hope that football itself embraces his example.

Piermario Morosini

 

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Lokissimbaye Loko – 2011

Lokissimbaye Loko was an international footballer for Chad, who died on 12th April 2011 from a heart attack.

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Víctor Hugo Ávalos Acosta – 2009

Víctor Hugo Ávalos Acosta was a Paraguayan central midfielder who died playing for Villa Florida on 3rd April 2009. He died from a heart attack whilst celebrating scoring a goal.

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Phil O’Donnell – 2007

By Simon Wright

Christmas is a period where families come together and celebrate a special time. It is often the period for goodwill, giving and joy but not in all instances.

For the O’Donnell family, their world was feeling good as the end of 2007 dawned. Married with four children, Phil O’Donnell was skipper of Scottish Premier League side Motherwell and was enjoying one of the best spells of his injury-hit career. Sadly their hearts were about to be ripped out by a tragedy that is among one of the worst to have hit the game in Scotland.

Full of promise as a youngster, O’Donnell had won the Scottish Cup twice and experienced the big time as a Celtic player in the mid-1990s before injuries ruined his stint in England with Sheffield Wednesday.

When Terry Butcher decided to make the most of O’Donnell’s experience by signing him on a short-term deal in 2004, it was to see if he still had the fitness and physicality for the modern game. In four years at Hillsborough, Phil had been restricted to a miserable 20 appearances, scoring just once in a Worthington Cup quarter-final against Watford in December 2001.

Butcher quickly saw what the Scot could offer him and the short-term contract became a longer-term deal. A year later, he became club captain at Fir Park and was now seen as the experienced head for the youngsters to come to if they ran into problems.

The former Reading and Leicester City manager, Mark McGhee was in charge of the squad as they entered the 2007/08 campaign and it was an outfit that promised much. Youngsters such as Phil’s nephew David Clarkson and centre forward Ross McCormack beginning to blossom in a side that looked the best equipped to take on the Glasgow dominance in the SPL.

Phil O’Donnell had not been a stranger when it came to success north of the Border. Born in North Lanarkshire in 1972, just a few miles away from Fir Park, he was a local lad through and through. Breaking into the Motherwell team during the 1990/91 campaign, the big time arrived quicker than anticipated. Plenty of potential was already evident before possibly the greatest moment of his career when he scored a diving header to put Motherwell ahead during the 1991 Scottish Cup final. Described as ‘brave as a lion’ by Scottish goal king Ally McCoist, who was commentating on the final, O’Donnell energy and commitment helped Motherwell to a famous 4-3 victory against Dundee United. It meant he would become the club’s youngest player to feature in European competition at just 19.

Acclaim followed from his peers in the Scottish professional game. O’Donnell won the Scottish PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1992 and 1994 and that soon followed with international recognition from his country. He came on as a second half substitute during a World Cup qualifier with Switzerland in September 1993. Little did he know at the time, but it was to be his only cap for Scotland. Manager Craig Brown admitted later more call-ups would have followed but for a catalogue of injuries.

A year after his sole international appearance came the big move to Celtic. After 142 appearances in all competitions for his hometown club, Motherwell sold him to the Parkhead giants for £1.75m. It is the highest transfer fee Motherwell has ever received for a player. Things started well with the Bhoys. O’Donnell made a memorable debut appearance, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle on 10 September 1994, just two days after his purchase by new boss Tommy Burns. A home debut goal followed against Hibernian and at the end of the season, he won a second Scottish Cup medal, appearing as a substitute in the club’s 1995 success against unfancied Airdrieonians.

However the Celtic dream soon turned into a nightmare. When form was found, injuries occurred. The fans were frustrated that O’Donnell was on the treatment table more often than on the field of play. This was during a period of complete Rangers dominance in Scotland, as they won eight championships in a row until Celtic beat them to the 1998 crown – O’Donnell’s only league title honour. By now though, he was only a rotation player at best and at the end of the 1998/99 campaign, decided to leave on a Bosman for a fresh challenge in England.

What Sheffield Wednesday got though was a player who sadly never was able to fulfil all that potential he showed in his Motherwell stint and early days with Celtic. Released in 2004, the return to his hometown club was much welcome. In an interview with The Times in the autumn of 2007, the now 35-year-old said: “I have missed too many games in the middle of my career to stop playing at the age of 35.” He had great appetite for football and had already scored twice that season in his midfield role, including the winner in an away fixture at Kilmarnock a month before the fateful day of 29 December 2007.

Ironically Motherwell played Dundee United at home, the team which O’Donnell had figured so prominently in one of the club’s finest moments 16 years earlier. It was to be one of the games of the season in the league for entertainment. The Steelmen were 3-0 up inside 20 minutes and two more goals from Clarkson in quick succession in the early exchanges of the second half had the hosts 5-2 ahead. O’Donnell was playing another key role, when McGhee decided to make some changes. With another critical game against Hibernian in midweek to come, he elected to take his skipper off to give him a well-deserved rest. But just as the board was about to go up to make the change with Marc Fitzpatrick, O’Donnell crashed to the ground almost inexplicably.

Concern immediately was raised by both sets of players as medics treated the stricken player on the field for five minutes.  Although it wasn’t certain what had happened to O’Donnell it was later determined that he had suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch. He was taken to a waiting ambulance and efforts continued to revive him. Sadly he never regained consciousness and at around 5.20pm on Saturday, 29 December 2007, the Fir Park club had to make the devastating announcement that their club captain had died.

Owner John Boyle said:

Everyone at Motherwell is shocked to the core and we are sure that everyone involved in Scottish football will feel the same. Phil was not only an inspirational player for Motherwell and club captain but was an inspirational person.

Scottish football was indeed shocked to the core. This was a player who might have been in the latter stages of his career but was still a highly prestigious and fully fit athlete experiencing a purple patch in form and confidence.

Flowers, scarves and football shirts were laid in their thousands outside the gates of the Motherwell ground. The club’s next two fixtures were postponed in Phil’s memory as well as a request by his former side Celtic to cancel the first Old Firm derby of 2008.

In England, the flags at Hillsborough flew at half-mast and a minute’s applause or silence was held at all Premier League grounds during the New Year programme. Former Motherwell player James McFadden dedicated his goal that day for Everton against Middlesbrough to O’Donnell by pointing to his black armband and then towards the sky.

His funeral was attended by 500 mourners. Tributes came in from around the world, including messages from Spanish club Sevilla, who had suffered similar heartache earlier in the season when Antonio Puerta collapsed and died during a La Liga match.

Phil left behind his wife Eileen and their four children. She said:

Although he achieved so much in football, the most important thing for him was his family. He would like to be remembered as a family man and we were all so proud of him.

Motherwell announced the main stand at their ground would be renamed The Phil O’Donnell Stand as a permanent tribute and a memorial was erected on the side of the stand bearing his name in November 2011. The embattled club continued their 2007/08 campaign and rallied to finish in a creditable third spot, qualifying for the UEFA Cup via the league. At the end of that season, a benefit match was held at Celtic Park in memory of O’Donnell.  McFadden and Clarkson played in the match, as did Swedish superstar Henrik Larsson, who described the benefit tribute as a “sad occasion but at the same time it’s a kind of celebration for everything.”

An annual sponsored walk also began in Phil’s name on the first anniversary of his death, starting at Fir Park and ending at Celtic Park. This raises money for charities including the British Heart Foundation.

Never sent off in his career, Phil O’Donnell was one of football’s good guys. His undoubted talent was hidden far too often by injuries but he continued to smile throughout these experiences and gave it his all whenever he stepped onto the football field. His demise was a huge and sudden shock and an appalling way to end 2007.

Motherwell fans will never ever forget Phil O’Donnell and nor will Scottish football. He was a gentleman on the field and a loving and devoting husband and father.

Phil O'Donnell

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David Longhurst – 1990 York City

By Simon Wright

Perhaps not the most prolific of strikers but David Longhurst gave it his all and still potentially had the best years of his football career ahead of him. He represented all of his football clubs with great dignity. The Northampton-born attacker was only 25 when he died on the pitch playing for York City on 8 September 1990.

Parallels can be drawn from the sudden collapse of Fabrice Muamba during the FA Cup quarter-final match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in March 2012. Like Longhurst, Muamba was a young, hard-working footballer who wasn’t the most gifted but would be a vital cog of any team. In David’s case, that was for the numerous Football League clubs he represented.

In terms of strike rate for goals per game, Longhurst was far from the best. Just over 40 league goals in nearly 200 appearances, so around one goal every five matches. He had the ability and the desire to improve on his weaknesses on the football field though and it can’t be argued that he was taken far too young.

As Muamba would experience at Arsenal, Longhurst’s career began with a prestigious club – at least they were when Brian Clough was in charge in the 1980s at Nottingham Forest. On the youth team books at the City Ground, Longhurst didn’t make the grade though and never featured for the Forest first team. Being released from a football club at a young age can leave players downcast and depressed – not knowing where to go next. Players like long-time England goalkeeper David Seaman have suffered that fate as he did at Leeds United, but rebuilt their careers for lower standard sides before returning to the top grade, proven by his legendary stint at Arsenal.

For David Longhurst, this meant a move to Halifax Town at the age of 20. It might not sound glamorous but the fans at The Shay quickly became a fan of his striking capabilities. His best spell was at Halifax, finding the target 24 times in two seasons and it earned him a move to his hometown club Northampton Town in 1987. Northampton had just been promoted to the old Third Division but the goalscoring instincts at Halifax didn’t quite transfer with Longhurst to Northampton and seven strikes in the 1987-88 campaign were not enough for Cobblers manager Graham Carr. He sold Longhurst to Peterborough United and then he moved to York City in the spring of 1990.

Appearances were sparse for York but with two goals in the six league matches he did play for the club, Longhurst was starting to show some of the form seen in his days at Halifax. The third match of York’s 1990-91 campaign was a home game with Lincoln City. Two minutes before the interval, Longhurst suffered a heart attack just outside the Lincoln penalty area and collapsed. Players from both sides quickly signalled for assistance but it was too late. Despite the best efforts of the medical team at York, David was pronounced dead when he arrived at hospital. His death was the first in 69 years in a Football League match.

Over 20 years later, his father Vic revealed how he found out the news of his son’s death. Travelling down from Scotland, he was hoping to be at the ground to watch David play but his car broke down on the journey. He had the news broken to him after tuning in his car radio to hear the results of the match.

They said a player had gone down. We drove into a petrol station and while we were sitting there, I went to get the results of the match and the radio gave the information out. It was devastating.

The match was abandoned at half-time. A post-mortem examination revealed that Longhurst had a rare heart condition called cardiomyopathy – a myocardial disease that leads to sudden heart failure. The most devastating aspect is that this condition can be caught by an ultrasonic scan in its early stages. Whilst difficult to predict, the advances in medical science and technology plus the improvement in facilities around grounds across England mean that if this incident happened today, there would have been a better chance of David Longhurst still being with us.

The stunned York supporters suggested that a new stand due to be built at the Bootham Crescent ground should be named in David’s honour and this was agreed by both the club and his father. Events were organised to help fundraise the new stand including discos and sponsored walks. The David Longhurst stand was opened for the first time at the start of the 1991/92 season.

A bubbly personality and popular player with all of the clubs he represented, who knows what kind of career David Longhurst would have gone onto. His legacy will always remain with the stand at York’s ground but his name is often one of football’s forgotten fallen heroes.

David Longhurst

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