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Monday, 20 October 2014

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Carlisle Utd keeper an ambassador for children's cancer charity

Contrary to what you may read elsewhere today, football isn’t important. Not really. Man retires, the world pitches in for its say. And on we go.

Mark Gillespie photo
Mark Gillespie with, from left, Corey’s mum Lesley McClean, Corey, Jordan’s mum Andrea Thompson and Corey’s nana Jean Todd

For some people, there are times when the world stops. Properly stops. Like Andrea Thompson, whose teenage son, Jordan, died from leukaemia in 2007. Like Corey McClean, the 15-year-old from Westnewton who is currently confronting Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The reason this story appears in the sports pages is because of Mark Gillespie, the Carlisle United goalkeeper. He was a close friend of Jordan Thompson, and is now an ambassador for Toma Fund, the charity Andrea set up in her son’s honour.

Toma Fund is a grant-making organisation, which helps out young people and their families in the north east and Cumbria who are fighting cancer. Hence Gillespie’s visit to Westnewton, near Aspatria, where he presented Corey with a laptop and a signed Carlisle shirt.

This was not a footballer pushed reluctantly into doing his charitable duties. It was, in fact, the 21-year-old keeper who had personally requested maximum publicity for the visit. Upon arrival, Gillespie spent several hours talking to Corey, his mum Lesley and nana Jean. By the time all the journalists had been and gone, he was still there.

“What are you going to use the laptop for?” he asked Corey, who has just finished seven months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, after a lump on his neck was discovered to be cancerous.

“Schoolwork and games, mainly.”

“I was addicted to Football Manager on mine.”

A conversation about the day’s big event – the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson – then followed. When Gillespie left the kitchen to be interviewed in a different room, Corey, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, considered his guest.

“It’s nice that a footballer cares enough to come here,” he said.

“Thanks for caring,” added Jean, when Gillespie later handed over the shirt.

Gillespie will not hear of any praise for himself here. The fact is that the decent, humble family he visited yesterday, who have been through unimaginable worry and financial strain since Corey’s diagnosis, were simply in need of a little help.

Through the RVI, they were made aware of Toma Fund and asked if they might be able to spare enough for a laptop. Andrea, who saw how a computer lifted her own son’s spirits during his illness, saw the request as a “perfect fit”.

Asking Gillespie to be involved in the presentation, and to meet the grateful recipients, brought another highly personal element into the story. For United’s No1 it brought back a poignant time of teenage friendship and grief.

“Jordan Thompson came to Newcastle United when he was 11, when I was already there,” Gillespie said. “We played for the same cricket team as well, and became close friends. He was a great player, scored four times regularly in games for Newcastle, played for the county cricket team, was a good golfer – an all-action lad, never one to sit at home. He wanted to be involved in everything.

“When he was diagnosed with leukaemia, at 13, I didn’t really know much about it. But when I visited him in hospital during his chemotherapy, I realised how hard it was for him. I would go to see him three or four times a week, not just because of the boredom he had to deal with, but also because he was a really good person to be around.

“He had leukaemia about 18 months, and then sadly passed away at 15. The Toma Fund was started when he was first battling with it, because he wanted to help people. His mam carried that through and it has done some unbelievable work. When she rang me and asked if I’d like to become an ambassador, I was pleased to say yes.

“I’ve been in Cumbria now for five years playing for Carlisle, so when they asked if I would come and see Corey, give him the laptop and see how he was, it was my pleasure. I know how lonely and scary and difficult it is for someone of a young age to go through what he has been through, and how you need all the support you can get. It’s something that’s close to me.”

Andrea, who also lost her two-year-old niece, Sophie Atay, to cancer, describes the charity as her cause, the thing that drives her on, that enables her to use her profound grief in a positive way. To date it has raised £700,000 to help families like Corey’s. For some time yesterday she spoke to Lesley; two mums comparing notes on the cruelty and challenges posed by the diseases their sons had and have to face.

Amid this priceless motherly solidarity, Gillespie’s input was appreciated. “Mark would always come and visit Jordan, just do the normal things young lads would do, play on the X-Box and that sort of thing,” said Andrea who lives just around the corner from Gillespie in Newcastle. “It used to take Jordan away from the situation he was in, because it meant he was back with his mates.

“Mark really supported Jordan through a difficult time. I will always be grateful for that and Jordan was, without a doubt.

“I was reluctant to ask if he could get involved in this way, because sometimes it’s not always possible, but Mark sorted it out with his club no problem. He’s a lovely, down-to-earth lad, Jordan’s mate, has always been like that and don’t think he will ever change.”

The various trials of Corey’s illness are known to Gillespie. The regular journeys to the RVI, the wearing of an uncomfortable mask so the radiotherapy could reach his neck (“Hannibal Lecter”, quips Lesley), the need to limit visitors to his home after treatment to keep the risk of infections low. A hundred more things a bright young man should not have to endure.

Things Jordan Thompson endured, which Carlisle’s highly-rated goalie is reminded of often as he follows the exciting professional path his good mate had once been on.

“There are different songs I hear that remind me of him,” Gillespie added. “Whenever I go and see people playing football at a young age, that’s when I really remember him. To be honest, I did so much with him that every corner I turn, if I’m watching football, watching cricket, or whatever, I’m reminded of him.

“A lot of the time football is a high-pressure industry, but even last season at times I’ve thought about Jordan and what he went through. It puts everything into perspective. There are a lot more serious issues going on. The most important things are family and the people around you.”

Never a better or truer word. And worth remembering, should you be told today that a 71-year-old man leaving his position is the most serious matter around.

*For more information on Toma Fund visit www.tomafund.org

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