A charity game that is all about Cumbria, community and remembering your roots

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Harraby boys: Tony Hopper (far left) and Grant Holt (far right), with Mark Boyd (second left) and Jonny Hall
Harraby boys: Tony Hopper (far left) and Grant Holt (far right), with Mark Boyd (second left) and Jonny Hall

At Brunton Park tomorrow there will be a reunion to satisfy every nostalgic urge. For supporters of Carlisle United and Workington Reds, those fantasies of one more game for a favourite ex-player will be memorably realised.

It will, one imagines, be a gathering to make the heart pump. But what defines the charity match being held in Tony Hopper's name goes deeper, and touches more essential qualities. Community. Roots.

It is said that, when a game was being discussed to pay tribute to Hopper in light of his motor neurone disease diagnosis, there were initial suggestions of inviting one of the "legends" teams from the country's biggest clubs.

No, it was quickly concluded. That may have proved an entertaining spectacle, but it would not have been Tony Hopper. It would not have captured everything that matters about the humble and decent man whose story has moved so many people with a connection to this area, these clubs.

Carlisle. Workington. Cumbria. This is the network in which Hopper made his name and formed his reputation. For all the players returning tomorrow afternoon, the invitation had powerful meaning. It was not just one more exhibition game to mark off a list.

As Paul Boertien said, most did not need to be asked twice. Indeed, there were those who may have scarcely known Hopper - Richard Keogh, for instance - who actually requested to play, because they realised what the gesture would count for, how the blue (and red) shirt mattered to the person who will be the reluctant centre of events this weekend.

These connections are unbending and strong. They link generations and disregard status. Grant Holt has scored goals in the Premier League and only the other day had another title-winners' medal wrapped around his neck in Scotland, yet when speaking about Hopper's era as a Carlisle player, the striker went straight back to his youth, his own days of striving.

"That era Tony was involved in, when Carlisle were getting promoted in the 1990s - they were my idols," Holt said. "Tony Hopper, Richard Prokas, those lads.

"They were the players you looked up to, wanted to emulate, be on that pitch at Brunton Park and get that blue jersey on."

Holt never played alongside Hopper but knows the man closely from his Carlisle childhood, with shared roots in Harraby.

"I've known him from 11 or 12," Holt said. "My brother's a similar age and played against him all the time, and I can also remember Tony's brothers being worse tacklers than he was...

"I've been fortunate to know Tony that long, and he's an absolutely fantastic guy. Everyone who speaks about him will tell you that. Just a nice guy to have around."

It is a particularly cruel illness that Hopper is confronting, and so this weekend is not simply about raising money for good causes, but to stage an afternoon that he will treasure through the challenges ahead. It will mean a great deal that those people doing the staging are familiar and close.

Holt: "We're both from Harraby, we've both been in the Catholic Club, the Harraby Inn, places like that; we've sat down and had those beers with all our friends around us.

"We've all been in those circles. You don't forget your roots. Most of the lads from Cumbria are like that. Lads from Carlisle, Barrow, Workington and so on are often the first to help. They'll come back to support any cause that's going, if you ask them. That's the measure of the sort of people we are."

Hopper distinguished both blue and red shirts simply because of how he applied himself with them on. A Cumbrian player fighting Cumbrian causes, for us. There are those footballers who tarnish their profession but Hopper modestly enhanced it, just by working as hard as any of us would have wanted to, had we been good enough to be in his place.

Around younger players who followed his path, he also reflected this dedication. From Hopper, Boertien said, there was "nothing negative - just words of advice and encouragement."

This decency will be repaid tomorrow with the instinctive support and love of his peers. Tragically it cannot affect any diagnosis but should it provide some sort of uplift, however temporary or untouchable, it will justify all the journeys.

"This was the best way we could possibly do it - old players, people he knows, people who have played with him, lads he's had nights out with - his kind of people," Holt added.

"There will be smiles, a few tricks, a bit of laughter. It's a social event and I hope fans will come in droves.

"I'm looking forward to getting on the pitch and playing my part, especially with a lot of the Reds lads I haven't seen for a long time. I feel very fortunate I've been asked. I made every effort to make sure I could be there for this."

Holt's own story is one of Cumbrian football's best: the tyre-fitter who touched the stars. Tomorrow, though, is about the connections that should never be lost even as lives and careers diverge.

The roots are still there, in that Harraby grass. "Tony being Tony, he probably still doesn't think that many people would be that bothered about him," Holt said.

"But he will totally see, on Sunday, how appreciated he is. He will realise how much we think about him."

*Tomorrow's game kicks off at 2.30pm. Entry is £5 with all proceeds to be shared by the MND Association, Great North Air Ambulance, Jigsaw Hospice and the Carlisle United Community Sports Trust.

The News & Star is supporting the Hoppers' MND Association fundraising with our Fighting Back For Tony campaign. To donate to their fightback fund visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Tony-Hopper

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