In the early 1990s David Beesley was a technician at the Carlisle Web Offset printing plant. Shift work allowed him to be one of the hardy few who watched Carlisle United’s reserves on weekday afternoons.
David was among the first Carlisle fans to see Tony Hopper play. “I remember Tony coming through to the first team,” he says.
“You could see the shirt meant a lot to him as a local. That’s all the fans want, as that’s how they’d wear it too.”
In recent weeks Cumbrians have been stunned by news of Tony’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease (MND) at the age of 40. “When I first read about Tony it moved me to tears,” says David.
These were prompted not only by recollections of a young footballer taking his first steps in the sport. Tony’s plight also triggered memories from closer to home.
David already knows what motor neurone disease can do. It ended his father Howard’s life at 46.
Howard, a hairdresser who had a salon on Greystone Road, Carlisle, was well-known and much-loved in the city. He died in 1991, when David was 23.
Four months ago Tony Hopper was diagnosed with the same aggressive form of MND, with a prognosis of two to three years from the onset of symptoms.
Supporters of Carlisle United and Workington Reds – another of his former clubs – are among the many people to have raised money for Tony, his wife Sue and their sons Daniel, nine, Adam, seven, and Jack, four.
David, 48, has been fundraising for the Motor Neurone Disease Association – £12,000 and counting – since soon after his father’s death. He helped to set up the charity’s north Cumbria branch.
Most of the cash has come from an annual summer cruise on Ullswater. The ‘Shake on the Lake’ has happened most years since 1994.
This year David hopes there will be two first-time guests: Tony and Sue Hopper.
“I don’t know Tony. I’ve never met him. But I emailed him and he emailed back the next day. It would be good if he did come. I hope he can.
“There are a lot of similarities with him and my dad. Tony’s got the same type of MND that my dad had. Tony’s got a young family. Dad and his partner had two young children.”
David has decided that the money raised from this year’s event will go to Tony. “I wrestled with the idea of giving it all to him. You think about all the people in the county with motor neurone disease.
“Is he more worthy? No. But he’s a name in the area. If it raises some more awareness and more money because of who he is, that’s a good reason to do it.
“And I’ve invited him along to help show him that afterwards there’ll be people fighting when he’s not able to. I want him to know in future there’s people fighting, supporting and trying to raise money.”
This is the best news David can offer Tony and the other Cumbrians – 100 or thereabouts – currently afflicted with MND: that those who love will keep searching for a cure.
David speaks bluntly about this illness which dismantles the nervous system. He helped to nurse his father through a decline which he summaries like this: “Walking stick. Zimmer frame. Wheelchair. Bedridden.
“It’s a cruel thing. It doesn’t affect your mind at all. My dad lasted two years exactly. He had his first symptoms on December 9, 1989. His left leg felt very weak.
“They diagnosed it a couple of months later. He went downhill very quickly. He died two years to the day after his first symptoms.”
What kind of man was Howard Beesley? David thinks for a few moments, perhaps trying to do his father justice. Perhaps trying to capture the Howard Beesley he knew before those painful last years.
“He was very well-liked. He was well-known in the town. He was a gentleman. He had plenty of friends. Just a regular kind of person. He was loved, and he loved back.
“I’m past the age he was when he died. It does make you think about your mortality. Let’s not mess around. Let’s just have fun.”
Shake on the Lake puts this philosophy into practice. Those who attend know what they’re supporting but the emphasis is on enjoying life.
“Is ‘cathartic’ the right word?” David wonders. “Yeah, I think it is. Seeing that many folk that happy really lifts the spirits. It helps me personally. It helps me mourn. It helps with grieving as it’s such a positive thing to organise.
“I think about my dad every day. You mourn them all the time. The other side is, there’s 130 people having the time of their life on the boat. I like the coming together of all these people. There’s that much love and happiness. And it keeps it fresh in people’s minds. MND is a minority disease.”
Carlisle band So What (Paul Musgrave and Martin Smith) have played for free every year. Fellow musician Gareth Williams and DJ ‘Uncle Grebo’ have done the same for the past few years. Amid the music, drinking and dancing, David takes time to think about his father.
“The event is in his memory. It just so happens to be a great way to raise awareness and money. I raise a glass each time to my dad at the front of the boat whilst my guests are having a boogie.”
David is a father himself now, to Isaac, nine, and Rose, six. The family, completed by David’s wife Liz, live in North Yorkshire.
David still watches Carlisle United as often as he can, with Isaac. Being a good father is as important to him as it was to his own dad.
“He used to do half marathons for the Multiple Sclerosis Society,” recalls David. “He’d lost a couple of customers to MS. When he ran half marathons that set an example to me. Hopefully my fundraising sets a good example for my children.”
David has now been without his father for more than half his life. Does he ever feel angry that a good man was taken so cruelly?
“Not angry, no. That would destroy you. I think I’ve always been pragmatic about it. It’s a natural human response to question why anything happens.
“Why it happened to such a decent human being is purely down to Mother Nature and chance.”
He doesn’t recall telling his dad that he planned to raise money in his memory. But there were many other things to consider towards the end. “You’re having to deal with so much emotion,” says David. “The frustrations are huge. It’s like someone you love being swallowed up by quicksand. All you can do is wave goodbye.”